Nelson Mandela’s birth name was Rolihlahla, a Xhosa word that translates as “troublemaker”. By the time he first came to the attention of the New Statesman in 1960, he had already made plenty – having decided, as he wrote in his autobiography, that the African National Congress “had no alternative to armed and violent resistance” in the face of apartheid.
He was first arrested in 1956, and in 1964 he was sentenced to life imprisonment and despatched to Robben Island, where he remained for 18 years. Like many others on the left around the world, the New Statesman took up his cause in the 1980s. The paper secured an interview with him after his release, at a crucial point in the negotiations for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.
Throughout this time, even as Mandela lost confidence in the National Party leader F W de Klerk and saw one of his principal lieutenants, Chris Hani, assassinated by a far-right gunman aided by a white politician, he managed to keep his country from sliding into civil war. And as Sarah Baxter notes, even as the ANC took power in 1994 he could not rest: the nation still needed its uniting figure while the party, harassed and outlawed for so long, adjusted to the new challenges of government. Mandela served just one term as president of South Africa but extended his bravery into retirement, speaking out against the 2003 invasion of Iraq and encouraging the United Nations to intervene in the civil war between Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi. In 2005 he showed a different kind of courage, announcing that his son Makgatho had died of an Aids-related illness, at a time when Aids was hugely stigmatised and was claiming increasing numbers of lives in South Africa.
In April 1964, during the Rivonia trial, he said: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But … if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Today, although South Africa still struggles with equality, we know that Mandela did more than anyone to bring it closer to his ideal. The boy given a new name at school so that his English-speaking teachers wouldn’t have to grapple with Xhosa pronunciation became the man who damaged his eyesight breaking rocks on Robben Island, and then Madiba, the genial statesman in the print shirt. Now that he is gone, we can appreciate how much he lived to see.