One hundred years ago, on this day in the dusty little village of Mvezo in Transkei, a child was born to Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Henry Mandela and Nonqaphi Fanny Nosekeni.
One of 13 siblings – four brothers and nine sisters – the baby boy was given the forename Rolihlahla, which means “troublemaker” in isiXhosa, and considering what Rolihlahla achieved in later life, that name was prescient.
A patrilineal descendent of the royal house of Thembu – his great-grandfather, Ngubengcuka, was king of the Thembu people – Rolihlahla is better known by his clan name, Madiba.
Madiba grew up in his mother’s village, Qunu, which is where he settled into retirement after serving a single term as the first democratically elected president of the Republic of South Africa.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s early years were customary for the time and his standing.
He was earmarked to become a counsellor/advisor to the Thembu king, but after fleeing Transkei to escape an arranged marriage, he completed a BA degree he’d started at the University of Fort Hare, through the University of South Africa. He returned to Fort Hare for his graduation in 1943.
It was during this time in Johannesburg, that he first experienced naked racism and thus commenced his political awakening.
He embarked upon a course that would literally shape history, and seize the imagination of the world.
While it would be foolish to suggest that Madiba single-handedly brought apartheid to its knees – he was one of many struggle leaders in the ANC, SACP and PAC – he was the person who, by his carefully formulated strategies, seized the moment and became the living icon of the struggle.
To this day, his three-hour address to the Johannesburg High Court on April 20 1964 at the conclusion of the Rivonia Trial, which he delivered in traditional Xhosa garb, is recognised as the turning point in recognition of the struggle, locally and internationally.
“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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 for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
These stirring words, so carefully crafted by Madiba, rang loudly around the world, and set the stage for the keeping alive of the struggle, despite the incarceration of much of the struggle leadership after the Rivonia Trial.
In his book Long Walk to Freedom, Madiba writes about his time on Robben Island, and how he wrestled with his anger against the apartheid regime.
He never lost hope that the struggle would triumph in his lifetime, but he vacillated between angry and vengeful on the one hand, and forgiving and conciliatory on the other.
During 27 years of brutal incarceration, he was impossibly cruelly treated with the intention of breaking his spirit, because the apartheid regime clearly understood the magnitude of the threat he posed to its continued hegemony and the subjugation of black people.
Aside from the physical impact of hard labour breaking rocks in the Robben Island quarry, the punishment was also psychological and emotional.
He seldom saw his wife, Winnie, or his family, and he was forbidden from attending the funerals of his mother in 1968 or his first-born son, Thembi, who died in 1969.
That he chose the path of forgiveness and reconciliation when he walked out of Victor Verster Prison on the afternoon of Sunday February 11 1990, with Winnie at his side, and his clenched right fist raised in victory, is arguably the principal reason that a bloodbath was averted.
His presidency has been much criticised, because, some say, he “sold out the black people’s struggle”, and he was not hands-on in the day-to-day running of the country, leaving that to his deputy, the technocratic Thabo Mbeki.
But what was the alternative? After Umkhonto we Sizwe commander Chris Hani was assassinated on April 10 1993, just one year short of the first democratic election, Madiba pulled the country back from the brink of civil war.
If, as those who call him a sell-out had their way, and bloody insurrection had ensued, who would have ultimately won that war?
As we look back on what we have achieved as a nation since 1994 – and opinions vary widely on this front – we must ask the inevitable question: would we have been better off with an angry, vengeful Madiba who lived up to his given name, “troublemaker”, rather than the Madiba we had – conciliatory, forgiving, generous of spirit, inspiring, human?