Imprisoned for 27 years, Mandela went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and establish himself as the country’s leading political figure.
We discussed Mandela’s legacy with Dr Vincent Hiribarren, a lecturer in world history at King’s College London, who specialises in African history.
Q: What, do you think, is Mandela’s legacy?
A: Mandela had a very long career, from the 1940s to the 1990s. It is important to remember that.
He fought against the apartheid state, leading different campaigns against it.
Along the way, he had to make some difficult choices. After a long trial from 1956 to 1961, he chose to create what was effectively a terrorist group. [In 1961 Mandela and other African National Congress (ANC) leaders formed a militia movement called Umkhonto we Sizwe, with Mandela as commander-in-chief.]
It’s very interesting that he chose to use violence. He later tried to explain why he chose this path. [Mandela told the Pretoria Supreme Court during his second trial in 1964: “I do not… deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence.
“I planned it as a result of a calm and sobre assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by the whites.”]
The Cold War context is also very important – just a few years earlier the focus was on Cuba, and then you had Mandela choosing to use violence, which explains why so many people in South African and abroad were reluctant to help Mandela in the 1960s.
It was also striking how Mandela then disappeared. For years, no one knew what he looked like. But then, in the 1980s, he became one of the world’s most famous prisoners.
He was made into a charismatic prisoner, who managed to internationalise the struggle. This was one of his main feats – he came to symbolise the struggle [against the apartheid regime]. From that point on, we all knew his story.
What is also impressive is how he managed to avoid civil war in South Africa. Many at the time would have argued there would be a civil war, but through his charisma and ability to negotiate, this was evaded.
He became South Africa’s main political figure. He became an icon, who symbolised the struggle against the racist, apartheid state.
He managed to bring people from different religions and ethnic backgrounds together. We are today witnessing the process of this nation building in South Africa – thanks to Mandela, 21st-century society knows it can be achieved; knows humanity can produce someone like Mandela.
Q: Do you think there will ever be anyone like Mandela again?
A: That is a very good question. We will need someone like him again – out of chaos and racism he emerged. But you cannot compare.
Q: What else did Mandela achieve during is life?
A: It’s important to note that as a young person he was very much for a black South Africa. But he changed his views in the 1950s, saying ‘we should embrace all races’.
And between the 1950s and 90s he became heavily involved in political activity.
Despite what happened to him, he was able to reconcile different views of the world.
Many people around the world knew who he was – when you think about the conflicts around the globe today, do we know as much about, say, Syria?
People everywhere knew about him and why the government was not releasing him. That was the result of work undertaken by him.
Q: How did you react when you heard last night that Mandela had died?
A: I have been teaching about his life for many years – you feel like you have a special link with him.
When you talk about South Africa, Mandela was the person holding everything together.
There are so many books, films, museums about him – the path was prepared for us. We have long been talking about him and his legacy.
I hope we learn from his story, and follow his path.