Wednesday, January 13, 2010


I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists. I tell them that I was also a terrorist yesterday, but, today, I am admired by the very people who said I was one.

Quote from Nelson Mandela on Larry King Live, May 16, 2000

Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18th, 1918 in Mvezo, a village in the Mtata district of South Africa. His parents were Gadla Mphakanyisawa, the chief of Mvezo and his wife Nosekeni. Mandela is a member of the Thembu people of the Xhosa nation. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela details the history of his ancestry. That is something most Africans in the Diaspora cannot do because of the legacy of slavery. In Long Walk to Freedom he explains; “Each Xhosa belongs to a clan that traces its descent back to a specific forefather. I am a member of the Madiba clan, named after a Thembu chief who ruled in the Transkei in the eighteenth century. I am often addressed as Madiba, my clan name, a term of respect.”

When Mandela was an infant his father was stripped of his hereditary chieftainship by a white colonial magistrate. Chief Gadla Mphakanyisawa of Mvezo did not recognize the assumed power of the white interloper settlers in his country and he suffered for that principled stand. Refusing to accept that the magistrate representing the king of England had any legitimate power over him, he was charged with insubordination. In Long Walk to Freedom Mandela writes; “There was no inquiry or investigation; that was reserved for white civil servants. The magistrate simply deposed my father, thus ending the Mandela family chieftainship. My father who was a wealthy nobleman by the standards of his time, lost both his fortune and his title. He was deprived of most of his herd and land and the revenue that came with them.” His family was forced to move to Qunu, the village where Mandela spent his childhood.

Mandela was educated by his people before he entered the white supremacist school system when he was seven years old. He has written that the education he received was a British education, in which British ideas, British culture, British institutions, were automatically assumed to be superior. On his first day of school he was given the name “Nelson” to replace his African name, Rolihlahla. The education Mandela received in the British education system is obviously not the education which inspired him to become a leader in the African National Congress (ANC). The education he received from his community before he entered the education system came from his father who refused to abandon the traditions of his people. “My father remained aloof from Christianity and instead reserved his own faith for the great spirit of the Xhosas, Qamata, the God of his fathers.”

Mandela wrote about the influence of the stories his mother told him as well as the history of his people that he learned from an elder griot, Chief Joyi. “Chief Joyi railed against the white man, who he believed had deliberately sundered the Xhosa tribe, dividing brother from brother. The white man had told the Thembus that their true chief was the great white queen across the ocean and that they were her subjects. But the white queen brought nothing but misery and perfidy to the black people, and if she was a chief she was an evil chief. Chief Joyi's war stories and his indictment of the British made me feel angry and cheated, as though I had already been robbed of my own birthright. Chief Joyi said that the African people lived in relative peace until the coming of the abelungu, the white people, who arrived from across the sea with fire-breathing weapons. Once, he said, the Thembu, the Mpondo, the Xhosa, and the Zulu were all children of one father, and lived as brothers. The white man shattered the ubuntu, the fellowship, of the various tribes. The white man was hungry and greedy for land, and the black man shared the land with him as they shared the air and water; land was not for man to possess. But the white man took the land as you might seize another man's horse.” The queen referred to in Chief Joyi’s reminiscences was Victoria who ruled the British Empire, including the African countries that had been colonized, from 1837 to 1901.

In spite of the British education he received at the several schools he attended, Mandela was educated in the knowledge of his people’s system of governance partly through his father’s involvement with the Thembu royal family. “My father has sometimes been referred to as the prime minister of Thembuland during the reigns of Dalindyebo, the father of Sabata, who ruled in the early 1900s and that of his son, Jongintaba, who succeeded him. As a respected and valued counselor to both kings, he accompanied them on their travels and was usually to be found by their sides during important meetings with government officials. He was an acknowledged custodian of Xhosa history and it was partially for that reason that he was a valued adviser.”

Refusing to be contented living as a second class citizen in the country of his birth cost Mandela dearly. In his struggle to ensure the human and civil rights for Africans in South Africa, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment on June 11 1964 where he remained until February 11th, 1990. He was not allowed to attend his mother’s funeral in 1968 or the funeral of his eldest son Thembekile who died in a car accident in 1969. Spending almost three decades in prison, Mandela may well have been forgotten by the world except that the amazing woman he had married shortly before being sentenced to life imprisonment would not allow that to happen. Mandela has acknowledged the role that Nomzamo “Winnie” Madikizela-Mandela played in the anti-apartheid struggle. “My former wife is a remarkable person whom I respect even today. She suffered a great deal and kept the name Mandela alive when I was in jail. She also looked after my children and played a very prominent role in the struggle.” In “Part of My Soul Went With Him” published in 1985, Madikizela-Mandela documented that struggle including the years of police brutality, false imprisonment and harassment by the white supremacist culture of the minority settler community of whites in South Africa.

Since Mandela’s release from prison and his election as South Africa’s first legitimate President, the world has celebrated his capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation. He has received accolades, honorary degrees and statues have been erected in his honour. A birthday celebration to recognize his 90th birthday was held at Hyde Park in London, England on Friday, June 27th. I wonder how many of those at the birthday party had once labelled Mandela a terrorist when he was fighting for the freedom of his people.
Written in July 2008

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