Who will meet you when you pass your last breath and cross to whatever lies beyond this life? Will you meet friends, foes, family or beloved pets? In death there are three main things to fear – the pain involved in your passing, how you will be remembered to history and what waits for you beyond. The first is purely practical and ultimately of limited consequence; the second is ego but of equally little consequence once we are no longer here to plead our reputation; the final is what truly matters. If you believe that there is nothing after death, that the soul does not exist and that you simply cease to be, then there’s nothing to fear beyond the veil; perhaps if you don’t believe in something beyond this corporeal form that you now inhabit, you do cease to be and no-one, nothing waits for you beyond.
You may believe that the actions of our lives amount to nothing when we die, but I do not. Whatever we find in the moment beyond this life will be a product of our past choices – even spiritual obliteration, if the premise of belief in an afterlife is crucial to the spirit continuing. Now, with the passing of South Africa’s great anti-racism campaigner and unifier, Nelson Mandela is meeting with the product of his life’s choices. And whilst Mandela lived the last twenty years of his life as the elder statesman of his nation, a compassionate and unifying man, he was not always so.
Nelson Mandela was a co-founder of Umkhonto we Sizwe, otherwise known as Spear of the Nation, in conjunction with the South African Communist Party. Umkhonto we Sizwe was an armed militia, focused upon sabotage of infrastructure, including government posts and power facilities. Having reached his thirtieth year by the time the 1948 elections were held and already politically active, Mandela found his world narrowed further from the standard ubiquitous racism of his youth to the more formal, legalized segregation that was apartheid. His leadership role in the formation of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League in 1944 and elevation to the ANC National Executive Committee in 1950, Mandela was in fact against a racially selective approach to combating racial segregation in South Africa. However, with his election to the Presidency of the Congress and the increasingly unified black protest front spurred on by the South African Communist Party, Mandela accepted the direction of the tide and actively participated. He came to embrace communism and aimed to follow the non-violent path of Mahatma Ghandi. At every turn however, the incumbent government instituted more new laws making it increasingly difficult for Mandela or any of his political colleagues to talk to the crowds about segregation and equality. By 1955, having failed to prevent the destruction of Sophiatown inhabited only by blacks, Mandela felt that black South Africans would not see an end to racism and apartheid without armed conflict. It would take another six years for the creation of Umkhonto we Sizwe to be realized.
By 1962, Mandela was imprisoned for leaving the country without a passport and by 1963 evidence was found that linked him to the activities of Umkhonto we Sizwe. Mandela admitted to planning sabotage forays, but not to initiating guerilla warfare; he was sentenced in 1964 to life imprisonment. And so began 27 years of internment, during which time the incumbent white government furnished South Africa with a hero and role model. In refusing to be bowed by circumstances, Mandela became leader for all political prisoners. In 1985, Mandela refused to denounce violence as a means to effect political change, stating:
“What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people [ANC] remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.”
It was in this period that Mandela had reached international prominence and that the political isolation of South Africa through economic sanctions truly began to bite. In February 1990, F.W. de Klerk released Mandela, his fellow inmates having been released the previous year. The formerly banned ANC was afforded legal legitimacy and all charges against Mandela were dropped. Although Mandela looked to a unified nation, he still did not rule out armed conflict as a means of self defence.
Onward he went to see the end of apartheid, free elections and the presidency all in a short space of time. A lifetime spent fighting for freedom, realizing, at least partially, his ambition for equality.
South Africa continues to have significant troubles and it will take many more years of effort to balance the scales of justice. But Nelson Mandela did more than his fair share for mankind, sacrificing his health, his family, for the ideal. He is unequalled in stature having survived the regimes that took his contemporaries Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Whatever accounting Mandela must do examining the scales of his life, I doubt any of us would deny that he changed the world for better. In this, his legacy is sealed and his rest deserved. Farewell sir. May your reunions be joyous, your rest unencumbered and your eternity free from worry.