The Greatest Man Of The 20th Century

Nelson Mandela died today in his home.

Nelson Mandela was not supposed to die. Not now. Not ever.

Can you even imagine a world without him? I can’t. And yes, I know he was 95 and had lived a most extraordinary life. I suppose we can only hope that he went peacefully. God knows the cosmos owed him that much.

It’s hard to believe it now, but Mandela was once quite the radical. While originally disavowing violence after the all-white Afrikaner National Party came to power and instituted the policy of Apartheid (a system of racial segregation and oppression) in 1948, Mandela co-founded Umkhonto_we_Sizwe” (an armed group within the African National Congress) in 1961 that took part in the bombing of South African government targets. Of course, under the sort of oppression that the native population was suffering from, one could argue that it was understandable. We were living in a democratic utopia in 1776 compared to what the black South Africans were going through during Apartheid and no one in our history books begrudges us our rebellion.

In 1962 Mandela was arrested and charged with conspiracy. He spent the next 27 years of his life in prison, 18 years of it in a small cell on Robben Island. The diminutive space of his confines was dramatized in Clint Eastwood’s fine film, Invictus in 2009. The Rugby player depicted in Invictus by Matt Damon walks into an actual Robben Island cell and extends his arms and finds that the walls barely extend beyond his wingspan.

Mandela changed while incarcerated. His convictions remained every bit as strong, but the militant nature of his former outlook was replaced by something else, something more…graceful. He became the leader of his fellow African National Congress prisoners and achieved certain reforms, such as receiving pants and being able to play games. I suppose that sounds small, but considering the iron fist that the country was being ruled with at the time, I’m sure any accommodations made life just a bit more bearable. He also studied Christianity, Islam, and learned the language of his captors, Afrikaans, in an effort to forge bonds with the prison guards.

Still, the conditions were horrible. Verbal and physical abuse was typical. His eyesight was permanently damaged by the lime quarry in which he was forced to work. His cell was not only small, but damp. He slept on a bed of straw. He eventually developed tuberculosis. A condition that dogged his lungs for the rest of his days.

Despite his remote location, Mandela became a symbol of hope to his native countrymen. Other activists looked to his words and deeds and found inspiration in them. The most famous of these was Steve Biko, who briefly eclipsed Mandela as a national activist before being beaten to death after being jailed. The outside pressure on the South African government to release Mandela became enormous. In 1988, due in part to his diminished physical condition as well as international pressure, Mandela was moved to a much more humane location for the remainder of his imprisonment.

In 1989, conservative, F.W. de Klerk, took over as the President of South Africa after the previous leader, P.W. Botha, suffered a stroke. de Klerk believed that Apartheid was an unsustainable form of government and soon released all ANC prisoners, save one. Nelson Mandela. However, de Klerk did take a number of meetings with Mandela and was significantly charmed by the imprisoned activist and soon released him.

Then things got really interesting.

One might think that after enduring such inhumane conditions for so long that Mandela would have departed from prison with bitterness and anger. And let’s be clear, Mandela is not so saintly as to not have experienced those feelings. What he understood that so many others would have not is that the holding of those emotions was essentially a second prison and would lead to no healthy resolution. Instead, Mandela continued to meet with de Klerk to discuss how to wind down Apartheid and remake their nation. Ever so crafty, Mandela also reached out to other world leaders, creating allies and maintaining visibility for his movement. In 1991, de Klerk and Mandela agreed to a peace accord against the backdrop of boiling violence inside their nation that threatened a civil war.

Mandela soon became the leader of the ANC and over the next three years, he and de Klerk managed to keep the country on the precipice of disaster without going over.  During this time, Mandela negotiated the release of all political prisoners, the creation of a constitution and a Bill of Rights, as well as a constitutional court. Mandela embraced business interests (which were controlled by whites), and moved away from the nationalistic fervor held by many of his constituents. Both moves were deeply criticized by those that followed him, but Mandela was playing a long game.

South Africa finally held a democratic election in 1994. The minority white population was terrified at the possibility of a native President. Would that person not seek revenge? What would become of their lives? They would soon find out. Mandela won the election to become the President of South Africa with 62% of the vote.

That was the easy part.

Mandela now had to bring together a nation of the oppressed indigenous majority and the privileged white minority. How could this be done? Neither side trusted the other, and who could blame them? Most whites lived in nice houses and had all the advantages of power. The native population lived in tin shacks in shanty towns and lacked any upward mobility. To say the least, tensions were high.

Mandela saw a national reconciliation movement as the only way forward. He met with the former leaders of the Apartheid regime, supported the national rugby team which had been seen as a symbol of oppression, and most significantly, created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The purpose of the commission was not only to investigate crimes committed during Apartheid, but also–in a move that can only be considered revolutionary–created a process that traded amnesty for confessions. Amazingly, the bulk of the nation accepted the policy and a peace beyond possibility was achieved.

Mandela stepped down from the presidency in 1999. When good health permitted, he continued to be a symbolic and actual force for justice. Meeting with him became almost a rite of passage for other world leaders. He became the rarest of things, a humble giant.

In recent years, Mandela’s frailty has become more pronounced. The weakness of his lungs from tuberculosis, coupled with his advanced age (95), has finally taken him from us. I have to admit, I’m feeling selfish right now. The thought of his passage is almost unbearable. I learned of Nelson Mandela in High School and have followed his life ever since. His noble resistance was the original stoke of whatever fire for justice resides inside me.

But the man has done enough. More than enough. He survived 27 years of living in filth and squalor and came out the other side clean. In doing so, he not only saved himself, but a nation as well. As much as I love Gandhi and our own Martin Luther King Jr., I will stand by the title of this article until my own end comes. Hell, as far as I’m concerned, you could transplant him into any other century and the truth would remain. He is Nelson Mandela, the greatest man of the 20th century. To be honest, I don’t even think it’s all that close. Think about it, if he were a work of fiction, no one would believe it. It’s as if the greatest myth is fact, because, you know, it actually is.

But all things must end I suppose. Even the greatest of things. Good Night, sweet prince. The long walk has finally ended. You have exited the cage of your body, but now you belong to legend, and the legend is real.

Author: David Phillips