What have I learned from my hero’s formative years?

By Um’Khonde Habamenshi

Imagine you were born in a small village in South-Africa. Imagine you belonged to a Xhosa royal lineage but was raised to be humble and always be of service to others. Imagine you studied the law and moved to Johannesburg to become an attorney. Imagine that the Apartheid system was enacted as the law of the land and your movements became restricted and controlled and your most basic civil liberties abruptly and arbitrary taken away from you. Imagine you refused to accept a system that outlaws people on the sole basis of their skin colour and joined the efforts to defy the established order. In hindsight, would you have taken the same path had you known in those early days that you were stepping into a struggle that would completely overtake your life?

Today, I am inspired by Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, born 18 July 1918 in South Africa.

It is difficult to tell Madiba’s story in just a few words. When I read his autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ some 20 years ago, I thought I knew everything there was to ever know about this former political prisoner turned first black President of his country. Yet, every time I listen to his speeches and interviews, read his writings or books and articles written about him, I discover I know only a fraction of his life.

We must recognise that his life was so big and his achievement so extraordinary, it will probably take a life time to fully appreciate what this iconic man represents for us, our generation, the next generation, for our continent and for the World.
It’s an educational journey worth taking several times if you can, and one that I am taking today for the umpteenth time.
As this entire year will be dedicated to this great man, we will take his story in strides. Today, I will talk about his formative years, the years before he was fully engaged in the struggle. Yes, my friends, he was not born in the struggle, despite being called ‘Rolihlahla’, which means “troublemaker” in Xhosa, when he was born. We should call this chapter: Meet the Troublemaker.

Mandela was born in a small village called Mvezo, small rural community some fifty miles south of Johannesburg. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was the chief of Mvezo. Though young Mandela was part of the Thembu royal house, he had a very modest and strict upbringing. His life was shaped by custom, ritual, and taboo.

“This was the alpha and omega of our existence, and it went unquestioned. Men followed the path laid out for them by their fathers; women led the same lives as their mothers had before them.”

He was nine when his father abruptly died after a short illness and the young boy was sent to live with his uncle the King, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo. In the wake of Mandela’s father’s death, Chief Jongintaba had offered to become his guardian.

Mandela was treated as the chief’s other children and had the same advantages as they did. And the same obligations. Chief Jongintaba was keen to have his kids learn to serve before they could learn to rule.

It was in those days at Mqhekezweni that Mandela developed his lifelong interest in African history. He learned of Xhosa heroes and other African heroes such as Sekhukhune, king of the Bapedi, Moshoeshoe, Basotho king, Dingane, king of the Zulus, and many others. His imagination was particularly fired up by the great men who fought against Western domination.

His uncle was keen on young Mandela getting the best education, as he was destined to be a counsellor to the King’s son.

When he passed his Standard V, Mandela was admitted to Clarkebury. Founded in 1825, Clarkebury Institute was in those days the highest institution of learning for Africans in the Xhosa region. Although Clarkebury was built on a land given by his ancestor, the great Thembu king Ngubengcuka, Mandela was treated no differently than everyone else.

It was an important lesson of humility for the young man.
“I quickly realized that I had to make my way on the basis of my ability, not my heritage.”

In 1937, the nineteen years old enrolled in the Wesleyan College in Fort Beaufort, after which he was admitted to study law at the University College of Fort Hare. In 1939, Mandela moved to Johannesburg to try and become a Lawyer. That’s when he was introduced to a young lawyer who would become a lifelong friend and comrade: Walter Sisulu.

Walter Sisulu’s house was always full of members of the Africa National Congress and other activists. In 1944, Mandela participated in the formation of the Youth League. But it wasn’t till 1947, when he was elected to the Executive Committee of the Transvaal ANC that he became really political and committed to the party.

It wasn’t all politics. It was at the Sisulu house that he met one of their relatives, a young girl named Evelyn, whom he would fall in love with and marry. Their first son Madiba Thembekile was born in 1946.

