Nelson Mandela died today at the age 95.
Mandela became the head of the African National Congress in 195o, when it was a radical group. He soon became a communist, and in time became convinced that there was no path forward except through “armed and violent resistance“. He began to actively plot the overthrow the government by violent means, with the intention of setting up a government modeled on Castro’s Cuba. However, as he could not procure the necessary weapons to bring his revolution into fruition, he was in large part a failure. In 1962, he was captured and arrested. He was tried twice: Once for inciting strikes and leaving the country illegally, and once for sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. He received a five-year sentence in the first trial, and life imprisonment in the second.
From 1962 to 1982, his home was the prison on Robben Island, where conditions were exceedingly harsh and he spent his time breaking rocks. In 1982, he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, which had better conditions. In 1988, because of his declining health, he was transferred once again, to Victor Verster Prison.
While he was in prison, he became celebrated as a martyr by many people on the left and by anti-Apartheid activists around the world. Given that he was guilty of his crimes and that the future he envisioned when he went to prison in 1962 was one of violence, bloodshed, revenge, division, hatred, and in the end, enslavement, this was a curious phenomenon. He was no Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Far from it. By any measure, he deserved to be in prison.
Yet, even as the world had gone through momentous changes, both he and other ANC leaders had gone through tremendous changes while in prison, especially on Robben Island. Mandela began going to Christian services (though he studied Islam, as well). He and the other prisoners began to educate and debate each other, forming what the called the University of Robben Island. And, while he was only allowed one personal visit per year, politicians and dignitaries from around the world were allowed to meet with him. Apparently, even Billy Graham visited him.
In 1989, the new president of South Africa, F. W. de Klerk became convinced that Apartheid should be ended. No doubt hearing the hearts and minds of the ANC leadership had changed while in prison, he released all of them except Mandela. Then, he met privately with Mandela, and was delighted to discover that Mandela had changed as well. In short order, Mandela was released from prison, the ANC was legalized, and Apartheid was lifted.
In 1994, Mandela was elected president of South Africa. As president, he sought reconciliation between the different groups within South Africa, and promoted peace in his country. He forgave his political enemies, including his jailers, and set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate crimes committed during Apartheid by both the government, and by the ANC.
Somehow while in prison, Mandela had been able to rise above–to transcend–the man he had been before. In doing so, he grasped greatness.
Nelson Mandela, RIP.