Nelson Mandela knew he would become South Africa’s president in the 1940s.
He was one of the younger members of the ANCYL (African National Congress Youth League) when he made this assertion at a meeting of the party’s leaders. It was a courageous move, bordering on rebellion, and stood in contrast to traditional customs which revere the elderly.
But Mandela was different. He grew up among the royals who governed the Transkei homestead, and was groomed to one day take the reins. Strong-willed and independent-minded, it was the attention he paid to “little details” which set him apart from his peers.
At Fort Hare University, a bastion of black intellectualism for southern and eastern Africa, his attire, not so much his political activity, stirred the curiosity of his peers.
I thought Nelson had even better qualities than me, and I wanted him to have even more.
“A white silk shirt on Nelson Mandela is different from a white silk shirt that we have. His is really white, and yours is not quite the right white. He [was] a meticulous dresser,” Joe Mathews, his former colleague and friend said. However, this was not just a man with impeccable dress sense.
Mandela awoke early each morning at 4.30am to begin a strict one-hour exercise regimen – one that few were able to keep up with, and one that he continued to practice while imprisoned on Robben Island, and even after his release and subsequent presidency.
Essop Essak Jassat, a former parliamentarian and fellow activist in the Transvaal Indian Congress told Al Jazeera that this discipline also displayed itself in Mandela’s diet. “It was amazing how disciplined he was about his eating habits. Being our guest, my wife started cooking exotic foods, but he just wanted one meal a day.”
A person through other people
In Johannesburg, soon after his arrival in the 1940s, he decided he wanted to be the first black lawyer in the country. Here, he was introduced to his future mentor, comrade and confidante, Walter Sisulu. From the beginning Sisulu, already an activist, identified Mandela as a potential leader.
“He happened to strike me more than any person I had met … When a young man of Nelson’s nature came, it was a Godsend to me,” Sisulu said in an interview with PBS. “It’s me who asked him what he wanted to do, and he told me he undertook to study law.”
Sisulu, an estate agent by trade, assisted Mandela and encouraged his ambitions.
“I thought Nelson had even better qualities than me, and I wanted him to have even more … I was also encouraged by his ability to change, by his attitude to people … because of that, my natural behaviour was to encourage him to take a leading position,” he said.
The Ubuntu philosophy recognises the social role in moulding each person: “A person is a person through other people.”
Mandela, confident and disciplined as he was, was also carried on the shoulders of many extraordinary people who guided him, advised him and engaged him.
As the cash-strapped young husband of Evelyn Ntoko Mase, Mandela’s first wife, he was afforded the opportunity to study at the University of Witwatersrand through funding from the Bantu Welfare Trust, of which Sisulu was a board member. Only a handful of non-whites were then accepted at the university and it was here that his political thinking met alternate viewpoints.
Anti-racist politics of the left
Mandela’s enrolment at the University of Witwatersrand also marked the beginning of his friendships and political asssociations with people from other races.
“It was through the university that he met Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Bram Fischer, George Bizos, JN Singh and Ismail Meer, among others. Like Mandela, nearly all these people had been raised within narrow racial confines, but were commingled by their interest in the anti-racist politics of the left,” David James Smith writes in Young Mandela: The Revolutionary Years.
When he missed the African curfew – a rule that black people had to return to their homes overnight – he often stayed over in Ferreirastown in Johannesburg, at Meer’s home, and at the apartment that later became the home of Ahmed Kathrada’s in Kholvad House, where clandestine activist meetings were held.
Yusuf Dadoo and Monty Naicker, two activists who believed that non-whites should unite in non-violent resistance against the apartheid laws, and other political activists, including Moses Kotane, Maulvi and Yusuf Cachalia, from the Communist Party of South Africa and Sisulu frequented the flat.
They often engaged in heated and vibrant political discussions about Africanism, socialism, communism, and Ghandism.
Anti-apartheid activist Moosa “Mosie” Moolla told Al Jazeera that while Mandela was strong-minded and had his own way of thinking, contact with leaders from other anti-apartheid organisations also influenced him. At the same time, Mandela and other activists enjoyed a semblance of liberalism within their social and political circle of university friends.
