Nelson Mandela continues to remain hospitalised as he battles a lung infection, according to recent news reports. Because of the seriousness of Mandela’s condition, there is a growing fear among many that the end might be near. He is now on life support, seeming to confirm this suspicion that his death is imminent.
Mandela’s advanced age and health problems are a reminder that the iconic leader is in the winter of his life. It is, therefore, an opportune moment to reflect on the impact that Mandela has had in South Africa and in the world at large. Like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, Mandela is one of those very rare individuals who succeeded in greatly expanding the freedom of the people that he set out to free from brutal oppression. In the past century, Gandhi and King earned a place in the pantheon of transformational freedom fighters. Because of his success along with the profound sacrifices that he made in fighting against apartheid, Mandela secures a place alongside those two exemplary figures.
During his fight against apartheid, Mandela was a model of fearlessness. For decades, the regime that governed South Africa implemented a number of laws that denied black South Africans basic citizenship rights. This set of laws institutionalized discrimination in South Africa against the black majority population. Black South Africans were, therefore, unceremoniously relegated to second-class status. In order to maintain this caste system, the government never hesitated to silence its opponents. In fact, it dispensed harsh treatment to intimidate its critics. It was during this era where political persecution was de rigeur that Mandela began to emerge as one of the leading opponents of the apartheid regime. Although he was fully aware of the tremendous danger that he would face by challenging the system, he boldly led the charge against those discriminatory laws.
Mandela took many courageous steps as he sought to undermine the apartheid system. Despite constant threats of arrests, he helped organize many demonstrations and strikes. There are often harsh treatments meted out to those who dare to speak truth to power. It was no different for Mandela. Sensing the threat that his public agitation posed to the system, the authorities decided to incarcerate him. In spite of international pressure to release him, Mandela went on to spend 27 years in prison.
Mandela’s imprisonment failed to diminish his influence; in fact, his stature grew even larger during his years in prison, thereby transforming him into a more potent symbol. During his incarceration, international pressure against apartheid intensified. He became a source of inspiration for other South Africans as they continued to fight to put an end to this vicious system. The relentless struggle of South Africans coupled with economic sanctions imposed on the country by the international community eventually led to the collapse of apartheid.
In the modern era, there have been only three individuals who succeeded in freeing their people from subjugation without engaging in an armed revolution: Gandhi in India, King in the US, and Mandela in South Africa. We are living in a world where the strong tend to dominate the weak. The power of the strong rests on their ability to acquire and use more lethal force. A statement made by Joseph Stalin, the former ruler of the Soviet Union, encapsulates this power dynamic. In questioning whether the pope carries any major influence, Stalin once said, “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?”
However, despite having no divisions of their own, these three leaders managed to do the unthinkable: They succeeded against more powerful adversaries because they knew that they were fighting for a cause that was much bigger than they were. The willingness of these leaders to die for their cause (though Mandela, unlike the other two, did not) helped explain why they could not be cowed even in the face of mortal threats. The systems that Gandhi, King, Mandela were endeavoring to change crumbled under the weight of their own moral bankruptcy. Owing to their monumental achievements, these three leaders’ mark on history will be indelible