If I must die, let me declare for all to know that I will meet my fate like a man.” These are the words Nelson Mandela intended to read out if he was given the death sentence at the Rivonia Trial in June 1964. Half a century later our globally beloved Madiba can know that he, of all men, accepted his fate like a man.
Madiba has been heralded a hero, saviour and icon. He has been showered with accolades, titles and academic honours, including a Doctorate in Law in 1991 from Wits, where he studied for his law degree in the 1940s. But Madiba has shown that what meant most to him was to live up to the noblest concept of “Man”.

In his lifetime Madiba developed the qualities befitting a true leader: of courage, mercy, kindness, perseverance and self-reflection in pursuit of his quest for all people to be treated “in conformity with civilised standards” irrespective of colour, creed or culture.

“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 idea which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an idea for which I am prepared to die.”

Standing in the dock on that pivotal day in 1964, armed with the “in the event of death” note he had penned on a piece of exercise book paper, Madiba was confronted with the real prospect of his life abruptly ending at the age of 46: an age when most men and women are reaching that powerful nexus of vigour and maturity; an age when Madiba was ready to assume a powerful, public leadership role.

That was 49 years ago and the note is now part of the Mandela Collection in the Historical Papers Research Archive at Wits’ William Cullen Library. How could Madiba ever have imagined that modest piece of paper would become a globally coveted item of Mandela memorabilia?

This year on 18 July it is Madiba’s 95th birthday. Over the past months he has been in and out of hospital and we are all keenly aware that health and age are no longer on his side. As a nation we need to come to terms with Madiba’s mortality and to prepare a resting place for him in our hearts.

Mandela’s Mortality

Mandela’s Mortality is the title of a chapter by Wits professors Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe from the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research. It will be published in early 2014 in the Cambridge Companion to Nelson Mandela, Cambridge University Press.

In Mandela’s Mortality they track and remark on Madiba’s attitudes to mortality and death in the course of his life – both to the deaths of others and to his own death. Quoting passages from Long Walk to Freedom and Conversations With Myself they reveal Madiba as a man acutely aware of his own mortality and vulnerability:

“He has known pain and devastation – countless indignities, severe and irrecoverable losses (including the loss of a newborn daughter, and of a son while he was in prison); dramatic separations and invisible wounds; grief, helplessness and mourning, the kinds of experiences that ‘eat too deeply into one’s being, into one’s soul’.”

Death is synonymous with separation, and early in Mandela’s life he became acutely aware of this. Thus, as the authors explain, leaving Qunu – “all that I knew, and I loved it in the unconditional way that a child loves his first home” – was a direct consequence of the passing of his father.

Of his son Thembi’s death while he was in prison he said: “I do not have words to express the sorrow, or the loss I felt. It left a hole in my heart that can never be filled.” Of his close friend and compatriot Walter Sisulu’s death he said it left him “almost prostrate with grief”.

Closest encounter with his own death

Madiba’s closest encounter with his own death occurred during the Rivonia Trial in 1964. The authors illustrate how the public requirement to be brave and strong as a torchbearer of what is just and true was in stark contrast to the personal experience of being alone in his cell confronting the reality that he was likely “to not live”. He wrote: “I must, however, confess that for my own part the threat of death evoked no desire in me to play the role of martyr. I was ready to do so if I had to. But the anxiety to live always lingered.”

For years before his final arrest for treason and sentencing, Madiba had lived in a twilight world tipping this way and that between the worlds of the living and the dead, day and night, visible and invisible, presence and absence, the authors explain.

It offers a parallel with the past couple of years where age and time have repeatedly snatched and spared him. None of us want Madiba to go but it is inevitable, and, just as he had to leave his wife and family to join the liberation struggle with stoic inevitability, so too will we need to release the father of our nation, while keeping his spirit alive.

Releasing the father of our nation

The authors write: “As we reflect on his impending death, we consider the drama and anxiety that this elicits in so many people, especially in South Africa. We try to decipher something of what is at stake for people in facing his death. We examine the sense in South Africa that with his death there will be a deep void at the heart of a place that has always struggled to mask what it feels might be an emptiness at its centre; that has struggled to define itself as a nation and to draw together its many fragments into a sustained sense of commonality.”

