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Icon, Legend, Symbol: The Story of Nelson Mandela

During a visit in February 1994, Nelson Mandela looks out through the bars of his former prison cell in Robben Island where he spent close to 20 years – three months before the elections that made him South Africa’s first black and democratically-elected President.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was one of those men who can be called larger than life. A veritable icon, Mandela has worn many hats in his years – advocate, campaigner, militant, political prisoner, President and elder statesman. However, one thing has remained constant, and that is his determined opposition to injustice. Few injustices were more abhorrent in the second half of the 20th century than Apartheid – the systematic suppression of the rights of people in South Africa, for no other reason than their ethnicity.

What makes Nelson Mandela legendary is not just the fact that he fought against Apartheid, nor is it because he was incarcerated for nearly 30 years after he dared to take action against oppression. It is because, when he emerged from prison, having had nearly three decades of his life taken from him, he was not out for revenge. Instead, he extended his hand to his former captors – those who tried to break him – and said to them, “Let’s work together”.

Together with the late Tan Sri Lim Kok Wing – who worked closely with Nelson Mandela during the first free elections in South Africa in 1994 – PASSIONS pays tribute to this extraordinary global peace icon.

Nelson Mandela with former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. An ardent critic of South Africa’s Apartheid regime, it was Tun Dr Mahathir who recommended the late Tan Sri Lim Kok Wing to help out in the ANC’s 1994 election campaign.

The Moment of Truth

It was the 20th of April 1964, the scene was the Pretoria Supreme Court and it was a trial which captured and outraged international opinion. In the dock were 10 men – members of the banned African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party (SACP) – who were accused of sabotage with the aim of overthrowing the Apartheid regime.

This case has become known as the Rivonia Trials, and the first accused was a lawyer and political activist – none other than Nelson Mandela. He was already well-known in the anti-Apartheid movement, as stories of how he would travel incognito across the country and organise the resistance became the stuff of legends. His speech that day will cement his legend.

The 46 year-old stood before the judge and made a spirited defence of African nationalism and the anti-Apartheid movement. For 30 minutes he spoke – in clear, measured tones, occasionally raising his voice to emphasise a point, but never losing his composure.

He was calm and collected – he did not plead for his life (although the prosecution had called for the death penalty), nor did he harangue the courtroom. And at the end, he made a statement that has gone down as one of the most powerful made in a trial.

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for. But, my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

“An ideal for which I am prepared to die…” We can only imagine the effect of those words in the courtroom. Here was a man whose strength of ideals were so strong that he was prepared to challenge the judge to sentence him to death. It is little surprise that the South African government tried to suppress reports of Mandela’s speech. After all, far from being a demagogue or a rabble-rouser, as the regime in Pretoria tried to portray, Mandela demonstrated that he could argue using fact and reason.

The death penalty was out of the question for the authorities. Already several countries had imposed sanctions on South Africa owing to irregularities in the trial, and the stink from executing any of the defendants would have been too great. Nevertheless, we can surmise that the speech sealed Mandela’s fate.

Because he did something which showed the authorities just how much of a threat he really was. He presented himself as educated, confident and rational. There is an old saying that the most dangerous thing your enemy can do is to convince your supporters that he is not the devil in disguise. The Rivonia Trial speech gave Nelson Mandela the opportunity to do so. For the Apartheid regime, there was only one solution – Mandela had to be silenced. In June, the judge returned the verdict and the sentence – guilty… imprisonment for life.

The University of Robben Island

Seven of Mandela’s fellow accused were sentenced to life imprisonment, and two were acquitted. With the exception of one, the rest of the prisoners were sent to Robben Island. For the next 18 years, Nelson Mandela would call a damp concrete cell, measuring 2.4 metres by 2.1 metres, home.

The conditions were harsh – a thin mattress on the floor was his bed, the guards were hostile as they were true believers of Apartheid, and he was also made to work in the lime quarry. Forbidden to wear protective eyewear, Mandela’s eyesight was damaged by the blinding glare from the limestone.

Starting off as a Category D prisoner – the lowest one in the prison hierarchy – Mandela was allowed only one visitor and one letter every six months, and even then his correspondence was heavily censored. The whole idea was to break him – physically, mentally, and spiritually. Incidentally, outside of prison, the South African government banned his image and his voice in an attempt to keep him out of sight and thus out of mind.

They were not successful in either venture. Nelson Mandela was still the topic of conversation – one of the foci of the anti-Apartheid movement. The more they tried to suppress his memory, the more people remembered. Not just South Africans of different ethnicities, but also those from abroad. International pressure strengthened against Apartheid, with sanctions and boycotts – official and non-official – being organised against Pretoria.

Mandela did not let the prison regime stop him from pursuing self-improvement. He took this time to continue his studies for his law degree, for which he would have newspaper clippings smuggled in – very much against the rules. Even though he was caught several times – and placed into solitary confinement for that – Mandela refused to give in.

Robben Island was of course the prison where many South African political prisoners were imprisoned. Making the best of a bad situation, Nelson Mandela engaged with other non-ANC inmates and began to work with them on areas of mutual interest. He was also one of the driving forces – if not THE driving force – behind the establishment of the “University of Robben Island” – as the prison became known.

