Nelson Mandela: From Prisoner to President to Peacemaker
How can a prison number be used to create hope for the millions of people suffering from HIV/AIDS?
When human rights activist Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for his efforts to end apartheid, he was given identification number 46664 (pronounced four double six, six four)
because he was the 466th prisoner to arrive in the year ’64.
He was released twenty-seven years later and went on to become South Africa’s first black president. Since then, his prison number has become synonymous with his worldwide charity efforts and humanitarianism, including the global HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention campaign, as well as the extraordinary concerts to raise money for the campaign.
The mission of The Mandela Foundation, established after Mandela’s retirement from office, is to contribute “to the making of a just society by promoting the vision, values and work of its Founder and convening dialogue around critical social issues.” Two sister charity organizations, The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, are also aligned with this mission.
According to Avert, an international HIV and AIDS charity based in the UK, an estimated 22.5 million people in sub-Saharan Africa were living with HIV at the close of 2009. During that same year, 1.3 million Africans died from the pandemic. Nearly 90% of the 16.6 million children orphaned by AIDS, live in sub-Saharan Africa.
Part of the efforts to beat the AIDS pandemic is the Bangle project. The bangles are handcrafted silver, gold, and platinum “bracelets” engraved with Mandela’s prison number, 46664, and a laser image of Mandela’s hand. Unlike the prison identification Mandela wore behind bars, the bangle is open on both ends, signifying freedom. “The Bangle Program makes a positive impact through job creation and skills training, while also promoting a message of social responsibility.” Everyone involved benefits, including the formerly unemployed, disadvantaged, and HIV-positive people in South Africa.
Celebrities the around the world support the 46664 campaign and wear the bangle. Julie Murphy, the person responsible for promoting the 46664 Bangle Project in the United States, and born in South Africa, says, “Madiba (a title of respect for Mandela derived from his clan) is a living legend that personifies humility and humanitarianism.”
At the launch of the CD and DVD for the 46664 campaign in 2004, Mandela said, “Millions of people infected with HIV are in danger of being reduced to mere numbers unless we act. They too are serving a prison sentence—for life. So I have allowed my prison number to help drive this campaign.”
In addition to bangles bearing his prison number, Mandela has streets, parks, and squares all over the world named after him. He is the recipient of nearly two hundred awards and honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize. A nuclear particle discovery bears his name. He holds honorary degrees from dozens of universities and colleges throughout the globe. An award bestowed upon other distinguished leaders and pioneers carries his name. Buildings, schools, and even music records have been named for him. Queens, heads of state, and other royalty have knighted him in palaces and presented him with golden medals and the highest decorated and civilian prizes of their respective countries. He has been called the leader of one of the most important revolutions of the century, an international civil rights giant, and the most admired human alive.
When I signed on to write a piece for my “Living Treasures” section of Positive Impact Magazine, I couldn’t think up a new angle, a new spin on one of the most highly influential and admired people of this century. I wondered how I could do justice to a man who is recognized in nations across the globe as humanitarian champion, hero, and named honorary citizen in several countries? Very few people alive today have exhibited the love, forgiveness, reconciliation, respect and responsibility like Mandela
The best that I can do is to tell a condensed version of Mandela’s story and to invite us all to be inspired by his life to live ours even more fully.
In his early years, Mandela studied law and joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1943, founding the ANC Youth League within a year. In 1952, Mandela and several others built the Youth League’s Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws. Mandela became president of the ANCYL. Mandela came to the difficult realization that non-violence was not working. He formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) to act as the military part of the ANC.
Mandela was arrested often, facing charges such as treason and later sabotage, which in 1962 caused Mandela to receive a sentence of life imprisonment.
Throughout his years in prison, Mandela continued to lead efforts towards freedom for all. His second wife at the time, Winnie, was Mandela’s voice on the outside. He wrote as much as any human possibly could with difficult restrictions. Last year, a collection from his archives of notes, scribbled down sentences, journal entries and letters—mostly written in prison—were published, in Conversations with Myself.
In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
In a speech made while Mandela was still in prison, President Frederik Willem de Clerk declared the ANC was now legal. F.W. de Klerk announced his decision to release Mandela. He made it clear that the government of South Africa was ready to begin its reconciliation. After 27 years in prison and isolation, Mandela was released on February 11, 1990.
Mandela delivered a speech in Cape Town the day he was released from prison, where he said, “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 achieve, but if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
In 1993, Mandela together with F.W. de Klerk, were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.”
At age 75, Mandela was elected President in 1994, in a landslide.
Mandela assisted his country, which was on the brink of a civil war, to choose reconciliation rather than revenge.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke of Mandela: “Thus is was that when nearly everyone expected us to be overwhelmed by the most awful bloodbath, when blacks would engage in an orgy of revenge and retribution, were instead awed by the spectacle of South Africa engaging in the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by a President and former political prisoner, terrorist to many powerful ones, who amazed by inviting his former white jailer to attend his Presidential Inauguration as a VIP guest, displaying then and on numerous other occasions quite breathtaking magnanimity and generosity of spirit so that it became a common spectacle for victims of the most appalling atrocities to embrace the perpetrators in a display of forgiveness and reconciliation that was almost without precedent.”
To ensure whites that black domination would not become the rule, Mandela brought Afrikaners into his government. He wanted those who had oppressed him and his fellow blacks to know that the new South Africa was truly non-racist. One of those hired was Zelda La Grange, an employee of the old government. Before she was hired as his secretary/spokesperson/traveling companion of nearly 17 years ago, she was a middle-class Afrikaner who had blindly accepted segregation, and was ignorant of apartheid. Mandela had been “the most feared enemy.”
In an article in 2010’s Leadership magazine, La Grange spoke about what she admires about Mandela: “The fact that he always puts the goodwill of others above himself, his unselfishness and inherent good heart. His forgiveness obviously, and the fact that doing good and doing the right thing is part of the fabric of the person he is.”
In 1999, Mandela stepped down as president.
At a farewell banquet, Mandela assured the country he would still be at their service. “It is no easy thing to rest while millions still bare the burden of poverty and insecurity. But my days will be filled with contentment to the extent that hands are joined across social divides and national boundaries, between continents and over oceans, to give effect to that common humanity in whose name we have together made the long walk to where we are today.”
Mandela embodies the spirit of “ubuntu,” which according to the Bangle project is “the African notion of human brotherhood, a quality of mutual responsibility and compassion where a person can only be as happy as the community he or she lives in.”
For his 89th birthday, Mandela founded “The Elders,” who according to their website, “are an independent group of eminent global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests humanity.” Some of the elders include Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson, and Desmond Tutu to offer “guidance on the world’s toughest problems.
One of the Elders is Mandela’s beloved wife, Graca Machel, widow of the former president of Mozambique. She is a renowned international advocate for women and children’s rights, whom he married on his 80th birthday.
We can all celebrate July 18th, Mandela’s birthday (and anniversary)—known as Nelson Mandela Day—by moving forward into a life of positive action.
Mandela makes clear that he does not want this day to be viewed as a holiday. Instead, it is a worldwide call to action. In fact, this July 18th, which this year will be Mandela’s ninety-third birthday, he asks that you dedicate sixty-seven minutes of your life to any form of humanitarian effort—supporting a charity or volunteering in your local community—you wish.
Why sixty-seven? Mandela dedicated sixty-seven years of his own life to achieve equity, freedom and democracy in a country that had been under white racist rule for forty-six years.
According to Mandela, “The time is always right to do right.”