By Desmond Tutu
Nelson Mandela is mourned by South Africans, Africans and the international community today as the leader of our generation who stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries — a colossus of unimpeachable moral character and integrity, the world’s most admired and revered public figure.
Not since Kenyatta, Nkrumah, Nyerere and Senghor has Africa seen his like. Looking for comparisons beyond Africa, he will go down in history as South Africa\’s George Washington, a person who within a single five-year presidency became the principal icon of both liberation and reconciliation, loved by those of all political persuasions as the founder of modern, democratic South Africa.
He was of course not always regarded as such. When he was born in 1918 in the rural village of Mvezo, he was named Rolihlahla, or “troublemaker.” (Nelson was the name given to him by a teacher when he started school.) After running away to Johannesburg to escape an arranged marriage, he lived up to his name. Introduced to politics by his mentor, Walter Sisulu, he joined a group of young militants who challenged the cautious elders of the African National Congress, founded by black leaders in 1912 to oppose the racist policies of the newly-formed union of white-ruled British colonies and Afrikaner republics.
After the Afrikaner Nationalists came to power in 1948, intent on entrenching and expanding the dispossession of blacks, confrontation became inevitable. As the new government relentlessly implemented one racist, repressive law after another, the ANC intensified its resistance until its banning in 1960, when it decided that, having exhausted all peaceful means of achieving democracy, it had no option but to resort to the use of force.
Madiba, the clan name by which South Africans refer to Nelson Mandela, went underground, then left the country to look for support for the struggle. He received it in many parts of Africa — undergoing military training in Ethiopia — but he failed to get meaningful support in the West.
Upon his return to South Africa, he was captured by the police and first imprisoned for inciting strikes and leaving the country illegally. Two years later he was brought from prison to face charges, along with other leaders, of preparing for guerrilla warfare. At the end of the trial, they were all sentenced to life imprisonment.
In 1964, Madiba was sent to Robben Island prison off the coast of Cape Town as a militant guerilla leader, the commander-in-chief of the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto weSizwe, committed to overthrowing apartheid by force. When he emerged from prison in 1990, his eyes damaged by the blindingly-bright limestone quarries in which prisoners had been forced to crush rock, and having contracted tuberculosis as a result of prison conditions, he might have been expected to come out hell-bent on revenge and retribution. White South Africans certainly feared so. On the other side of the political spectrum, some of his supporters feared that after campaigners had lionized his role in the struggle, he might turn out to have feet of clay and be unable to live up to his reputation.