Nelson Mandela has died, it has been confirmed tonight.
Madiba, as he was known, was the first post-apartheid President of South Africa, but he was far more than that. By the time I was born in 1970, Mandela had already been in prison for eight years for his leadership of the anti-Apartheid activists.
This week I was at a preview screening of the new movie Mandela: The Long Walk To Freedom, which goes on general release in January. The film assumes a little pre-knowledge of Mandela and the struggle against apartheid. But any film attempting to portray such a long life – a life of a person to whom, and through whom, so much happened that was truly momentous and historic, it can only cover events through a series of snapshots.
There were a number of poignant moments in the film. One is, of course, Mandela’s speech to the judge at his trial, just before sentencing, when he said:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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.”
The death penalty was expected. The judge wasn’t prepared to give him the satisfaction of martyrdom.
Another poignant moment in the film – and I don’t think this counts as a spoiler – is a conversation between Mandela and a prison guard. The guard asks Mandela how he will be marking his 70th birthday. “Nothing significant”, Mandela says, as the film cuts to the Free Nelson Mandela birthday party at Wembley Stadium with tens of thousands of people signing “The whole world’s watching.”
The story of Nelson Mandela is not the story of a comic-book saint: Mandela was no angel, but throughout his fight for freedom and fairness, and despite the brutality shown to him in and outside prison, Mandela realised that freedom for black South Africans wouldn’t come at the expense of white South Africans.
Freedom and security had to be freedom and security for all; and that is what he struggled to achieve. South Africa is not a perfect country. It is a young country and still has a lot to learn about being a nation and a state. But it has grown up fast in the years since Mandela and F W de Klerk took those first tentative steps towards reconciliation.
Goodnight, Madiba. You’ve walked the long walk to freedom. Now, rest in peace.