N elson Mandela, the former South African president who spent 27 years in prison for fighting apartheid, died this past week on December 5, 2013 at the age of 95. Mandela was not only South Africa’s first black president, but the first elected by a fully democratic election, serving from 1994 to 1999. His legacy as an anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician, and philanthropist has had a profound impact on politicians, celebrities, students, and professors worldwide.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in a tiny village in rural South Africa, known as Mvezo, and later moved to the smaller village of Qunu. At 21 Mandela enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare, the only higher-learning center for Blacks
in South Africa. Mandela’s revolutionary years began at the University of Witwatersrand, where in 1942 he enrolled to study law and became active in the anti-apartheid movement and the African National Congress. For several decades, Mandela headed up a peaceful, nonviolent campaign against the South African government’s racist policies that included the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People. During this time he and Oliver Tambo, whom he met at Fort Hare, founded a law firm through which the pair offered free and low-cost legal advice to Blacks. During this time, a new generation of activists, the Africanists, was developing within the ANC and questioning the organization’s pacifist approach, which reflected the Mahatma Gandhi model of civil disobedience. In 1961 Mandela co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, an armed offshoot of the ANC that focused on
political sabotage and guerrilla tactics. He coordinated a three-day national workers’ strike that same year, for which he was arrested. In October 1962, Mandela was sentenced to five years for coordinating the strike. But in 1963, during what became known as the Rivonia Trial, he and other ANC leaders found themselves facing life imprisonment. They were charged with guerrilla warfare and sabotage-the equivalent of treason-and for planning an invasion of South Africa. Mandela admitted only to sabotage. However, he, along with eight other defendants, received a life sentence.
Mandela spent 27 years in prison, 18 of them on Robben Island, off the Cape Town coast.
However, Mandela emerged from prison as committed and uncompromising as ever, urging other nations to continue their pressure on the South African government for constitutional reform. He also stated that the armed struggle would continue until blacks received the right to vote.
During his imprisonment of nearly 3 decades for protesting against unjust laws, Mandela contracted tuberculosis while working in a prison lime quarry. In the end his lungs would betray him as infections became the enemy and eventually, like most things too good for this world, he passed. Years of hard labor in prison couldn’t break Mandela.
Throughout the first 4 phases of the ceremony, traditional leaders gathered for a tradition called “the closing of the eyes,” talking to Mandela, as well as to his tribal ancestors, to explain what is happening at each and every stage to ease the transition from life to beyond.
No formal public events were planned for until five days after Mandela’s death, although South Africans had been holding vigils since Mr. Mandela died at home at after several months of ill health.
On the fifth day, Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama exhorted the world to embrace Nelson Mandela’s universal message of peace and justice, electrifying tens of thousands of spectators and a huge number of other heads of state in a South African stadium braised the cold rain.In a speech that received thunderous applause and a standing ovation from the world leaders, Obama urged people to apply the lessons of Mandela, who emerged from 27 years in prison under a racist regime, embraced his enemies when he finally walked to freedom and promoted forgiveness and reconciliation in South Africa.
“We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace,” said Obama, who like Mandela became the first black president of his country. Obama said that when he was a student, Mandela “woke me up to my responsibilities — to others, and to myself — and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today.”
Mandela’s body will lie in state for the following three days at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the seat of power of the South African government. The first day of the three were reserved for dignitaries. The public will be allowed to file past his casket on days 7 and 8. It was at the historic Union Buildings that Mandela was inaugurated as president on May 10, 1994. On that extraordinary day, crowds converged around the building to witness history being made. That day, a former political prisoner achieved what was once unthinkable and became South Africa’s first post-apartheid black leader.
Nine days after Mandela’s death, a military aircraft will leave a Pretoria airbase and fly south to Mthatha, the main town in the South African province of Eastern Cape. Once at Mandela’s house, the military will formally pass responsibility for his remains to his family. The South African flag that is expected to be draped over the coffin will be replaced with a traditional Xhosa blanket, symbolizing the return of one of their own.
On the tenth and final day of ceremony, Mandela will be laid to rest on the grounds of his Qunu home. At midday – when the summer sun is high in the sky – Mandela will be buried into the rocky soil of his homeland. Only a few hundred close family members will bid that final farewell to Mandela as he is laid to rest, a symbolic floral gesture to a man whose life was filled with sacrifice and tragedy but who triumphed with a tenacity of spirit and hope in even the darkest of days.