JIS News

Story Highlights

  • Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black President, died today (December 5), at the age of 95.
  • The son of a Tembu Chief, the late President was born in a small village in the Transkei province of Eastern South Africa on July 18, 1918.
  • During his presidency, Mr. Mandela sought to establish diplomatic ties between South Africa and Jamaica.

Nelson Mandela, who became South Africa’s first black President in 1994, after serving 27 years in prison during the Apartheid years, died today (December 5), at the age of 95.

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die,” is a famous quote taken from Mr. Mandela’s Statement from the Dock, on April 20, 1964, the day he was sentenced.

The son of a Tembu Chief, the late President was born in a small village in the Transkei province of Eastern South Africa on July 18, 1918.

He was christened Rolihlalah Mandela, which was interpreted as “one who brings trouble upon himself” or “troublemaker”.

As a young boy, he enjoyed farming and engaged in other boyish pursuits. His schooling – right up to his time at the University of Fort Hare, where he studied law – was a first for any member of his family. In school he was given the English name ‘Nelson’ by his teacher, Miss Mdingane.

His fight against the Apartheid system in South Africa could have started in 1939 when, in an attempt to escape an arranged marriage, Mr. Mandela moved to Johannesburg; bringing him face to face with the system he would dedicate his life to fighting.

According to Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Dr. Enrique Okenve (from Equatorial Guinea), it was a system of racial oppression in which the majority of South Africans were disenfranchised.

“They were denied all forms of rights, political, economic and social. It was exercised by a white minority regime, against not only black South Africans, who were the majority, but also against coloureds (mixed people) and people of Asian origin,” the Lecturer said.

This system of racial segregation, known as Apartheid, existed in South Africa from as early as 1910. It was made formal and more widespread with the victory of the National Party in 1948.

Earlier in 1943 Mr. Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) and through it, the struggle against apartheid.

“The Africans want their franchise on the basis of one man, one vote and they want political independence. We have made it very clear in our policy that South Africa is a country of many races; there is room for all the various races in this country,” Mr. Mandela said.

The late former President and the ANC engaged in passive resistance to the segregated policies, until they were forced into armed struggle, prompting a government ban on ANC activities.

“There are many people who feel that it is useless and futile for us to continue talking peace and non-violence against a government whose reply is only savage attacks on an unarmed, defenseless people,” he argued.

Mr. Mandela’s actions were not overlooked. In 1962, he was captured. He subsequently escaped and went into hiding.

Two years later, in 1964, at the height of the anti-apartheid movement, he was recaptured and sentenced to life imprisonment.

From behind the bars on Robben Island, forged from apartheid, the late former President continued the fight.  Inspired by his stance behind those bars, the movement found new energy.

“The struggle became popular in Europe as well and everyone came to know the sufferings, injustice and pain of blacks in South Africa, through the face of Mandela and the campaign to free him,” Dr. Okenve told JIS News.  

The strategy was successful and worldwide sanctions against South Africa, coupled with widespread resistance within its borders, eventually forced the government to rethink its apartheid policies.

Mr. Mandela was released in 1990 after successful negotiations with the white government, led at the time by Frederik Willem de Klerk. His release in 1990 would mark a major turning point in South Africa’s history.

It would have been almost three decades since black people in South Africa, and indeed the world, had seen Nelson Mandela in public.

Within months of his release he was able to convince the government to establish a multi-racial democracy in the country.  He was elected leader of the ANC in 1991, and then President, after the ANC won South Africa’s first democratic elections.

“The time for the healing of the wounds has come. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world,” Mr. Mandela said at his inaugural address in 1994.

“Our emotions said the white minority is an enemy, you must never talk to them, but our brain said, if you don’t talk to this man, your country will go up in flames and for many years to come, this country would be engulfed in rivers of blood, so we had to reconcile that conflict,” Mr. Mandela said in an interview as President of South Africa.

Mr. Mandela and Mr. de Klerk shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in ending apartheid and laying the foundations for a democratic South Africa.

“He was very convinced about it…and he was able to convince the other anti-apartheid organisations that the future of South Africa had to be multi-racial. That made the negotiations successful, because if  the ANC had been more radical, perhaps the government would not have given up so many things and we would not have been talking about successful negotiations, we would be talking about a civil war,” noted Dr. Okenve.

Mr. Mandela spent a single term in office, from 1994 to 1999, opting not to seek re-election.

Besides his role as freedom fighter and Statesman, Mr. Mandela was also a family man. He fathered six children and was married three times. The first marriage, a 13-year union with Evelyn Ntoko Mase, ended in 1957. Mr. Mandela then married Winnie Madikizela in 1958.

During that nearly 40-year union, Winnie became a global symbol of activism, carrying on the struggle for freedom while Mr. Mandela remained in prison. They were divorced in 1996. Mr. Mandela remarried again in 1998 to Graca Machel.

During his presidency, Mr. Mandela sought to establish diplomatic ties between South Africa and other nations.

Jamaica was among those countries he engaged, officially establishing diplomatic relations on September 9, 1994, three years after his first visit to the island, on the invitation of the  late former Prime Minister, the Most. Hon. Michael Manley.

To acknowledge his work, an honorary Doctorate degree was conferred on him by the University of the West Indies, and the Nelson Mandela Park in Half-Way Tree and Mandela Highway in St. Catherine were re-named in his honour. He made a second visit in 1998 to speak at the 19th CARICOM Heads of Government Meeting.

During Mr. Mandela’s tenure as President, South Africa and Jamaica explored bilateral relations, mainly in the areas of education and human resource development.

Negotiations for the establishment of a South African diplomatic mission to Jamaica came to fruition in 2000. Jamaica’s High Commission in that country was opened six years later.

Co-operation between both countries continued even after Mr. Mandela retired from public life.

Had it not been for the bravery and determination of  Mr. Mandela and other anti-apartheid campaigners, South Africa might have remained isolated, with few allies and opportunities for co-operation with other countries.

Not only did the inmate from cell 46664 made the transition from prisoner to President, he also put his country back on the road to economic prosperity.

“His greatest legacy, for me, will be his leadership and his example. His leadership…because of the way he was able to lead black South Africans or South Africans in general. His example, because he is somebody that sacrificed a lot in his life, because he was committed to an idea, to something greater than himself,” Dr. Okenve said.