I’ve chosen some excerpts from an excellent New York Times article written by BILL KELLER about this remarkable man I didn’t know and helps me understand he was a human, neither black, nor white, neither saint nor sinner.
- “He was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, a tiny village of cows, corn and mud huts in the rolling hills of the Transkei, a former British protectorate in the south. His given name, he enjoyed pointing out, translates colloquially as “troublemaker.” He received his more familiar English name from a teacher when he began school at age 7. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a chief of the Thembu people, a subdivision of the Xhosa nation.
Nine years later, on the death of his father, young Nelson was taken into the home of the paramount chief of the Thembu — not as an heir to power, but in a position to study it. He would become worldly and westernized, but some of his closest friends would always attribute his regal self-confidence (and his occasional autocratic behavior) to his upbringing in a royal household.”
- “Unlike many black South Africans, whose confidence had been crushed by generations of officially proclaimed white superiority, Mr. Mandela never seemed to doubt that he was the equal of any man. “The first thing to remember about Mandela is that he came from a royal family,” said Ahmed Kathrada, an activist who shared a prison cellblock with Mr. Mandela and was part of his inner circle. “That always gave him a strength.”’
- “On returning to his home village, he learned that his family had chosen a bride for him. Finding the woman unappealing and the prospect of a career in tribal government even more so, he ran away to the black metropolis of Soweto, following other young blacks who had left mostly to work in the gold mines around Johannesburg.”
- “Mr. Mandela, though he never completed his law degree, opened the first black law partnership in South Africa with Mr. Tambo. He took up amateur boxing, rising before dawn to run roadwork. Tall and slim, he was also somewhat vain. He wore impeccable suits, displaying an attention to fashion that would much later be evident in the elegantly bright loose shirts of African cloth that became his trademark.”
- “During his years as a young lawyer in Soweto, Mr. Mandela married a nurse, Evelyn Ntoko Mase, and they had four children, including a daughter who died at 9 months. But the demands of his politics kept him from his family. Compounding the strain was his wife’s joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a sect that abjures any participation in politics. The marriage grew cold and ended with abruptness.”
- “He said, ‘Evelyn, I feel that I have no love for you anymore,’ ” his first wife said in an interview for a documentary film. “ ‘I’ll give you the children and the house.’ ”
- “Not long afterward, a friend introduced him to Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela, a stunning and strong-willed medical social worker 16 years his junior. Mr. Mandela was smitten, declaring on their first date that he would marry her. He did so in 1958, while he and other activists were in the midst of a marathon trial on treason charges. His second marriage would be tumultuous, producing two daughters and a national drama of forced separation, devotion, remorse and acrimony.”
- “South Africa’s rulers were determined to put Mr. Mandela and his comrades out of action. In 1956, he and scores of other dissidents were arrested on charges of treason. The state botched the prosecution, and after the acquittal Mr. Mandela went underground. Upon his capture he was charged with inciting a strike and leaving the country without a passport. His legend grew when, on the first day of that trial, he entered the courtroom wearing a traditional Xhosa leopard-skin cape to underscore that he was an African entering a white man’s jurisdiction.”
- “Mr. Mandela was 44 when he was manacled and put on a ferry to the Robben Island prison. He would be 71 when he was released.”
- “The routine on Robben Island was one of isolation, boredom and petty humiliations, met with frequent shows of resistance. By day the men were marched to a limestone quarry, where the fine dust stirred up by their labors glued their tear ducts shut.”
- “But in some ways prison was less arduous than life outside in those unsettled times. For Mr. Mandela and others, Robben Island was a university. In whispered conversations as they hacked at the limestone, and in tightly written polemics handed from cellblock to cellblock, the prisoners debated everything from Marxism to circumcision.”
- “Mr. Mandela learned Afrikaans, the language of the dominant whites, and urged other prisoners to do the same.”