In the revolution led by Mandela to transform a model of racial division and oppression into an open democracy, he demonstrated that he didn't flinch from taking up arms, but his real qualities came to the fore after his time as an activist--during his 27 years in prison and in the eight years since his release, when he had to negotiate the challenge of turning a myth into a man.
Rolihlahla Mandela was born deep in the black homeland of Transkei on July 18, 1918. His first name could be interpreted, prophetically, as "troublemaker." The Nelson was added later, by a primary school teacher with delusions of imperial splendor. Mandela's boyhood was peaceful enough, spent on cattle herding and other rural pursuits, until the death of his father landed him in the care of a powerful relative, the acting regent of the Thembu people. But it was only after he left the missionary College of Fort Hare, where he had become involved in student protests against the white colonial rule of the institution, that he set out on the long walk toward personal and national liberation.
Having run away from his guardian to avoid an arranged marriage, he joined a law firm in Johannesburg as an apprentice. Years of daily exposure to the inhumanities of apartheid, where being black reduced one to the status of a nonperson, kindled in him a kind of absurd courage to change the world. It meant that instead of the easy life in a rural setting he'd been brought up for, or even a modest measure of success as a lawyer, his only future certainties would be sacrifice and suffering, with little hope of success in a country in which centuries of colonial rule had concentrated all political and military power, all access to education, and most of the wealth in the hands of the white minority. The classic conditions for a successful revolution were almost wholly absent: the great mass of have-nots had been humbled into docile collusion, the geographic expanse of the country hampered communication and mobility, and the prospects of a race war were not only unrealistic but also horrendous.
In these circumstances Mandela opted for nonviolence as a strategy. He joined the Youth League of the African National Congress and became involved in programs of passive resistance against the laws that forced blacks to carry passes and kept them in a position of permanent servility.
Exasperated, the government mounted a massive treason trial against its main opponents, Mandela among them. It dragged on for five years, until 1961, ending in the acquittal of all 156 accused. But by that time the country had been convulsed by the massacre of peaceful black demonstrators at Sharpeville in March 1960, and the government was intent on crushing all opposition. Most liberation movements, including the A.N.C., were banned. Earning a reputation as the Black Pimpernel, Mandela went underground for more than a year and traveled abroad to enlist support for the A.N.C.
Soon after his return, he was arrested and sentenced to imprisonment on Robben Island for five years; within months practically all the leaders of the A.N.C. were arrested. Mandela was hauled from prison to face with them an almost certain death sentence. His statement from the dock was destined to smolder in the homes and servant quarters, the shacks and shebeens and huts and hovels of the oppressed, and to burn in the conscience of the world: "During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the 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 live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
Without any attempt to find a legal way out, Mandela assumed his full responsibility. This conferred a new status of moral dignity on his leadership, which became evident from the moment he was returned to Robben Island. Even on his first arrival, two years before, he had set an example by refusing to obey an order to jog from the harbor, where the ferry docked, to the prison gates. The warden in charge warned him bluntly that unless he started obeying, he might quite simply be killed and that no one on the mainland would ever be the wiser. Whereupon Mandela quietly retorted, "If you so much as lay a hand on me, I will take you to the highest court in the land, and when I finish with you, you will be as poor as a church mouse." Amazingly, the warden backed off. "Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose," Mandela later wrote in notes smuggled out by friends.
His major response to the indignities of the prison was a creative denial of victimhood, expressed most remarkably by a system of self-education, which earned the prison the appellation of "Island University." As the prisoners left their cells in the morning to toil in the extremes of summer and winter, buffeted by the merciless southeaster or broiled by the African sun (whose glare in the limestone quarry permanently impaired Mandela's vision), each team was assigned an instructor--in history, economics, politics, philosophy, whatever. Previously barren recreation hours were filled with cultural activities, and Mandela recalls with pride his acting in the role of Creon in Sophocles' Antigone.
After more than two decades in prison, confident that on some crucial issues a leader must make decisions on his own, Mandela decided on a new approach. And after painstaking preliminaries, the most famous prisoner in the world was escorted, in the greatest secrecy, to the State President's office to start negotiating not only his own release but also the nation's transition from apartheid to democracy. On Feb. 2, 1990, President F.W. de Klerk lifted the ban on the A.N.C. and announced Mandela's imminent release.
Then began the real test. Every inch of the way, Mandela had to win the support of his own followers. More difficult still was the process of allaying white fears. But the patience, the wisdom, the visionary quality Mandela brought to his struggle, and above all the moral integrity with which he set about to unify a divided people, resulted in the country's first democratic elections and his selection as President.
The road since then has not been easy. Tormented by the scandals that pursued his wife Winnie, from whom he finally parted; plagued by corruption among his followers; dogged by worries about delivering on programs of job creation and housing in a country devastated by white greed, he has become a sadder, wiser man.
In the process he has undeniably made mistakes, based on a stubborn belief in himself. Yet his stature and integrity remain such that these failings tend to enhance rather than diminish his humanity. Camus once said one man's chains imply that we are all enslaved; Mandela proves through his own example that faith, hope and charity are qualities attainable by humanity as a whole. Through his willingness to walk the road of sacrifice, he has reaffirmed our common potential to move toward a new age.
And he is not deluded by the adulation of the world. Asked to comment on the BBC's unflattering verdict on his performance as a leader, Mandela said with a smile, "It helps to make you human."
Andre Brink, a professor at the University of Cape Town, is the author of A Dry White Season