That, more than anything, shows how much value and worth Nelson Mandela places into learning. He realised that the political prisoners of Robben Island were made of men of knowledge with expertise in different fields. True, the state may have imprisoned their bodies, but they could still learn from one another.

Despite the risks, owing to it being against the rules, the prisoners organised lectures and debates with each other. They were able to turn a disadvantage into an advantage by making use of their time in the limestone quarry to talk to one another – something which they would have been unable to do in the prison compound.

The University of Robben Island was more than just a social outfit – it was a way of keeping the intellectual heart of the struggle alive. In addition, it also enabled the prisoners to have human interaction, as visits from their families were few and far between. For Nelson Mandela, it was a victory against oppression because his mind was free.

Members of the Cape Malay community in South Africa holding up posters expressing their support for Nelson Mandela during the 1994 South African election campaign. Numbering approximately 200,000 people, the Cape Malays are mostly made of descendants of 19th century immigrants from the Malay Archipelago, and their culture and language are very similar to the Malays in Malaysia. Thus they provide a socio-ethnic link between South Africa and Malaysia. During the Apartheid era, they were categorised as ‘Coloured’ and therefore treated as 2nd class citizens. The end of Apartheid therefore gave them hope for a better future.

A New South Africa

The 11th of February is a date that has become significant in the history of South Africa and in the wider world of the fight against injustice. Because it was on this day in 1990, that – after nearly 30 years of captivity – Nelson Mandela stepped out of Victor Verster Prison.

Holding his then-wife Winnie’s hand, the cheer which greeted him as he greeted the outside world for the first time in almost three decades was deafening. Throughout the country, and indeed in other parts of the world, grown men watching the proceedings cried tears of joy because they could have never imagined that such a day was possible.

For Nelson Mandela, this was not the end but the beginning. The ban on the ANC and other anti-Apartheid parties were lifted, and the De Klerk administration was admittedly more liberal than any of its predecessors. But Apartheid was still the order of the day, and as long as that odious system was in place, the struggle had not ended because, as he has said before “Partial freedom is no freedom at all.”

Anti-Apartheid protestors in London, UK, celebrating the news of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison on the 11th of February 1990.

The next three years was to be among the most volatile in South African history, as acts of violence were carried out on an almost daily basis. Agitators from both sides sought to create chaos and conflict in order to torpedo the peace process.

But through it all, Nelson Mandela stood tall with dignity. Perhaps the litmus test for him came in February 1993 when SACP leader Chris Hani – who was widely considered the second most popular black leader after Mandela – was assassinated by a white extremist.

To call the situation then “tense” would be an understatement. Such was Hani’s renown that there was a very real fear that his murder would lead to reciprocal attacks by blacks on whites, and then by whites on blacks, and so forth until the country was plunged into civil war. And definitely, this was the plan of his assassins, as they would later reveal in their trial.

It was in those nerve-wrecking hours after Hani’s murder that Mandela showed his impeccable statesmanship. Not long after he heard of the assassination, he went to a TV station and in a live broadcast, gave an address that was Presidential in tone, substance and delivery. It has been said that Mandela’s words helped defuse the situation, and brought South Africa back from the brink of destruction.

Out of that tragedy, Nelson Mandela showed that he was a leader – not just for black South Africans, but for all South Africans. The next step was to become a leader for real, and to achieve that he and the ANC would have to win South Africa’s first ever multi-racial elections, which were slated for the 27th of April 1994.

Not many know the connection between Malaysia and South Africa in this historic event. Not long after he was released, Mandela embarked on a world tour, with Malaysia being one of the countries he visited as it had been a long-time foe of Apartheid.

He struck up a friendship with then Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and it was Dr Mahathir whom he consulted when he was looking for someone to help out in the ANC’s campaign. The Malaysian Premier’s recommendation was a man who is widely regarded to be the foremost creative thinker in Malaysia – the late Tan Sri Lim Kok Wing.

The excitement for South Africa’s first ever multi-racial elections in 1994 was so great that people even built make-shift scaffolding just to be able to listen to the speeches. Tan Sri Lim Kok Wing – who helped managed the ANC’s campaign – said, “The atmosphere was always electrifying whenever Mandela and other ANC leaders turned up to speak at rallies. Thousands would turn up to patiently listen, and loudly cheer.”

History will show that South Africa’s first multi-ethnic elections resulted in the ANC winning 62% of the votes, with Nelson Mandela becoming the country’s first ever democratically elected President. He was not someone who was out for power, and this was reflected in how he stepped down after one term in office, although he was popular and hale enough to have gone for another.

But it is never about political power or the trappings of office for Nelson Mandela. It is about values, about dignity, about human rights, and equality. At the age of 95, Nelson Mandela still remains a symbol for courage, confidence, reconciliation, dialogue, dignity, and peace.

What is important is that these values are instilled in others. The way forward is through education, and such is Nelson Mandela’s regard for the importance of learning that he once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” As long as this belief is kept alive by men who strive to provide educational opportunities to young people, we can be sure of a better tomorrow for all of us.

Here’s To You, Madiba.

A beaming Nelson Mandela waves the ANC flag while campaigning during South Africa’s first multi-racial elections in 1994.


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