The great Nelson Mandela transitioned from this life on December 5, 2013 at the age of 95. The people of South Africa and the world have lost one of the most significant leaders of our time. Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in Mveso, Transkei, South Africa. Becoming actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement in his 20s, Mandela joined the African National Congress in 1942. For 20 years, he directed a campaign of peaceful, nonviolent defiance against the South African government and its racist policies.
It was in the winter of 1964, that Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island where he would spend 18 of his 27 prison years. Confined to a small cell, the floor his bed, a bucket for a toilet, he was forced to do hard labor in a quarry. He was allowed one visitor a year for 30 minutes. He could write and receive one letter every six months. But Robben Island became the crucible which transformed him. Through his intelligence, charm and dignified defiance, Mandela eventually bent even the most brutal prison officials to his will, assumed leadership over his jailed comrades and became the master of his own prison. He emerged from it the mature leader who would fight and win the great political battles that would create a new democratic South Africa.
Nelson Mandela was not only the preeminent leader for social justice in South Africa, but his social justice advocacy encouraged peoples throughout the world to believe that in spite of oppression, degradation and blatant racism, there could be hope that went beyond our understanding. In 1993, Mandela and South African President F.W. de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to dismantle the country’s apartheid system. In 1994, Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president. In 2009, Mandela’s birthday (July 18) was declared “Mandela Day” to promote global peace and celebrate the South African leader’s legacy.
He had a cameo in a Spike Lee film: He had a bit part in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic “Malcolm X.” At the very end of the movie, he plays a teacher reciting Malcolm X’s famous speech to a room full of Soweto school kids. But the pacifist Mandela wouldn’t say “by any means necessary.” So Lee cut back to a footage of Malcolm X to close out the film.
He was a master of disguise: When Mandela was eluding authorities during his fight against apartheid, he disguised himself in various ways, including as a chauffeur. The press nicknamed him “the Black Pimpernel” because of his police evasion tactics. “I became a creature of the night. I would keep to my hideout during the day, and would emerge to do my work when it became dark,” he says in his biography, “Long Walk to Freedom.”
His favorite dish is probably not yours: He’s been wined and dined by world leaders. But what Mandela loved eating most was tripe. Yup, the stomach lining of farm animals.
He quit his day job: He studied law at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and opened the nation’s first black law firm in Johannesburg in 1952.
He was on the U.S. terror watch list: Mandela wasn’t removed from the U.S. terror watch list until 2008 — at age 89. He and other members of the African National Congress were placed on it because of their militant fight against apartheid.
He drew his inspiration from a poem: While locked up at Robben Island for decades, Mandela would read William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” to fellow prisoners. The poem, about never giving up, resonated with Mandela for its lines “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” You may know it from the movie, Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela.