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Mandela's survival from commuted death sentence to elected president is one of the miracles of the modern age... RHODRI MORGAN COLUMNIST newsdesk@walesonline.co.uk.



Byline: RHODRI MORGAN

WHEN a true political giant like Nelson Mandela passes away, all we can do is to sit back and admire his almost Christlike capacity for forgiveness. We have to do our best to grasp how his political career differs from all those that we are familiar with in Britain.

I was in university in 1960 when the Sharpeville massacre took place. Mandela was 42 then.

He was a big wheel in the African National Congress (ANC), indeed had been the leader of its youth wing.

The ANC was a strictly non-violent, Gandhi-influenced body.

The Sharpeville massacre was the turning point for him.

Sixty-nine school kids had been gunned down, in a peaceful protest, if I remember correctly, over the hated Afrikaans language being imposed on their schools, when they wanted to continue being taught in English.

From then on Mandela decided that the Apartheid regime was never going to reform and that peaceful protest was banging your head against a brick wall.

He went underground and helped lead the armed insurrection wing of the ANC.

That resulted inevitably in the Rivonia trial in 1964, when Mandela and 10 fellow revolutionaries were found guilty of conspiracy against the state.

Judge de Wet decided not to impose the death penalty, just life imprisonment with hard labour.

Whether the judge did that off his own bat or whether the regime was involved, we will never know.

It was on the day of that monumental decision over the death penalty, that Mandela first impacted on me.

The night before the sentencing, there was a vigil at Llandaff Cathedral as part of the huge international campaign against the expected death penalty. Neil and Glenys Kinnock and I went along.

The cathedral was impressively full. A few from Labour and Liberal politics I recognised plus a lot of Christian worshippers praying against the worst.

Our early anti-apartheid protests in Wales, usually against the visits of all-white South African sports teams, could be quite lonely affairs.

I remember Julie and me, Neil and Glenys, Paddy and Didi Kitson, just six of us outside the gates of St Helen's in 1964, protesting at a Glamorgan fixture against the Springboks.

That was tough.

So at the age of 46, with the death sentence not imposed, Mandela goes to Robben Island for what turned out to be 18 years' hard labour, then another nine in other mainland prisons.

He comes out a free man at the age of 73, he's elected President at 77 after long drawn-out peace negotiations.

He retires at 85 and has 10 years of retirement.

Sadly, that final decade was gradually overtaken by health problems going back to the TB contracted on Robben Island.

That dilemma Mandela and the ANC faced post-Sharpeville is the hardest thing for us growing up in the West to understand.

How would we have responded? Would we have gone underground and taken up arms against an wildly unjust and violent government, if we had experienced a local equivalent of the Sharpeville massacre? You're giving up your family life.

Your children need their father.

What's the family going to live on? You might get killed, either in action or if you get caught.

Those are mind-blowing risks. Mandela decided that if he and his colleagues didn't start a campaign of sabotage and violence, the apartheid system would go on for ever.

All I can say is, thank God I never had to face a dilemma like that.

Mandela's survival from that commuted death sentence at the Rivonia Trial all the way through to becoming a multi-racial South Africa's first ever freely elected president is one of the miracles of the modern age.

I wish I knew the answer to the question of why mercifully, from every angle, he wasn't sentenced to death back in 1964.

Was the apartheid regime responding to all the international pressure? Were they frightened of an uncontainable rebellion breaking out on the street? Or was there a tiny thought there at the back of their minds that one day, far in the future, they were going to need this man? I remember hearing Albert Luthuli, the leader of the ANC in its civil disobedience era in the 1950s, being interviewed on the BBC.

He said, as the grip of apartheid was getting tighter and tighter: "My fear is that by the time, they [the whites] have turned to love, we [the blacks] will have turned to hate."

Thanks to Mandela, that did not happen. That's the real miracle of his amazing life.

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Nelson Mandela during his prison term on Robben Island. He was released in 1990
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 7, 2013
Words:773
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