For this month’s Gladiator Spotlight, we felt compelled to give tribute to man who truly exhibited gladiator-like qualities. He was able to rise above his own sinful inclinations and strive to be better—and by his doing so, he inspired a nation to change their course of thinking and promoted unity in a world and system of chaos. This is the man we have fondly come to know simply as Mandela.
A lawyer, social activist, militant, political prisoner, president, philanthropist, and humanitarian, Nelson Mandela led a life dedicated to the cause of ending the racist white regime’s stranglehold on the throats of his black brothers and sisters. Mandela’s years of imprisonment and the cries of “Free Mandela!” would cast him into an international spotlight and force the world to acknowledge his plight and call for his freedom. However, the cries would fall on deaf ears and his freedom would be hindered by global superpowers who, because of his Marxist views, considered him a communist terrorist. By bending to the will of his captors, Mandela could have saved himself, yet he refused to compromise his beliefs or the movement to end the struggle of his people.
His fight with the reign of apartheid, a system of segregation put in place by the governing powers designed to keep South African blacks oppressed, would end with his release from unlawful imprisonment and his rise as that nation’s first black president.
The road to freeing his people would be a long and arduous one for the young man, who first needed to liberate himself by fleeing his home of tribal royalty and escaping to Johannesburg to avoid arranged marriages set up by his adopted father. After only one year in that city, Mandela began to attend meetings conducted by the African National Council (ANC), a party formed to increase the rights of black South Africans. Two years later, he helped found the ANC Youth League, whose purpose was to oppose apartheid through strikes, demonstrations, and civil disobedience—thus taking themselves down the revolutionary road.
In response to the actions of these groups, the South African government introduced the Suppression of Communism Act, as the ANC had some communist affiliations (they had tried to secure arms from the People’s Republic of China, but failed, as China did not believe they were ready for guerrilla warfare), and the Public Safety Act, designed to agitate protesters. The government’s efforts came to fruition and Mandela and 21 others were arrested and found guilty of statutory communism. They were sentenced to nine months of hard labor; suspended for two years.
Mandela was banned from speaking publicly on more than one occasion.
During this time, Mandela was banned from speaking publicly on more than one occasion. His views had already been influenced by reading Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, but now they became increasingly militant as he engrossed himself in the works of Che Guevara and Chairman Mao. With the authorities ever watchful of his movements, he began to go out in disguise as a chauffeur, earning the nickname “The Black Pimpernel,” a derivative from Baroness Orczy’s novel The Scarlet Pimpernel, and when Fidel Castro successfully executed his revolution on Cuba, he was motivated to co-found the militant group “Spear of the Nation.” This was an armed group mainly comprised of white communists.
This group engaged itself in acts of sabotage. They bombed power plants and military installations. They promoted all efforts to act as an agitation to the government without the loss of human life, but should they have to go down that path, they were prepared to perform acts of terror, as they did on Dingane’s Day, a South African religious holiday, where the group set off 57 bombs. The motive was to speak to the government in violence, the only language it understood. They hit the government where it mattered the most—their coffers. With each government building or utility they destroyed, more money was spent on rebuilding.
Through the ANC, Mandela embarked on a tour of Africa. He went to Ethiopia, Morocco, Egypt, Libya, Senegal, and others to speak and raise money to acquire arms. Upon his return to South Africa, Mandela was arrested for leaving the country without a passport and inciting workers to strike. Several groups were assumed to have informed authorities as to Mandela’s activities, even the CIA, but these allegations never proved true. Mandela represented himself at trial, with a close friend as a legal adviser. On the first day of trial, Mandela entered wearing a kaross, an animal skin with the skin still on, to display that he was a black man entering a white man’s jurisdiction. Mandela was found guilty of these crimes and sentenced to five years of imprisonment.
Mandela entered wearing a kaross, an animal skin with the skin still on, to display that he was a black man entering a white man’s jurisdiction.
Soon after his trial, the police conducted a raid on a farm in Rivonia, where pictures, documents, and letters were found, many of the letters in Mandela’s handwriting. He was brought back to trial with several co-conspirators on charges of of sabotage and trying to overthrow the government, a capital offense that carried the death penalty. Mandela freely admitted that he was the leader of Spear of the Nation and that the group was involved in acts of sabotage, but denied that his organization had any plans or conspired to overthrow the government. Knowing they would be found guilty, they did not address the court in their defense, but instead made a public plea to the world. This almost worked, as the United Nations and other world organizations asked that they be granted clemency, but the courts would hear none of this and sentenced Mandela and two others to life in prison.
Nelson Mandela was sent to Robben Island in 1964 and he would remain there until 1982. On the island, Mandela was put to work in the lime quarry, condemned to hard labor. While inside, he kept up his work to abolish apartheid in the prison system by getting fellow inmates to take part in work and hunger strikes. He began working on his law degree through a correspondence school in London, and took to mentoring the younger political activists who were sent to serve time on the island. As a political prisoner, conditions were harsh, food was scarce, and abuse was plentiful. Through it all, he always treated his tormentors with regard and respect, and eventually, some of the guards came to treat him the same.
In 1982, Mandela was sent to Pollsmoor Prison. He would stay there until 1988. Here, conditions and food were better and he was allowed more visits and letters; on Robben Island, he was allowed one visit and one letter every six months. In 1985, feeling global pressure, South African president P.W. Botha offered to release Mandela if he “unconditionally rejected violence as a political weapon,” but these terms would not do. In that same year, Mandela underwent surgery for an enlarged prostate, and was once again offered release from prison under the same condition but he again refused.
Through it all, he always treated his tormentors with regard and respect, and eventually, some of the guards came to treat him the same.
Toward the end of his imprisonment, he was transferred to Victor Verster Prison due to health reasons. With Botha out of office and F.W. de Klerk as the new South African president, all ANC prisoners were released, except for Mandela. Soon afterward, Klerk legalized the ANC and released Mandela, ending a 27-year prison stay. Mandela and de Klerk worked together to end apartheid in South Africa and, jointly, they received the Nobel Peace Prize. Nelson Mandela went on to become president of South Africa, where he served a single term and did not run for re-election. Mandela now advocated non-violent reform.
At Mandela’s funeral, President Obama, in his eulogy, exalted him as “the last great liberator of the 20th century,” giving him a place of honor among liberators who came before him such as Toussaint L’Overture, whose all-black slave army defeated Napoleon to win their freedom and make the tiny island country of Haiti the first free black nation in the western hemisphere, and Simon Bolivar, who fought to remove Spain’s hold on South America and helped abolish slavery on that continent. Mandela was a true freedom fighter and a liberator of people, but it was not until this “modern gladiator” put down his sword that the world truly began to hear his message.
Although not perfect, Mandela was able to rise against his own shortcomings and promote a stance that was unpopular, even among some of his constituents. He choose to promote unity through a non-violent position and to forgive those who had wrongly oppressed him for many years. His willingness to forgive his oppressors should stand as a true testament to the man that he became and the great leader that he went on to be. Regardless of your view of Mandela, none can argue this—that through his endurance, love, patience, and forgiveness he was able to set an example of how we ought to deal with others even in the face of intense provocation. Violence only begets violence, but love is always triumphant!
the last great liberator of the 20th century