Every generation has outstanding men of character and Nelson Mandela was one for our time. He was a giant who went against the normal run of events and thoughts. He chose to forget himself, fighting and living only for his people and his dream of freeing South Africa from apartheid.

Where did Nelson Mandela get his ethos of advocating a post-apartheid South Africa based on reconciliation and mutual forbearance? Can his 27 years of imprisonment for plotting to violently overthrow the government take credit for this radical transformation?

Here was a man who requested and received money from several African heads of state to buy weapons for the guerrilla group he co-founded, the Umkhonto we sizwe, or MK for short, the armed wing of the African National Congress. Yet in 1993 he would share the Nobel Peace Prize with former South African president F.W. de Klerk. Mandela was a man of contradictions and a deeper look at his early life is needed to throw light on the many surprises he gave the world.

Mandela was a pragmatist. His sole aim was to establish majority rule in South Africa, where the native blacks would be accorded equal rights, be treated as humans and be allowed the same privileges as other races. Taking this motivation as a constant therefore, the variables became the different means and ideologies that Madiba would adopt over time.

I do not believe that there was a specific moment when he changed his views irrevocably. He was bedfellows with any who furthered the cause of emancipating the black South African. If the influence of Mahatma Ghandi made him at first opt for non-violence, it would not be because of a moral conviction that this was fair, but rather, a pragmatic conviction that this method would be more effective.

In the same way Mandela would at first keep his distance from communism, reasoning that while communism thrived on class-struggle, the struggle in South Africa was a racial one. He was initially averse to communism because its atheism did not agree with his Methodist upbringing. But when he needed the tools communism provided (in personnel, resources and ideas), he embraced it.

He was born Rolihlahla Mandela on 18 July 1918. “Nelson” was added by his teacher on his first day at school since it was customary to call students by English names. He was a fighter, first against ignorance, against poverty and against anything he considered to be injustice. Already as a student he stood out by belonging to representative bodies that advocated for students’ rights. This stance early on earned him a temporary suspension from Fort Hare University. He left without earning a degree.

The armed group he led sabotaged government facilities, bombed buildings and fired at government soldiers. The prosecuting counsel at his 1962 Rivonia trial asked for the death penalty for Mandela and his ANC co-conspirators. Some might say that in the light of his group’s modus operandi and intentions, a sentence of life imprisonment was just. Just, at least, in the eyes of the minority racially motivated rulers who thought that blacks and Indians (though in the majority) should have limited rights.

Few people survive such long prison sentences with their psyche and health intact. Mandela was released from jail in 1990, well past his 70th birthday. It was an unconditional release since he refused to ask his African National Congress (ANC) to renounce violence. Violence, he contended, would remain, but only as a defensive measure against the white government. But he entered into negotiations to make it possible to have the first election open to white, black and coloured, based on a democratic majority. He won a landslide victory and became the first black man in South Africa to become president

It would have been natural to expect Mandela to become vindictive, both for his own sufferings, and for those suffered by native black South Africans. And that was where he manifested a genuine greatness of character. He lectured all about forgiveness and reconciliation. There were faults on all sides, he reasoned, and South Africa belonged to all of them. They were all ‘natives’, and they must learn to live as brothers and sisters.

Some people were sceptical, others were angry and many were dumbfounded. Would tit for tat not have been fair? Was not that what democracy was about, especially if the now victorious blacks wanted revenge on the whites for 50 years of apartheid? Was it not right to exert some vengeance for more than 300 years of colonialism? Mandela had a different idea. It was time to forgive and move on. Coming from a man who had every right to be angry, his personal example silenced all, forced introspection and changed the country.

Prison changes everyone. Some come out better, repenting of their misdeeds and forgiving those who have wronged them. Others come out harder, vengefully determined to take it out on a society that has robbed them of years they cannot recover.

Prison time alone does not explain the changes in Mandela. He went in as a revolutionary, and came out as one, except this time, he became a revolutionary of mutual co-existence and peace.

Prison forges character. It will either make you mad or make you stronger. Alone with thoughts and alone perhaps with certainty of innocence, every day is a battle to stay alive and sane. You may chose to stay alive, like an animal who stays alive to live another day, if only to be able to do what animals do (satisfy animal desires for another day), or stay alive to see many next days with the hope of one day stepping out of prison, to live as an ‘unbroken’ free man.

Prison is full of many injustices, from those who keep you behind bars and from those behind bars. You had your last chance at talking to the judicial system before they slammed you in there, therefore perish any hope of a reprieve coming from that direction. Either despair or find strength elsewhere – within yourself.

Mandela always found strength within himself.

Mandela had many failings. He quarrelled with communist comrades. He initially opposed a united front against apartheid with Indians, blacks and communists working together. He opposed violence and then supported it. His marriage with his first wife Evelyn fell apart over accusations of infidelities. But he rallied.

He was also a man who knew how to seize the moment. At the Rivonia trial, instead of pleading for a mitigated sentence, he opted to use the publicity and ‘rostrum’ of the judicial process to speak to the world about the evils of apartheid and of the black African’s demand for racial equality.

On a side note, I was happy that after the crazy media focus on the poor fellow when he was hospitalized earlier in the year, the world eventually gave way to allow him his rest and privacy. He would not be made a martyr of any cause other than that which he chose. In the fight to free South Africa and teach the rest of the world how to forgive, he fought well and courageously.

May his soul rest in peace.

Eugene Ohu is a freelance journalist. He writes from Lagos, Nigeria. 

With his love for writing and reading, Eugene Ohu's foray into Pharmacy is perhaps a testament to the often utilitarian choices of many Africans, faced as they are with survival needs. In this context,...