Smith remembers that the parties of white activists, the Slovos, were renowned for their music, dancing and free-flowing alcohol, but also known for being able to “bring everyone together in close approximation of equality”.
It is no question that the equality that existed within Mandela’s social circles also inspired a sense of possibility within him and among his peers.
‘Beyond the ability of black people’
However, this was sharply tested when Mandela failed in his dream of becoming a lawyer and was forced to settle with becoming an attorney.
Studying part-time for seven years, he failed the final year three times and was denied a fourth attempt.
“I was a part-time student and resided in Orlando Native Location in a noisy neighbourhood,” Mandela wrote in a letter to the dean of the law faculty, begging for another chance at the exam. “In the absence of electric light, I was compelled to study in the evenings with a paraffin lamp and sometimes with a candle light.”
While this is an aspect of Mandela’s life that he spoke little of, he later said the dean had told him that becoming a barrister was “beyond the ability of black people”. The sting of the remark must have stayed with him for years.
Smith writes that Mandela’s first wife, Mase, believed that this was “a personal motivation for his fight against apartheid.”
At the same time his political frustrations were rising.
“Ironically, Mandela’s growing friendship with white and Indian communists and radicals coincided with the rise of his ANC Youth League nationalism,” writes Smith.
“While he was personally close with many white[s] and Indians, he was suspicious that many of them felt themselves to be intellectually superior and would take over if the ANC tried to work with them.”
He says: “Mandela [along with other ANCYL members] believed the struggle was the struggle of black Africans, first and foremost.”
The apartheid regime passed three acts in 1950, the Suppression of Communism Act, the Population and Registration Act and the Group Areas Act, which strictly enforced the apartheid policies and were designed to crush any mass opposition movement. Activist Moolla says that, while other parties of the time, the Transvaal ANC, the Transvaal Indian Congress; the South African Communist Party and others launched strikes against the acts – in which people were killed – Mandela initially opposed the protest action.
“He was not convinced as yet,” says Moolla. Despite this, in 1951, Mandela was elected national president of the ANC Youth League.
Moolla says that this changed Mandela. In what he describes as a turning point for the leader, and more than just a sign of political maturity, Moolla says Mandela began to look at things more pragmatically and objectively. “It was a time of reflection for Mandela and he realised that this was the will of the people,” he says.
Mandela decided to put the people ahead of his own reservations and publically agreed with Dadoo’s call for a united struggle between the disparate anti-apartheid parties. In June 1952, the Defiance Campaign, a non-violent programme of mass resistance, was launched, with the ANC’s Mandela at the helm.
The movement galvanised people and organisations comprising more than 8,500 people to confront the enemy, the apartheid regime, says Moolla. The foundation stone was laid for the ANC coalition that would dominate the decades to come, Smith quotes white communist Rusty Bernstein as saying.
Different type of intelligentsia
During the same year, Mandela also opened the first black-owned legal firm in the country with Oliver Reginald Tambo, “Mandela & Tambo Attorneys”. Mandela and Tambo dedicated their days to the plight of their black clients who travelled from across the country to be represented by them. His awareness of the plight of Africans developed even further.
Communist Party leader Chris Hani said that it was ultimately this selflessness that made Mandela as admirable as he was. “We admired [Mandela and Tambo] because we saw in them as a different type of intelligentsia; an intelligentsia which is selfless, which was not just concerned about making money, creating a comfortable situation for themselves, but an intelligentsia which had lots of time for the struggle of the oppressed people of South Africa,” Hani told historian Luli Callinicos in her book The World that made Mandela. “How they used their legal knowledge to alleviate the judicial persecution of the blacks.”
Later, shortly before his arrest, Mandela went into hiding. Yusuf Wadee, one of many anti-apartheid activists who hid Mandela in his home says that Mandela had a deep-seated feeling for the well-being of people at large. Phathekile Holomisa, president of South Africa’s Council of Traditional Leaders, says that Mandela was the kind of leader that considered himself a servant of the people, rather than a leader that would be served by other people.
As Mandela is laid to rest, it is perhaps his characteristic concern that ensures he will preside over hearts and minds long after he is gone.