Long walk to freedom and status of an icon

Nelson Mandela with talk-show host Oprah Winfrey in 2000
Nelson Mandela with talk-show host Oprah Winfrey in 2000
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NELSON Mandela’s long walk from freedom fighter and prisoner 46664 on the desolate Robben Island to become South Africa’s liberator, international statesman and global icon is over. The figurehead of the anti-apartheid movement passed away yesterday at the age of 95 after the final years of a tumultuous life were blighted by ailing health.

However, Mr Mandela’s status as one of the greatest and most inspirational leaders of the 20th century, a man who endeared himself to the world by showing no bitterness over his 27 years of incarceration, was illustrated by the sea of tears that were shed in South Africa – and the extraordinary tributes from monarchs, presidents and prime ministers that poured in from every continent.

They were epitomised by these words from Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town, who spearheaded the international campaign, along with Yorkshire politicians such as Richard Caborn, to secure Mr Mandela’s release from prison: “He inspired his people to walk the path of forgiveness and reconciliation rather than that of revenge and retribution.”

The father of a modern, democratic South Africa, and the country’s first black president, Mr Mandela’s death prompted an outpouring of grief here in Yorkshire, which was at the vanguard of the successful campaign for racial equality.

He was made an honorary freeman of Leeds during an official visit in 2001 in which he rededicated the city’s Mandela Garden, which first opened in 1983, and told wellwishers: “That’s one thing that makes me be in peace with myself, to be in peace with the entire world and to be in peace with the people of Leeds. I thank you very much.”

Such modesty – people queued for hours to catch a glimpse of their hero – may seem at odds with this one-time revolutionary who refused to accept South Africa’s racial segregation laws following the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, and said he was prepared to die in his struggle for equality and justice for all.

He nearly did. He contracted tuberculosis in prison and the inhumane conditions and harshness of the Robben Island regime, broke many men.

His humiliating ordeal – on a barren island less than 10 miles off the Cape Town coast – was, in many respects, the making of “Madiba”, a modern-day Gandhi. As sympathisers paid with their lives in their struggle against apartheid, Mr Mandela used his imprisonment to send coded messages to campaigners to prick the world’s conscience, to calculate how he could be a force for good in a troubled land once his opponents – Margaret Thatcher included – had yielded to humanity and public pressure.

Now, with Mr Mandela gone, many fear the death of this towering colossus may aggravate simmering racial tensions. Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s troubled president, lacks the moral authority of his predecessor.

The truth, however, is that Mandela set an unreasonably high bar. Two gestures in particular illustrate his strength of character. At his presidential inauguration in 1994 he invited his former white jailer as his personal VIP guest. And, when South Africa won an emotional rugby union world cup a year later, he wore the Springboks’ shirt of the side’s skipper Francois Pienaar. He had learned the intricacies of the sport in his tiny prison cell.

These were the hallmarks of a statesman who changed the world, and for the better, by taking the courageous step to put reconciliation before retribution. He had the courage to hold the hands of his oppressors when many would not have done so.

It can only be hoped that South Africa does not turn its back on Nelson Mandela’s legacy – and the opportunities that he created for the “Rainbow Nation”.