Today it is almost impossible to think of South Africa without mentioning Nelson Mandela. In fact, there is nearly no list of great world leaders that doesn’t contain his name, but his journey to fame wasn’t that easy. He rose from a poor herder known to the leader of ANC then called a terrorist organization then to the best president South Africa has ever known. This tough journey has some common facts known to all such as the Nobel prize in 1993, but some interesting underlying facts are rarely spoken of. With this list, as we remember this great man, we also get a view of the most interesting sides of Mandela’s life.
1. He was Friends with Muammar Gaddafi and Fidel Castro
Barack Obama referred to Nelson Mandela as the last great liberator of the 20th century, and many would agree. He, however, described Gaddafi and Fidel Castro as dictators that liberated their countries only to imprison the people in a different kind of bond. Nelson Mandela and his two friends lie on two opposite sides of leadership history. While Mandela is remembered as the man, who fostered democracy and willingly stepped down after his term as president, the later stay on the list as two of the worst dictators in history. Despite the paradox, Mandela himself confessed that there would be no South African democracy without Gaddafi. Their friendship is linked to Gaddafi’s support for ANC in money and weapons during their oppression by the Apartheid regime. The three remained friends even after NATO declared war on Gaddafi later deposing him. Maybe we don’t have to think the same way to be friends after all!
2. He Was on the US Terror Watch List Until 2008
This is a fact that the US government has tried to correct for years. It was an awkward position that associated the US government with support for Apartheid for years even though liberated South Africa is a great ally. His placement on the list was the idea of President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. This was based on the fight against Apartheid during which Mandela and other ANC leaders resorted to armed resistance after the Sharpeville massacre.
This decision was even more embarrassing for the CIA especially in 1990 when the whole world stood behind Mandela after his release from prison. He proved himself as a peaceful man after quelling the racial tensions in South Africa even forgiving the leaders of the apartheid government. However, even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, Mandela remained on the terrorist watch list for nearly two decades. Congress resorted to amending that position in 2008 passing a bill that was later approved by President George Bush.
3. He Refused 4 Offers to Be Released From Prison
Mandela spent 27 years in prison, but he could have been released over a decade earlier. The first time he refused an offer to be released alone because this would definitely make him a traitor. He was given two more offers on the condition that he drops ties to ANC and agrees to abolish any armed resistance against apartheid. The most popular offer was the 1985 president Botha offer. He was offered a release because of the increased international pressure for the president to abolish Apartheid.
The offer however still recognized Mandela and ANC as terrorists who would mean he was released as a disgrace but Mandela was focused on the bigger picture. He maintained his position that The government provoked armed resistance by ANC and he would not accept any conditions that did not legalize political parties and also abolish apartheid. Eighteen other prisoners, however, accepted the offer including Dennis Goldberg, the only white prisoner serving a sentence for sabotage at the time. His defiance paid off five years later as he was released from prison as the most famous man in the world at the time.
4. He Started the Famous ANC Military Wing
The Sharpeville massacre saw the apartheid government murder 69 unarmed civilians in cold blood. Most of them were high school students unarmed and harmless. As the world moaned with the black community in 1961, Mandela decided that enough was enough. He formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the nation), a front he would use to launch a militaristic resistance. He went out seeking financial and military support from Libya, Ethiopia, and Algeria. He had no military training himself, and neither did his followers. They acquired bombs and training for the fighters and clandestine operational support which led to the first stage of the industrial sabotage. He, however, didn’t plan to kill civilians, it was mostly about disrupting the government to get their attention. This move proved to be the turning point for Mandela and South Africa as a whole as he was declared a terrorist and subsequently arrested a year later.
5. Most South Africans Could Not Recognize Him Before 1990
By the end of 1990, almost every person in South Africa knew Nelson Mandela, but this was not the case months earlier. As the leader of ANC, Mandela spent many days running and hiding from the authorities. He had been banned from interacting with more than one person at a time which meant he could not address public gatherings. To further reduce his publicity, the government prohibited photos of him from being published in the media. It was illegal to be found with a picture of Mandela making him a mythological figure.
