World prepares to praise Mandela at 90

As the world prepares to pay tribute to the inspirational Nelson Mandela on his 90th birthday, Political Editor Graham Dines looks back on the life and times of the terrorist turned honoured statesman.

Graham Dines

As the world prepares to pay tribute to the inspirational Nelson Mandela on his 90th birthday, Political Editor Graham Dines looks back on the life and times of the terrorist turned honoured statesman.

THE use of the word terrorist in the same breath as Nelson Mandela will be disputed angrily by billions across the globe. The man locked up for 27 years by the white supremacist regime of South Africa for daring to oppose apartheid should not be reviled but venerated.

But to the minority white separatist South Africans, he was a terrorist with whom in 1990 President F.W. de Klerk reluctantly recognised that he had to negotiate with when the burden of international pressure became too great to keep the blacks subjected any longer.


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“We never negotiate with terrorists” is the mantra of western governments. But that rule was broken time and again by the British in India, Palestine, Kenya and Cyprus as the empire crumbled to be transformed into a commonwealth of sovereign states.

De Klerk looked at these precedents as he came to realise the futility not only of trying to govern the blacks, but also of keeping Mandela in prison.

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On February 11 1990, Nelson Mandela walked from Victor Verster prison in Paarl to a rapturous reception. He resumed the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) and four years later became the 11th president of South Africa after the first multi-racial elections in the country's history.

Mr Mandela officially retired from politics nine years ago, but despite his age and worsening ill health he has continued to campaign around the world on Aids awareness and for peace and an end to poverty.

Tomorrow night, London's Hyde Park will rock to a concert 20 years after the Free Mandela gig at Wembley Stadium which celebrated his 70th birthday.

Music is a fitting way to honour the great man. Nelson Mandela's greatest pleasure, his most private moment, is watching the sun set with the music of Handel or Tchaikovsky playing.

Locked up in his cell during daylight hours, deprived of music, both these simple pleasures were denied him for decades. With his fellow prisoners, concerts were organised when possible, particularly at Christmas time, where they would sing.

Born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918 in a village near Umtata in South Africa's eastern Transkei, he was given the name Nelson - after Horatio Nelson, the hero of Trafalgar - apparently because one of his teachers could not pronounce his African name.

His father died when he was nine, leaving him to the care of the acting regent of the Thembu people.

Mr Mandela did not become fully involved in politics until he joined the ANC in 1943, first as an activist and then as founder and president of the ANC Youth League.

His life was transformed when the Afrikaner-dominated National Party introduced the apartheid policy of racial segregation to South Africa in 1948.

In 1952 he opened a law practice in Johannesburg with his friend, Oliver Tambo, and the pair began campaigning against the oppression of the black majority.

Along with 155 other activists, Mr Mandela was charged with high treason in 1956 but the charges against him were dropped after a four-year trial.

Resistance to apartheid grew with the introduction of new “pass laws” dictating where blacks were allowed to live and work. And then South Africa hit the international headlines - the massacre of 69 blacks, shot dead by police in the 1960, and the outlawing of the ANC led to the nation becoming an international pariah.

Mr Mandela, by now national vice-president of the ANC, launched a sabotage campaign against the economy for which he was eventually arrested. He defended himself in court against charges of sabotage and attempting to violently overthrow the government, but was sentenced to life in prison in 1964.

He was imprisoned on Robben Island, off the coast near Cape Town, for 18 years before being transferred to the mainland in 1982. His health was deteriorating as he fought prostate cancer and in 1985, the then-president PW Botha offered him conditional release in return for renouncing armed struggle.

Mr Mandela's reply was succinct. “What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.”

It was to be another five years before Botha's replacement, FW de Klerk, lifted the ban on the ANC and released Mr Mandela.

International recognition for the successful struggle for freedom came in December 1993 when de Klerk and Mandela were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mandela has been married three times and fathered six children. His first marriage, to Evelyn Mase, lasted from 1944 to 1957, and the following year he wed Winnie Madikizela, who later played an active role in the campaign to free her husband from prison.

Divorced in 1996, Mandela married his third wife, Graca Machel, widow of the former president of Mozambique, on his 80th birthday in 1998.

His old age has not been trouble-free: he was treated again for prostate cancer in 2001 and in 2005 his eldest son, lawyer Makgatho Mandela, 54, died of Aids-related complications.

Tomorrow, London and the United Kingdom honour a man once reviled as a terrorist but who now is respected and welcomed by heads of state everywhere,

Hyde Park's concert will include performers including Queen, Leona Lewis, Razorlight,, Amy Winehouse (if she is well enough) and the Sugababes.

The crowd will number 46,664 people - a poignant reminder that 46664 was Mandela's number during his imprisonment for all those years on Robben Island.

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