Yesterday, the world lost one of its most prominent human rights advocates; an anti-apartheid leader in South Africa and an inspiration to generations. At the age of 95, Nelson Mandela died in Johannesburg, South Africa after battling a recurring respiratory infection since 2011.
Rolihlaha Mandela grew up as a cattle-boy in the small village of Qunu, South Africa. On his first day of school, along with every other African child, he was assigned an English Christian name. Rolihlaha was given a name that is now recognized across South Africa as a synonym for hero because of his revolutionary work during the apartheid. It was then he became known as Nelson Mandela.
Mandela refused to accept South African apartheid, a system of racial segregation enforced from 1948-1994 by the National Party governments. Mandela led defiance campaigns and non-violent protests against apartheid after being elected to the African National Congress (ANC) National Executive in 1950.
“I think people will look at the present with a much colder eye because it will remind them of the values that he stood for,” said Linda Freeman, a Carleton University professor who specializes in African political economy. Freeman said the recent attention on Mandela will shine the spotlight on the harsh realities South Africa faces today.
Even at the age of 95, 27 years of which were spent in prison and five as president, Mandela was a symbol of freedom for South Africans.
“His passing is poignant,” said Freeman. “He’s given more than anybody and certainly suffered great traumatic loss as a result, and he did that willingly.”
After being accused of promoting communism and committing sabotage, Mandela was arrested in 1962 along with the majority of the ANC Executive Board. He served 27 years in jail, 18 in Robben Island Prison and six years in Pollsmoor Prison. In the 1980s Mandela was diagnosed and treated for tuberculosis, which was the cause of many lung infections after he was released.
Two years after his release, Mandela became the leader of the ANC, and in 1993 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He went on to win the first democratic election of South Africa in 1994, becoming the country’s first black president. He became an icon of equality, surprising citizens with his emphasis on reconciliation. Mandela is famously quoted as saying “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. And then he becomes your partner.
Although often referred to as the “Father of South Africa,” Mandela has received criticism for being too soft and forgiving perpetrators of apartheid. In a television documentary aired in early June, Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe said, “Mandela has gone a bit too far in doing good to the non-Black communities” and later described Mandela as “too much of a saint.” Freeman said Mugabe’s approach to racial discrimination is the opposite of Mandela’s and that with South Africa’s current issues of poverty and unemployment, the country is left with two choices.
“The way forward is either to do what Mugabe has done – systematically remove most rights from great sections of the white population in Zimbabwe which has caused chaos and distress, or to try and move forward in the way Mandela did which was one of forgiveness and attempting to bring the country together,” Freeman said.