Monday, August 27, 2007

Rolling out Rohlilahla: London unveils Nelson Mandela statue

Nelson Mandela will attend an unveiling of his statue opposite the British houses of parliaments on Wednesday this week. The 89-year-old Nobel laureate’s statue will stand alongside the figures of former British Prime ministers Winston Churchill and Benjamin Disraeli. Announcing Mandela’s presence, London mayor Ken Livingstone said Friday that putting the statue in Parliament Square reflected Mandela's place as a world statesman and as "one of the key political figures of our time". "There can be no better way for this statue to be unveiled than with Nelson Mandela himself present," he said.

Nelson Mandela was born Rohlilahla Mandela in the small village of Mvezo, on the Mbashe River on 18 July 1918. The village was near the city of Umtata (now Mthatha) in the Eastern Cape province of Transkei. Rohlilalha means "to pull a branch of a tree", and also colloquially, "troublemaker". Mandela was minor royalty. His father was the principal councillor to the Acting Paramount Chief of Thembuland.

Rohlilahla was sent to an English school, aged 7 and found a teacher who could not pronounce his name. Instead he called him Nelson in honour of the hero of Trafalgar. After his father’s death 2 years later, young Mandela was sent away to become the Paramount Chief’s ward. He was to be groomed to assume high office. From the regent, Mandela said, he learned "a leader ... is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go on ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind."

However, influenced by the cases that came before the Chief s court, he became determined to become a lawyer, not a leader. Mandela went to a Wesleyan secondary school called Healdtown and then enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare where he was elected onto the Student's Representative Council. But he was soon suspended for joining in a protest boycott. He went to Johannesburg where he completed his BA by correspondence. Mandela became a legal clerk and commenced study for his law degree. While studying for this degree in Johannesburg he joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1942.

The ANC advocated a political settlement to the dispossession of the blacks. Their plight was made worse in 1948 when the National Party won power on a platform of opposition to support for Britain in World War II. Once in power they outlined their system of separateness. That election institutionalised racism in South Africa as the newly elected government began to enact its apartheid laws. Apartheid is an Afrikaans word meaning apartness or separateness. Race laws touched every aspect of social life, including a prohibition of marriage between non-whites and whites, and the sanctioning of ``white-only'' jobs, preferment and public spaces. In 1950, they went one step further with the Population Registration Act which required all South Africans be racially classified into one of three categories: white, black (African), or coloured (of mixed decent or Asian).

In response the ANC launched its Defiance Campaign of non-violent resistance with Mandela as its volunteer-in-chief. Mandela was arrested for violating the Suppression of Communism Act. He was found guilty but got a sentence of nine months imprisonment suspended for two years. The National Party government banned him from all public appearances in 1952 and again from 1953 to 1955. In 1953, the Nationals passed the Public Safety Act and the Criminal Law Amendment Act which empowered the government to declare states of emergency and increased penalties for protesting against or supporting the repeal of a law.

In 1960, a large group of blacks in Sharpeville near Vereeniging in Transvaal began a protest and refused to carry their passes. The government declared a state of emergency. On 21 March, ANC’s rivals the Pan African Congress organised a protest march. Vereeniging was the march’s emotive choice: it was the site of the treaty which ended the Anglo-Boer War in 1902. After a hostile protest, nervous police opened fire on the crowd. Somewhere between 50 and 75 of the police opened fire. With emergency services slow to arrive, 69 people were killed and another 187 people were wounded.

Though it wasn’t their march, Sharpeville was a profound influence on the ANC and Mandela. They both lost their pacifism and formed the military wing of the ANC known as Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation” and abbreviated as MK) in 1961. Mandela was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to five years' imprisonment with hard labour. In 1963 Mandela was brought back to stand trial for plotting to overthrow the government by violence. His statement from the dock received considerable international publicity.

On 12 June 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. From 1964 to 1982, he was held at the forbidding Robben Island Prison, 12kms off Cape Town with the party’s leadership. In 1982 he was moved to the low security prison at Pollsmoor on the mainland. Mandela’s ability to make friends with prisoners and jailers alike became legendary. Despite the greater comfort of Pollsmoor, the transition distressed Mandela because of the loss of camaraderie and vibrant intellectual and cultural life the party’s leaders established on the island.

As the years of his sentence grew, so did his international reputation. “Free Nelson Mandela” became a catchcry. In 1983, the British ska band The Special’s Jerry Dammer turned catchcry into a hit single “Nelson Mandela”. The lyrics “I say Free Nelson Mandela/
I'm begging you/Free Nelson Mandela” sunk into the Western public conscience as a guilty meme. In February 1985 National Party President P.W. Botha offered Mandela conditional release in return for renouncing armed struggle. Mandela responded "What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts”. New President F.W. de Klerk finally released him unconditionally on 11 February 1990 after 28 years of imprisonment.

After his release from prison, Mandela emerged as the world's most significant moral leader since Mahatma Gandhi. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize with de Klerk in 1993. A year later, Mandela won outright power with the ANC winning the election with 63 percent of the vote. Mandela orchestrated a successful transition to black rule with the much-feared right-wing white rebellion never coming to fruition. Mandela endeared himself to the white population by encouraging the nation to get behind the Springboks in the 1995 World Cup. It didn’t hurt his cause that South Africa won the tournament. Mandela retired to world acclaim in 1999 and has since been a prestigious ambassador for South Africa, black Africa, black and humanitarian causes.

In the year he won election in 1994, he also published his much anticipated autobiography "A Long Walk to Freedom". In one episode of the book Mandela recalled a visit to London with his fellow anti-Apartheid campaigner Oliver Tambo. "When we saw the statue of General Smuts near Westminster Abbey, Oliver and I joked that perhaps someday there would be a statue of us in its stead," he wrote. Instead he now stands unveiled next to Smuts in the pantheon of British-endorsed greats.

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