Nelson Mandela’s Health Declines: The Iconic South African Leader Has Been Listed In Critical Condition

'I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.' - Nelson Mandela. Image @LV16

‘I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.’ – Nelson Mandela. Image @LV16

All eyes, certainly mournful eyes, are on South Africa as news comes that Nelson Mandela’s condition has now been listed as “critical.” The former president of South Africa is as iconic a figure as the country has and his personal story of activism, imprisonment, and survival as a victim of South African apartheid has been an inspirational narrative for the world over, but no where more poignantly than his beloved country.

Mandela, 94, who’s been in declining health in recent months, was hospitalized on June 8th for what was reported as a “recurring lung infection.” While reports have followed the changing trajectory of his illness, (as recently as June 12 he was reported to be “responding better to treatment“), it appears today that his condition has worsened significantly, leading to a “critical” assignation and the growing sense that his death may be imminent:

Britain’s Sky News reported that [President Jacob] Zuma and ANC Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa visited Mandela in hospital Sunday.

Zuma said in a statement: “The doctors are doing everything possible to get his condition to improve and are ensuring that Madiba is well-looked after and is comfortable. He is in good hands.”

Mandela, whose tribal nickname is “Madiba,” has been a figure both pilloried and admired throughout his storied life. Born in a tiny village in South Africa on July 18, 1918, Mandela’s birth name was Rolihlahla Mandela, the common translation of which is “troublemaker“… to many, young Mandela lived up to his name! His father was a counselor to tribal chiefs, a successful man for a period who lost everything – his title and his fortune – after a dispute with a local magistrate. This turn of events impacted the family greatly, forcing them to move to an even smaller village and live what can only be called a “rustic” life. But despite their new poverty, the family insisted that Mandela get an education and so he did; he attended a local Methodist school and – given the British bias in the schools of Africa at the time – it was there a teacher announced his new name would be “Nelson.”

His father died when he was 9, ironically, of lung disease, an event that sharply shifted the course of Mandela’s life. He was adopted by chief of the Thembu region and was moved to the capital, Mqhekezweni, to live as a member of the familiy… from a hut to a royal mansion. He adapted quickly to his new life, however, and, in fact, excelled, expanding his education with a strong interest in the history of Africa. It was then that he learned of the profound impact of the “white man” on the lives and well-being of native Africans. As he immersed himself in native rituals and traditions, he heard the words of elders, who often spoke out against the trend of young African men limiting themselves to “making a living and performing mindless chores for white men.” Mandela once said that those admonishments informed his later resolution to fight for an independent South Africa.

And fight he did. His education continued, leading him to the University College of Fort Hare, the only school of its kind for blacks in the country; a school on a par with Oxford or Harvard. His second year there he was elected to the Student Representative Council, where his political sensibilities were honed. He was expelled for “insubordination” after organizing a student boycott over bad food and lack of power! Shortly after returning home, however, an arranged marriage was announced, one Mandela was not happy about, compelling him to leave home for good; landing in Johannesburg, he worked, finished his degree, and enrolled in the University of Witwatersrand as a law student. And that was where he became active in the African National Congress, a seminal turning point in his life.

In 1942, he joined the small group of students in the African National Congress Youth League, an off-shoot of the ANC, whose goal was to create a grassroots movement to give voice to the millions in country who were being left out of their own government. The founding group’s modus operandi up to that point was “polite petitioning,” which many of the newer, younger members felt was quantifiably ineffective. This led to the Youth League’s implementation of less passive, but still peaceful, methods of resistance: strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, etc. What they were fighting for was “full citizenship, redistribution of land, trade union rights, and free and compulsory education for all children.”

These worthy goals represented just a small part of the growing disparity in the country. In 1948, in a “general election” in which only whites were permitted to vote, the Afrikaner-dominated “National Party” took office and it was then that the government “codified and expanded racial segregation with the new apartheid legislation.” This put into a place a heinous system of segregation, launching fierce divides and a roiling sense of righteous anger. Peaceful activism was seen as too passive against this force of oppression, and the tide of ANCYL was beginning to turn; for Mandela, however, the growing desire for “active” activism was still anathema. After being elected national president of the African National Congress Youth League in 1950, he found himself a minority while arguing against an anti-apartheid general strike; the strike happened, the majority took part and, not long after, Mandela began to shift his perspective to embrace a united front with other anti-apartheid groups. Around this same time, he also began to rethink his negative opinion of communism, particularly after immersing himself in the writings of Marx, Lenin, Nehru and others. This was, of course, during the cold war years and anything tainted with the dreaded stigma of “communism” was seen as evil.

In fact, on July 30, 1952, Mandela was arrested under the “Suppression of Communism Act” for his growing support of the movement. At trial with 21 others accused, he was found guilty of “statutory communism,” given nine months of hard labor which was suspended for two years, and was banned from attending meetings or “speaking to more than one person at a time,” making it impossible for him to conduct his duties as ANCYL president. However, his speeches were often read to crowds by others; one, in particular, laid out a plan in the event the ANC was banned all together: the Mandela Plan (or M-Plan), which called for creating a more cellular structure within the organization, with modular groups that could operate more autonomously and effectively.

During this tumultuous period, Mandela also founded a law firm (the only African law firm in the country), as well as struggled in his personal life (married, with two children, he was accused of having affairs, which led to his first divorce in 1957 from Evelyn Ntoko Mase). Politically, he was going through an evolution as well: he came to the life-changing realization that the ANC had no choice but to turn to “armed and violent resistance.” This came after the group was unsuccessful in preventing the destruction of an all-black suburb of Johannesburg by the apartheid government. His frustration and sense of rage at acts such as this was significant enough to request arms from China (who believed the ANC movement was too unsophisticated to conduct proper guerrilla warfare) and propose a Congress of the People, with its mission statement to gather all South African groups together to create a democratic, non-racialist state with a “Freedom Charter.” 3000 people attended the Congress of the People conference in June 1955, but government police shut it down quickly, once again banning Mandela from public activism.

But banning his activity wasn’t seen as enough; on December 5, 1956, Mandela was arrested for “high treason” against the state. Arrested along with him were most of the ANC executives. They went to trial in Pretoria in August of 1958, one charge was dropped, then the prosecution dropped the entire original indictment, resubmitting with the new charges of “advocating violent revolution,” charges each of the defendants denied. In the ensuing years, one legal machination after another followed; Mandela continued his political work as best he could, all while representing himself in the treason trial. On March 29, 1961, after almost six years, a non-guilty verdict was reached by the judges, considerably mortifying the government who was hell-bent on demonizing the actions and participants of the ANC in opposition to apartheid.

While relieved the trial was over, Mandela remained deeply troubled by the continuing repression in the country, which was rampant and metastasizing. With the agony of apartheid playing out in ways both economic and violent, leaders of the freedom movement were looking for new methods and new hands. The formation of the Pan-African Congress – started by a Robert Sobukwe, a friend of Mandela’s, and a collaborator in the anti-apartheid movement – was part of that expansion. As was Mandela’s new perspective on guerrilla warfare:

Officially separate from the ANC…[and ] operating through a cell structure, the MK [a Mandela group called “Spear of the Nation,” abbreviated to MK] agreed to acts of sabotage to exert maximum pressure on the government with minimum casualties, bombing military installations, power plants, telephone lines and transport links at night, when civilians were not present. Mandela noted that should these tactics fail, MK would resort to “guerilla warfare and terrorism.” [Source]

This, of course, was when Mandela was branded with the label of “terrorist,” though those in his own country saw him as a freedom fighter, a high-profile leader standing up for them against the white-minority government of exclusion, separation and oppression. In one instance alone, police killed 69 people and injured many others after firing into a crowd that was peacefully protesting the apartheid “pass laws.” Mandela and his collaborators felt they had no option but to fight hard for the lives of their people. The bombings and guerilla warfare he spoke of began unfolding. And, as expected, the government saw his activism very differently than his countrymen and women:

The government charged 11 ANC leaders, including Mandela, with crimes under the 1962 Sabotage Act. At the Rivonia Trial, Mandela chose not to take the witness stand, instead making a long statement from the dock on April 20, 1964. In it, he explained the history and motives on the ANC and MK, admitting to many of the charges against him and defending his use of violence.

