Why we remember Nelson Mandela

I was watching the movie ‘The Bucket List’ (starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman) yesterday. My little brother, who knows Morgan Freeman only from his TV show, ‘Into the Wormhole’, came and sat beside. He looked at Morgan Freeman and said, ‘He looks like Nelson Mandela.’

I smiled.

And today morning, while I was still in bed, he came and broke out  the news.

I didn’t smile this time.

The reason was obvious. When inspiring individuals breathe their last, we feel bad. We try to remember what all they had done and accomplished, and why they were revered the world over.

Inspiring individuals actually never die. They create something so incredible, that even death fails in erasing them from the memories of people. They only become physically absent, for their endeavours will remain eternal.

Fight against Apartheid

Apartheid was a form of inhumane discrimination which was followed in South Africa. In the native language, ‘apartheid’ means ‘separateness’. The people were separated on the basis of their colour, and the Whites enjoyed more freedom than the coloured; freedom from discrimination, suffering and punishments.

The Blacks were deprived of their citizenship. The quality of life the Blacks received from the government was very well lower than that of the Whites. There were separate schools, hospitals and shops for the Blacks. Even the public transport system operated separately for the Blacks.

The cruelest thing about this discrimination was the difference in laws. For the same kind of crime, the Blacks were heavily penalized while the Whites were allowed to walk free or were lightly reprimanded.

The Blacks and the coloured could take it no more. They began their protests against apartheid in the form of passive resistance (similar to Civil Disobedience in the Indian Independence Movement), courageously led by Nelson Mandela. ‘Passes’ were issued to all the Blacks forbidding them from leaving their own districts without them. In one such incident of passive resistance, Mandela burnt his own pass in the broad view of the public.

Mandela’s commitment towards politics and the fight against apartheid strengthened when apartheid became a system of governance in 1948. With the help of his party, ANC (African National Congress, which he had joined in 1944), he sought to fight racial discrimination through civil disobedience and non violent methods. He believed that the path of non-violence laid by Mahatma Gandhi to fight injustice, was not just proper, but also pragmatic and sensible.

Mandela chose to change his ways and follow violent forms of protest when the Sharpeville massacre materialized in 1960, killing around 70 peaceful black protestors. Riots and anger swept the country and the ANC was banned by the apartheid government.

A sabotage campaign and armed resistance movement were launched against the apartheid government, under Mandela’s leadership.


“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela, along with other supporters was charged for treason, sabotage and violent conspiracy against the government, and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

 He had spent about 3 decades of his life in imprisonment. The prisons he had been into showed similar, and in some cases worse forms of discrimination he had faced outside. He was forced to do hard labour in the quarries; and being a black earned him low wages and disrespectful treatment.

In his prison years, Mandela served as a mentor to his fellow prisoners. He encouraged them to seek better treatment through peaceful means and non violent methods.

It was in his prison years when he had drafted his autobiography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ which was published five years post his release.

As the first Black President of South Africa

Nelson Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which sought to investigate the injustices and unfair treatments faced by the Blacks during the apartheid years. He started various social and economic programs to improve the living standards of the black population; and worked towards improving relations between races and discouraged the blacks from making violent protests or retaliating against the white minorities.

Mandela retired from politics in 1999, after his first term as the President.

He had been one of the many inspiring individuals all over the globe who saw sense in the teachings and practices of Mahatma Gandhi.

“I could never reach the standard of morality, simplicity and love for the poor set by the Mahatma…While Gandhi was a human without weaknesses, I am a man of many weaknesses.”

Mandela was  awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1990 (the only second non-Indian to get the award), the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, the International Gandhi Peace Prize in 2001 for his exemplary work for promotion of peace and non-violence, and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, amongst over 250 other honours.

Some of them were frightened. Some of them were angered. Some of them were pained. But all of them were equally discriminated. All of them were devoid of freedom and the right to live free was snatched from them. Apartheid appeared like an inexorable journey into the trenches of darkness.

Nelson Mandela was prepared to give all of them hope. He led them. He chose to break free from the shackles of racial inequalities.

 And he did.