The loss of Madiba when he goes will inevitably release intensely painful, complex feelings, and we may feel a sense of utter horror and panic, but we must follow Madiba’s example and courageously rise and walk forward and draw on his memory to squarely face our personal demons and our country’s demons of racism, poverty, inequality, corruption and oppression.

He is a man, a human being

And, while we contemplate the gigantic contribution he has made to South Africa and the world, we need to remember that, like you and me, he is a human being with all the anxieties, attachments, joys, sorrows, fragilities and contradictions that none of us are spared. Nowhere is this more poignantly expressed than in the quote the authors selected from a letter to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela that Madiba once wrote: “Sometimes I feel like one who is on the sidelines … who has missed life itself.” It is a feeling with which many of us can identify in our own great and small ways, and it is comforting to know that a man like Madiba felt it too.

At the same time, as the authors express, no matter what happened to him in his life, “he held onto the assurance that joy was possible.” A joy that he will surely experience in great Eastern Cape swathes when his final chapter closes and he returns to his childhood home of Qunu, forever.

Mandela and Wits University

Mandela enrolled at the Wits Law Faculty in 1943 and spent six years at Wits, from 1943 to 1948.

In Long Walk to Freedom he writes:
“Wits opened a new world to me, a world of ideas and political beliefs and debates, a world where people were passionate about politics … I discovered for the first time people of my own age firmly aligned with the liberation struggle, who were prepared, despite their relative privilege, to sacrifice themselves for the cause of the oppressed.”

In his speech at Professor Colin Bundy’s installation as Vice-Chancellor of Wits on 25 March 1998, as the President of South Africa he said:
“This evening brings many memories from the past and many hopes for the future. I remember my own days as a student and I honour some of my fellows who studied, debated and agitated on this campus. Their names are legend: Joe Slovo, Ismael Meer, Harold Wolpe, J N Singh, William Nkomo and Ruth First. They count amongst those who set forth a message and an ethos in direct contrast to the fear, oppression and subservience which legislation of the time sought to impose and inculcate. They represent one of the proud strands in the tradition of Wits, a strand which the university will undoubtedly seek to build upon as it grapples with its role in the development of a new kind of South African society.”

Bundy’s appointment was in stark contrast to the conservative University administration in Mandela’s time as a student, which was philosophically hostile to the very notion of University involvement in politics and, post 1948, was anxious to appease rather than provoke the new National Party government.

As Professor Emeritus Bruce Murray, author of Wits: The ‘Open’ Years, explains, this led to a high degree of disunity between the administration and student activists, including the legendary Phillip Tobias, who was President of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) from 1948 for three years, and who mobilised NUSAS against university apartheid.

“Wits and the University of Cape Town were ‘open universities’ at the time, where black students attended the same classes as white students. It was not a universal openness because only 5%-6% of approximately 4 000 students were black – the majority at Medical School,” Murray explains. “The National Party did not approve of black and white students intermingling. It alleged, among other things, that black students were being brainwashed by white liberal and leftist students. It therefore came as no surprise that when the Nationalists came to power in 1948, they set about eradicating what they perceived as the ‘evil’ of racial intermingling at the open universities.”

One of Madiba’s lifelong friendships and legal allegiances was formed at Wits with Wits law graduate and world-renowned human rights advocate George Bizos, who describes life at Wits during that era and his association with Mandela in his book Odyssey to Freedom.

“The quarrel between the SRC and the university authorities relating to racial equality in all aspects of student life raged furiously within the law faculty. For instance, at the annual law dinner the eight black students were not allowed to attend on the grounds that it was to be held at the Ambassador Hotel in Hillbrow. This injunction came from the dean, Professor HR ‘Bobby’ Hahlo. The hotel was licensed to sell intoxicating liquor and the law prohibited blacks from entering such establishments as guests…”

As a member of the SRC, Bizos agitated against this ruling and the black students attended.

Hahlo was a notorious reactionary and refused to allow Mandela to write a supplementary examination in 1949 to complete his LLB, as he had failed one subject. Hahlo said that no exceptions would be made, and added that it was beyond the reach of any black man to qualify as an advocate. He suggested that Mandela rather consider completing a Law Diploma to practise as an attorney – which he did.

“While writing the history of Wits, Professor Bruce Murray unearthed the original letter written to Hahlo by Mandela, and sent a copy of it to Mandela in prison for his comment,” Bizos continues. “When he received no reply, Murray, fearing that the letter had been withheld by the jailers, asked me to enquire whether Mandela had received it. Yes, said Mandela, he had, but as Wits was doing a good job he felt it would not be helpful to revive the matter by commenting on it, and asked me to explain and apologise to Professor Murray.”

