Friday, July 18, 2008

Happy 90th Birthday, Nelson Mandela

Medal of Freedom: Nelson and Winnie Mandela show off their firstborn daughter, Zindzi, at their home in Orlando West, Soweto in 1961. Mandela fled into exile overseas as the political situation in South Africa worsened, returning from exile eventually, only to be arrested and to be sentenced to life imprisonment in what became known as the Rivonia Trial. He served 27 years in prison before his release in 1992, after which he was elected president of South Africa.

A courageous lawyer who changed the world. He fought against apartheid and for civil rights, ultimately sacrificing 27 years of his life (ages 44 through 71) in jail for his beliefs. Here's his bio as compiled by the Nobel Peace Prize committee:

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in Transkei, South Africa on July 18, 1918. His father was Chief Henry Mandela of the Tembu Tribe. Mandela himself was educated at University College of Fort Hare and the University of Witwatersrand and qualified in law in 1942. He joined the African National Congress in 1944 and was engaged in resistance against the ruling National Party's apartheid policies after 1948. He went on trial for treason in 1956-1961 and was acquitted in 1961.

After the banning of the ANC in 1960, Nelson Mandela argued for the setting up of a military wing within the ANC. In June 1961, the ANC executive considered his proposal on the use of violent tactics and agreed that those members who wished to involve themselves in Mandela's campaign would not be stopped from doing so by the ANC. This led to the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe. Mandela was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to five years' imprisonment with hard labour. In 1963, when many fellow leaders of the ANC and the Umkhonto we Sizwe were arrested, Mandela was brought to stand trial with them for plotting to overthrow the government by violence. His statement from the dock received considerable international publicity. On June 12, 1964, eight of the accused, including Mandela, were sentenced to life imprisonment. From 1964 to 1982, he was incarcerated at Robben Island Prison, off Cape Town; thereafter, he was at Pollsmoor Prison, nearby on the mainland.

During his years in prison, Nelson Mandela's reputation grew steadily. He was widely accepted as the most significant black leader in South Africa and became a potent symbol of resistance as the anti-apartheid movement gathered strength. He consistently refused to compromise his political position to obtain his freedom.

Nelson Mandela was released on February 11, 1990. After his release, he plunged himself wholeheartedly into his life's work, striving to attain the goals he and others had set out almost four decades earlier. In 1991, at the first national conference of the ANC held inside South Africa after the organization had been banned in 1960, Mandela was elected President of the ANC while his lifelong friend and colleague, Oliver Tambo, became the organisation's National Chairperson.

My law school class fought to give him an honorary degree in 1988. (The school divested in companies that invested in South Africa after many student protests in 1985). We were the fifth and final class to propose giving the imprisoned ANC leader the degree. One of the excuses the school used to deny it in an earlier year was that Mandela could not appear in person to accept it. (That would bar all political prisoners, wouldn't it?) I remember weeping in front of my TV in 1990 when he was finally released.

His courage stands in great contrast to most of the so-called "leaders" in public life today.

BBC: Audio slideshow: Nelson Mandela at 90

Independent (SA): Desmond Tutu: How blessed we've been to have Nelson Mandela

wikipedia: Nelson Mandela

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