What more can be said about our hero of the week? Former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela, who passed away peacefully at his home in Johannesburg on Thursday night, surrounded by his family, was a committed fighter for human rights, and for justice and equality for all.

Mandela was 95 when he died, and his wisdom, dignity, understanding of human nature, and the profound impact his life has had on humanity, have been praised all over the world – never more so than now.

He spoke out strongly, and often, against corruption, acknowledging that it has been the undoing of many an upright person. "History never stops to play tricks, even with seasoned and world-famous freedom fighters. Frequently erstwhile revolutionaries have easily succumbed to greed, and the tendency to divert public resources for personal enrichment ultimately overwhelmed them," he wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

Destined for greatness

Born in the Eastern Cape, Mandela moved to Johannesburg after completing his schooling and part of a BA degree at Fort Hare University. Here he found work as a guard at one of Johannesburg's many gold mines, and later as an articled clerk at a law firm. He completed his BA degree by correspondence at the University of South Africa, and began to study law at the University of the Witwatersrand.

He entered politics in 1942 when he joined the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa's major liberation movement and today the country's ruling party. In 1944 he, Anton Lembede and Mandela's lifelong friends and comrades Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu founded the ANC Youth League.

In 1949, a year after the apartheid National Party was elected to power, the ANC adopted its Programme of Action, which was aimed at the attainment of full citizenship and direct parliamentary representation for all South Africans.

Growing political career

After the Campaign for Defiance of Unjust Laws, Mandela was elected president of both the Youth League and the Transvaal region of the ANC at the end of 1952. He subsequently became the deputy president of the ANC.

Soon after the defiance campaign, Mandela was admitted to the legal profession. In 1952 he and Tambo opened a law firm in downtown Johannesburg.

"To reach our desks each morning Nelson and I ran the gauntlet of patient queues of people overflowing from the chairs in the waiting room into the corridors …,: wrote Tambo of their practice. “We had risen to professional status in our community, but every case in court, every visit to the prisons to interview clients, reminded us of the humiliation and suffering burning into our people."

The 1950s and 1960s were stressful years for the young lawyer – he was banned, arrested and imprisoned. He divorced his first wife Evelyn to marry Winnie Madikizela. He was also one of the accused in the historic Treason Trial that ended in 1961, with the state dropping all charges.

In 1960, after the Sharpeville uprising, the government declared a state of emergency and banned the ANC and other liberation movements. This meant that Mandela had to live away from his family, adopting various disguises to evade the police, and earning the nickname in the media of the Black Pimpernel.

It also meant that ANC moved from a nonviolent to violent means of opposing apartheid. Umkhonto we Sizwe, the movement's armed wing, was formed in 1961, with Mandela as commander-in-chief. After travelling abroad for several months, he was arrested in 1962 on his return to South Africa for unlawfully exiting the country and for incitement to strike. Convicted, he was sentenced to five years on the notorious Robben Island.

While serving this sentence, he was charged with sabotage in the infamous Rivonia Trial. In 1964 Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment.

While in prison he studied by correspondence with the University of London, earning a Bachelor of Laws degree. In 1984 he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, and in December of that year he was moved to Victor Verster Prison near Paarl in the Western Cape.

A great leader

After spending 27 years in apartheid's prisons, Mandela was released in 1990 and was elected ANC president in 1991. Despite his long ordeal, his spirit of reconciliation, and refusal to resort to bitterness and retaliation, were remarkable.

In 1993 he and then-president FW de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their different roles in the peaceful end of apartheid. Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994.

He was set on doing things the right way. “To achieve these objectives [of reconstruction and development] requires, among other things, rapid and systematic restructuring of the apartheid state structures, to ensure that the public service is representative of society as a whole and to eliminate wastage, mismanagement, duplication and corruption,” he said in 1994, speaking at the fifth Cosatu Congress. 

A life well lived

At the end of his presidency Mandela continued to work for a better South Africa, mainly through his many foundations.

He was a gentle, humble man who embodied many good qualities – “Your abundant reserves of love, simplicity, honesty, service, humility, care, courage, foresight, patience, tolerance, equality and justice continually served as a source of enormous strength to me and so many millions of people around the world”, wrote his friend of more than 60 years, Ahmed Kathrada, in a moving tribute to the late statesman.

He and Winnie divorced in 1996. In 1998 he married Graça Machel, widow of Samora Machel, the president of Mozambique until his death in 1986. Their wedding anniversary was the same date as his birthday – 18 July.

We say hamba kahle Madiba, our hero – sleep in peace, and thank you for everything you did for our nation.

What more can be said about our hero of the week? Former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela, who passed away peacefully on Thursday night, was a committed fighter for human rights, and for justice and equality for all.
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