“I enjoyed domesticity, even though I had little time for it. I delighted in playing with Thembi, bathing him and feeding him, and putting him to bed with a little story. In fact, I love playing with children and chatting with them; it has always been one of the things that make me feel most at peace. I enjoyed relaxing at home, reading quietly, taking in the sweet and savoury smells emanating from pots boiling in the kitchen. But I was rarely at home to enjoy these things.”

Their first daughter Makaziwe was born in 1947. She was a very frail baby, always sick. She didn’t make it to her first birthday. Makaziwe passed away at the tender age of nine months. It was a very difficult time for the young couple. Evelyn was completely distraught and had a tough time dealing with all the grief.

The political and social situation of his country did not allow Mandela to sit and mourn the passing of his daughter. Times were changing in South-Africa and things were to go from bad to worse for all the non-white citizens of the country. In 1948, the Apartheid system is enacted as the law of the land.

“Apartheid was a new term but an old idea. It literally means ‘apartness’ and it represented the codification in one oppressive system of all the laws and regulations that had kept Africans in an inferior position to whites for centuries.”

In 1950, the ANC organised a big nation-wide mass protest, called the Day of Protest.

“The struggle, I was learning, was all-consuming. A man involved in the struggle was a man without a home life. It was in the midst of the Day of Protest that my second son, Makgatho Lewanika, was born. One day, during this same time, my wife informed me that my elder son, Thembi, then five, had asked her, “Where does Daddy live?” I had been returning home late at night, long after he had gone to sleep, and departing early in the morning before he woke. I did not relish being deprived of the company of my children. I missed them a great deal during those days, long before I had any inkling that I would spend decades apart from them.”

In 1952, a bigger protest called the ‘Defiance Campaign’ was organised on the anniversary of the first National Day of Protest.

The government decided to retaliate against the protest’s leaders, including Mandela. Mandela and 20 other leaders of the movement were to be arrested in July 1952 and brought to trial a couple months later alongside twenty other co-accused.
It was his first in the many arrest and trials that would ultimately lead him years later to be imprisoned in Robben Island. After a highly mediatised three months proceedings, they were all found guilty of “statutory communism” and sentenced to a nine month’ imprisonment with hard labour, a sentence that was suspended for two years.

His life of struggle had started. Though the Defiance campaign was not the success they had wanted, it was a marking time in this young politician’s life:

“The campaign never expanded beyond the initial stage of small batches of mostly urban defiers. We were still amateurs. I nevertheless felt a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction: I had been engaged in a just cause and had the strength to fight for it and win. The campaign freed me from any lingering sense of doubt or inferiority I might still have felt; it liberated me from the feeling of being overwhelmed by the power and seeming invincibility of the white man and his institutions. But now the white man had felt the power of my punches and I could walk upright like a man and look everyone in the eye with the dignity that comes from not having succumbed to oppression and fear. I had come of age as a freedom fighter.”

What have I learned from my hero’s formative years?

– The significance of our names. His birth name, Rolihlahla, the troublemaker, was the perfect fit for our hero. His name Nelson also had its significance, on a different level. Mandela received his Christian name when he first attended school. In those days, whites weren’t able or willing to learn African patronyms and kids ended-up with a name for school and a name for home.

– He was raised in a Royal palace but was taught to be humble and be to the service of others before aspiring to become their leader.

– His private life was marked by personal tragedy since he was a child. His father passed away when he was nine and he lost his second child just early on during his first marriage.

– Mandela didn’t become political till he moved to Johannesburg in the late 1930s. His political life started as a youth activist and it was later that he rose in the ranks of the ANC

– Mandela’s involvement in politics meant seeing little of his family, which deeply affected him

– His involvement in the defiance campaign landed him in court in 1952, the first of the many trials that would ultimately imprisoned in the infamous Robben Island for 27 years.

If you count yourself amongst the Heirs of this extraordinary man, let me wish you a Happy anniversary. Unfortunately, our celebrations will not entail any fireworks, balloon or vuvuzela. It going to be work, work, work and more work!

Why? Because we have 365 days to free ourselves, free others and serve every day. After all, aren’t we his Legacy?