Extract from Mandela’s application to the Dean of Law, Prof H R Hahlo, for permission to write a supplementary exam in 1949:
“I should also add that during the whole of his period I studied under very difficult and trying conditions. I was a part-time student and resided (as I still do) at Orlando Native Location in a noisy neighbourhood. In the absence of electric light I was compelled to study in the evenings with a paraffin lamp and sometimes with a candle light. I wasted a lot of time travelling between Orlando and city and returned home after 8p.m. feeling tired and hungry and unfit to concentrate on my studies. Even during the examinations I was compelled to work in order to maintain the only source of livelihood that I had. It is my candid opinion that if I could have done my work under more suitable conditions, I could have produced better results.”

Mandela completed his LLB in prison and received a Doctorate in Law from Wits in 1991.

Moral reputation and mystique

By Professor Daryl Glaser, Head: Political Studies at Wits

Mandela cemented his legacy by midwifing us through a crucial time in history and then withdrawing from power at precisely the right time. This cemented his moral reputation and mystique.

Mandela’s enormous personal charisma, racially conciliatory approach and easiness with people of all races was crucial for laying the basis of a non-racial future for South Africa. Harsher critics deem him a sell-out for making too many concessions to white capitalist power, but I don’t accept this. While economic policy under Mandela veered too far in a neoliberal direction, the constitution he helped to establish permits, even mandates, radical social change.

His approach emanated from the fact that he is a rare and genuinely reconciliatory figure with a pragmatic streak, who brought stability and stature to South Africa, and who did more than any other single individual to spare the country a racial civil war, with its consequences of economic collapse.

The magic of Mandela and the key to his success is that he was both part of the ANC and the mass liberation struggle and at the same time had an ability to step away from it. He therefore made it possible to establish a legitimate constitutional settlement and bed down a new constitutional democracy.

Wits’ greatest son

By Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor, Wits University

Mandela is Wits’ greatest son, who played a phenomenal role in transforming our country and the world in ways that no one else has ever done. We were blessed to have him study at our institution and we will always treasure this.

His was an incredible generation of leaders, several of whom were at Wits … George Bizos, Arthur Chaskalson, Amina Cachalia, Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Phillip Tobias … the list goes on. These people looked beyond themselves, they were prepared to make sacrifices and were not silenced by the trappings of power.

The ANC early on realised they needed a face for the liberation movement and they chose Madiba. They could not have chosen better, for in so doing they transformed the anti-apartheid movement and Madiba became a global icon.

In assessing Madiba’s legacy we need to separate his role as an administrator from his greatness and status as a global icon.

As an administrator he made a series of significant mistakes, which he recognised, including not swiftly responding to HIV/Aids.

As a global icon, his greatness is his reconciliatory approach, which helped us plant firm democratic roots and a strong constitutional democracy. His greatness also lies in the fact that he was prepared to give up political power and, in so doing, developed an even more powerful form of soft power that transcended national boundaries and led to his becoming an international figure.

Mandela’s legacy is complex

By Professor Noor Nieftagodien, Head: Wits History Workshop and the NRF/SARChI Chair in Local Histories and Present Realities

Mandela remains an important symbol of South Africans’ collective and fragmented aspirations. He is a reminder of the apparently peaceful transition to a constitutional democracy and embodies the ideas of reconciliation and the rainbow nation.

The vast majority of people desire these democratic aspirations and the promise of a better life. Now that our democracy is coming under severe strain he continues to be an important reference point of what could have been and what can still be.

To attach all these aspirations to one person is understandable but also problematic. While Mandela will always be a presence in our consciousness, he stepped out of the limelight long ago and South Africa has moved on without his active involvement in politics. It’s problematic to suggest, as some have warned, that the country will go down the drain without him and there will be a mass exodus.

There is a general sense among ordinary citizens that we must leave him in peace and let him go. And in letting him go we must be careful not to turn him into a latter-day saint or to whitewash his history. That he is an unbelievable human being and an exceptional leader is indisputable. But he is also a man and a politician, with all the fallibilities that go with that.

To his credit, Mandela acknowledged the errors made by his government. One could argue that the capacity to be self-critical is an important attribute of greatness.