Between 1963 when he was imprisoned in Robben Island and 1990 when he was finally released, the only thing people knew was his name. Before his release, he was taken on a drive by one of the prison guards in the white neighborhoods of cape town and surprisingly, no one even recognized him. Even when he was allowed to stroll on the beach after his treatment, the people on the beach didn’t even glance at him. He remained a hero in name only until the people attached an image during his public addresses in 1990. Hope they didn’t release the wrong Mandela though!
6. He Was Disguised a Chauffeur When He Was Arrested
Mandela’s exceptional ability to escape from the police earned him the name The Black Pimpernel after a novel character with secret identities. He transformed into whatever person the police would not be looking for. His famous disguises as a chef and chauffeur on various occasions allowed him to stay on the run for 17 months. The heat on him, however, increased after he left South Africa for London and other countries to seek international support for the newly established ANC military wing. When he returned in 1952, he met with Cecil Williams a fellow activist to plan more sabotage, but someone had already sold him out to police. When the cops pulled up on him, he did not run because he figured they would shoot him on the spot. He gave them the name David Motsomayi, whoever that was! They, however, knew they had their man, so the officers played along for a few moments before arresting Mandela on charges of using stolen identity, leaving the country without a passport and organizing illegal rallies.
7. It Took Him 50 Years to Get a Law Degree
The law degree is probably the best thing Mandela received in prison, but it was five decades late. Mandela and Oliver Tambo established the first black law firm in Johannesburg, South Africa in August 1952. It helped black people accused by the apartheid regime to get some legal advice and help in court at the time when the government did not recognize them as equal human beings. However, Mandela didn’t have a law degree at the time. He used his 2-year law diploma to practice. He started studying law in 1939 at Fort Hare University where he was expelled two years later for starting a student riot.
He was later adopted by an attorney Lazar Skidelsky to work for him as an assistant while doing law as a correspondent course. The studies were on and off, but in 1943, he returned to the university and graduated with his BA before enrolling for the law degree. He was a terrible student though; he failed the final exams six times finally being denied a chance to retake in 1949. He failed several admissions and then got too involved in the resistance to continue studying. He eventually graduated in 1989 from prison.
8. He Was Named Nelson by His Teacher
Nelson Mandela was born Rolihlahla Dalibhunga. His first name Rolihlahla is Xhosa for pulling down a branch from a tree or being a troublemaker, and he sure lived up to it. When he was taken to Elementary school after his father’s death, his teacher Miss. Mdingane could not pronounce the name, so she chose a Christian name for him. It was also a common practice for children to be given English names since the colonial era as most colonial masters could not pronounce Xhosa names. Miss Mdingane decided to call him Nelson after the British Sailor Lord Nelson. This name stuck with him and became part of his legacy entirely suppressing his original name. His other names Madiba and Tata are all part of the Xhosa clan affiliations.
9. His First Job Was a Night Watchman
This marked one of the lowest points of Nelson Mandela’s life coming just after his expulsion from the university. When he got home after being expelled, Jongintaba, the Thembu chief who was his guardian after his father’s death had arranged a marriage for Mandela and his brother Justin. To escape the marriage, the brothers fled from the chief’s home to Johannesburg to look for a job. He met a fellow tribesman who got people jobs at a goldmine, and he helped him secure the position. He was given a club, a flashlight, a whistle and a round hat then assigned to search any black people coming to the mine for their pass. He also had to stand next to a dehumanizing sign labeled, “Beware, Natives crossing here.” It was however through this job that he met the ANC leaders and later became the local youth president.
10. He Was a Great Leader Even in the Horrible Prison
The first years in Robben Island were hell for all the political prisoners. Interaction with the outside world was prohibited entirely with allowance for only two letters a year. They were forced to work in a quarry with shovels and picks until their hands bled. The food was also horrible; black prisoners were only allowed one spoon of sugar while Indians and transracial prisoners received two. The blacks were not allowed any bread during the first decade of their imprisonment. Despite the cold temperatures, black prisoners were restricted to shorts; long trousers were only given to Indians and white prisoners.
The oppression led to protests that resulted in beatings, but Mandela endured it equally with fellow prisoners despite being considered their leader even in prison. He called himself a commoner that did not deserve any special treatment. At one point, the prisoners went on a hunger strike to protest, and Mandela got sick and weak, but he refused the guards’ offer to be exempted from the labor. Mandela fostered the protests that saw things change later giving equal portions of food and clothing for all prisoners and even allowing them to watch television.