Could anyone have realised, on a fateful day in July of 1918, that a leader who would come to shoulder the burden of the hopes of millions of people had just been born? Could the young boy himself, herding cattle in the rural Transkei, have known what hardship lay ahead of him as a consequence of his choice to oppose a violent and oppressive regime? Was the fate of Rolihlahla Mandela, in a real-life imitation of the tradition of ancient hero-myths, decided upon before his birth, or was the appearance of a Mandela-like figure inevitable in the context of Apartheid South Africa? The African continent has seen many liberation fighters, so why is Mandela a figure that towers in the local and international imagination? The first few questions cannot be answered with any degree of definiteness, but the last perhaps can: unlike his fellow liberation fighter in Zimbabwe (and numerous others on the continent), Nelson Mandela came out in favour of the notion of a peaceful and conciliatory society to succeed violent and oppressive regimes.
Whereas the Xhosa leader had come to signify the hope for the emancipation of the oppressed black population of South Africa, he similarly (in the period of 1990 and beyond) came to signify the peaceful transformation of a racial oligarchy into a constitutional democracy in the popular imagination of the white population. Collectively, and in the initial stages of the post-Apartheid democracy, Mandela came to be the symbol of a freedom peacefully achieved, and therefore an icon of the new South Africa. Along with other leaders of the African National Congress and the minority representative National Party, Madiba can be seen to be a central figure in the correct handling of the highly volatile and unstable period of 1990-1994 (between the unbanning of the ANC and the first unqualified democratic elections).
The period saw a dramatic increase in factional and politically motivated violence in South African townships. For the first time, the black population realised that a political group from within their own ranks would come to power, and this sparked off a race for political dominance. Although Apartheid security forces were sometimes implicated in the orchestration of black factional violence, the perpetrators of the factional violence were, almost without fail, members of the ANC and the IFP. In the province of KwaZulu Natal, the political fighting claimed the lives of thousands of black South Africans (one estimate by David Welsh puts the figure as high as 20 000 people). The instability caused by the taking up of arms in the name of a political cause was not, however, restricted to factional fighting between the ANC and IFP: in an assassination designed to bring about an all-out civil war, two far right-wing fanatics (Janus Walus and Clive Derby-Lewis), on the Sunday morning of the 1993 Easter weekend, shot dead the highly popular SACP leader, Chris Hani. The outrage of the black population was unremitting as Walus and Derby-Lewis were seen to represent the wishes of all white South Africans. The civil war which they hoped to incite (therefore effectively putting an end to the negotiations directed towards the holding of non-racialised elections) seemed inevitable.
It was at this point that Mandela once again showed his commitment towards peace and conciliation by stating:
Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin. The cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shock waves throughout the country and the world …Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for – the freedom of all of us.
Although Mandela had been instrumental in the establishment of an armed wing for the struggle, his valuing of human life and his understanding of the need to keep South Africa as stable as possible through a very difficult process, cannot be denied. The above statement, issued by Madiba after Hani’s assassination, serves as unequivocal evidence of this fact, and similarly, serves to underscore the statesmanship of Mandela’s leadership. Indeed, it was in the most trying of times and the worst of circumstances that Mandela’s character rose to the fore to lead his people away from the indignity of inhumanity, and towards behaviour that embodied his beliefs.