He concluded, “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this 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.”

Mandela was found guilty on four charges of sabotage on June 11. The following day, he and seven on his co-defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment, avoiding the death sentence. Mandela and the other six non-white defendants were sent to the prison on Robben Island, a former leper colony located off the coast of Cape Town. [Source]

There Mandela lived in a tiny cell and performed hard labor in a lime quarry. His then-wife, Winnie Mandela, whom he had met and married in 1958 and with whom he had two children, kept his image and vision alive, emerging herself as a vocal opponent of the white minority rule in South Africa. While Mandela was imprisoned, she was able to visit and bring him news of the movement, until she herself was imprisoned in 1969 and given 18 months of solitary confinement for her own activism. Their marriage ultimately ended in 1996, and though they initially spoke well of each other, matters devolved until they rarely spoke at all, though she was often critical of him publicly. She later went on to both her own success as a politician, as well as her own failures:

After her husband, Nelson Mandela, was released from prison in 1990, Winnie Mandela shared in his political activities, despite her scandalous reputation. In 1993, Winnie became president of the African National Congress Women’s League, and in 1994, she was elected to Parliament. She was re-elected to Parliament in 1999, but resigned in 2003, under a new financial scandal. [Source]

Mandela spend his many years in prison in “dignified defiance,” transforming from the angry violence of prior to a more reasoned approach to his goals.

“…Robben Island became the crucible which transformed him,” writes PBS. “Through his intelligence, charm and dignified defiance, Mandela eventually bent even the most brutal prison officials to his will, assumed leadership over his jailed comrades and became the master of his own prison.”

In the 1980s, exiled ANC leader Oliver Tambo, Mandela’s former law partner, led an international movement to free Mandela. Many countries imposed sanctions on South Africa for its apartheid policies. [Source]

However, in 1985, President P.W. Botha refused to consider releasing Mandela until the leader “renounced violence.” Mandela’s response:

“Prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Only free men can negotiate.” [Source]

The world was no longer ignoring the situation in South Africa and national sanctions continued against the country. The state of apartheid was garnering tremendous global attention and antipathy. Politicians, activists, civil rights leaders, even pop artists got involved. Guitarist Steven Van Zandt (of Bruce Springsteen and Sopranos fame) brought the issue widely into popular culture (during a time when we did not have social media and the internet to push stories into the news), by organizing a coalition called Artists United Against Apartheid, who recorded Van Zandt’s song “Sun City” as a call to action for entertainers, tourists and others to boycott the premiere resort destination of Sun City, South Africa. It was a campaign that went as viral as such things could go in 1985. While some around the world continued to think of Mandela as a terrorist, refusing to accept any mitigation of perception based on the realities of apartheid, others were affected by the sanctions, the campaigns, even the song, all of which contributed to raising awareness of the human plight of apartheid, as well as that of its strongest voice of opposition: Nelson Mandela.

In 1989, F.W. de Klerk became president of South Africa and it was during his administration that apartheid, finally and belatedly, began to be dismantled. That included the release of the ANC prisoners. On Feb. 12, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison; his life from there a continuation of the passions and beliefs he held prior:

He was named president of the ANC and in 1993 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The following year, the ANC emerged victorious in South Africa’s first democratic elections with universal suffrage. Mandela was named the first president of the post-apartheid South Africa.

And now the 94-year-old leader rests quietly but in critical condition. The tuberculosis he contracted while in prison has wreaked havoc on his lungs and yet, in a life both long and challenged, he’s shown his resilience in ways both mental and physical. We will wait to see if, once again, he rallies, or we’re at the last chapter of his astonishing story…

“I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”

Nelson Mandela