Everything seems impossible until it’s done.
In 1964, a man was transported to the dreaded Robben Island Prison, which was to be his home for the next 18 years, his crime being treason against the then apartheid government. The first words he heard from his warders as he entered the prison were, “This is an island. Here you will die.” Over the years, rampant discrimination, physical and mental abuse and hard labour was routine. That prisoner, none other than Nelson Mandela, fondly called Madiba by his countrymen rose to be the first black President of the Republic of South Africa in 1994. Today his legacy is not merely restricted to South Africa or the African continent, but resounds across the world.
But what sets Nelson Mandela apart from most other independence leaders in other parts of the world? Surely, the latter half of the 20th century saw independence movements in several Asian and African countries against colonialism. An insight into South Africa’s demographics and contemporary political situation would bring an answer to the doubt. In addition to the predominantly ‘black’ population whose origins lay in the continent itself, there were existed a large number of people with origins in Asia (mostly India) and Europe, and the reins of power rested with the white minority. When apartheid was brought to an end in 1994, a multiracial and multicultural South Africa, dubbed the “Rainbow Nation” was achieved by reconciliation with the minority in power to put their fears to rest. An incident that happened within the walls of the Robben Island is worthy of mention here. A few years into his incarceration, Mandela was ordered to dig a grave in the prison and ordered to lie in it. However, instead of shooting the prisoner, the warders unzipped their pants and urinated on him. Several years later, he invited the same warders to his inauguration dinner as President of South Africa. For a man who spent the majority of his youth in prison, it is no less than remarkable. Forgiveness is what helped him shape a country and avoid further violence.
Even prior to his incarceration, Mandela had famously said in his trial, “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.” While ensuring power for the people, he proved himself to be a skilled leader in negotiating with the white-only government. Even after the abolition of apartheid, he stepped down as leader of the government, unlike many other independence leaders who clung on to power as dictators in countries like Zimbabwe or Ghana. Decorated by several countries and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, he continued to work as a philanthropist even after he stepped down from power.
His revered image as an advocate of peace continues to inspire millions across the globe, especially when the modern world faces violent humanitarian crises and conflicts which demand more peaceful measures like the beloved Madiba of South Africa would have envisioned.