Mandela At Ninety

The anti-Apartheid hero and last ‘Founding Father’ retires

Opinion | Simon Inou | October 2008

On 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela, icon of resistance to the South-African apartheid regime and later  Nobel Peace laureate, was released from prison after 27 years. This was a truly moving moment for African blacks, so afflicted for so long, and a signal for a new era of peaceful opposition to suppression and war – an unforgettable experience that made a huge impression on me as a young black man from Cameroon.

I thought of this again on July 18, when Nelson Mandela announced his retirement at the age of 90.

In my home country Cameroon, we had just become used to television in those days 20 years ago, and live broadcasts were rare. But our eyes were fixed to the few black and white TVs available. Together with thousands of others around the globe, we became witnesses as, after ceaseless pressure from within South Africa and abroad, Mandela was finally set free.

The African continent was in political turmoil, as across the continent men and women of all ages and all social strata joined the rebellion, tired of the degradation and humiliation, fed up with their neo-colonial rulers who walked free with a cynical smile. People had had enough of the violence, which robbed them of their freedom and took away the joy of life.

From Dakar in Senegal to Dar es Salam in Tanzania, from South African Cape Town to Algerian Algiers, as in Nairobi in Kenya and Douala in Cameroon – people from all parts of Africa took to the streets to protest. Millions of students, lawyers, NGOs, trade unionists, women, intellectuals, former exiled politicians… They defied the military and political terror, police and corrupt bureaucratic administration, to say "no:" No to dictators and no to lies.

Those were the feelings that African people shared during those days – for us, 11 February 1990, was the most beautiful day of our lives. Finally, Mandela was again among us. The ‘African family’ was complete and ready to face new challenges.

The younger generation of the 1990s clearly remembers Mandela’s haircut. We were impressed with the finely shaved line in the middle of the skull, which quickly became the fashion in Cameroon.

With the name Mandela we also associated the picture of Winnie, his wife and brave companion, who had carried on his fight against apartheid during his long years in prison, who was feared by the political elite of South Africa and a symbol of strong African women.

Mandela was without any doubt the personification of a resolute man fighting apartheid; unrelenting in his aims, nevertheless supportive towards his companions at home and abroad. But could he still, after 27 years imprisonment, stand up to the powerful white elite, as he had done in his youth?

For us young Africans, Mandela was something like the last surviving Founding Father, the last of a generation of warriors who had dedicated their lives to African independence. He was a tangible focal point of ideas that endured from the violent 1950s until the present: Ideas that motivated and inspired many of the African leaders to fight for the liberation of the continent. However, many of them, like Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau (1924 – 1973), Patrice Lumumba of Congo (1925 – 1961) or Ruben Um Nyobé (1913 – 1958) had not survived, and had been assassinated by colonial powers. That Mandela was still alive, and would again be among us, seemed like a miracle. With his release, we were able to begin hoping again.

So on that memorable 11 February 1990 in our living room, dozens of eyes were glued to the small black & white television screen that suddenly had become the umbilical cord of our world. This TV screen had replaced the radio as prime medium in Africa: We wanted to see Mandela, the symbol of African fight for freedom!

Accompanied by his wife Winnie, he raised his fist as a sign of victory. So much time had passed: His face was covered with wrinkles, the hair white – in Africa a symbol for wisdom. Mandela seemed tired. However, the firm tone of his voice, the decisive words, were the same. We were witnessing Mandela as we remembered him, and we full-heartedly wished to be part of the ecstatic crowd cheering our hero on his way to freedom.

The next day, Mandela spoke at the Town Hall of Cape Town:

"I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people," he called out, in ringing tones. "Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life into your hands."

In 1993, Nelson Mandela received the Nobel Prize for Peace and was elected president of South Africa, a position he held until 1998. He established a Truth and Reconciliation Committee in 1995, a court-like body that sought to reconcile the suffering and revenge for human right abuses that had been inflicted on generations of South Africans during apartheid rule between 1960 and 1994.

In the decade since leaving office, Mandela has remained active with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund that strives "to change the way society treats its children and youth" and is known particularly for its work for AIDS orphans on the African continent.

Now at 90, he thinks he may finally retire for real!


Editor in Chief of Radio Afrika International from 1998 to 2005, Simon Inou is now chief editor of the German Language internet portal and a regular contributor to Austrian and international newspapers. He studied sociology at Douala University in his native Cameroon, where he worked for the weekly newspaper Le Messager  and founded the first youth newspaper of Cameroon, Le Messager des Jeunes. Inou has lived in Austria since 1995.

Edited and translated by Matthias Wurz

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