Battle for Mandela's legacy begins

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The news of Nelson Mandela's death may have been long expected owing to his frail health but has still come as a shock to South Africans.

The uncertainty of the future without him is felt strongly in this still troubled country. He had remained a tangible presence even when his ability to make public appearances and to receive visitors diminished in old age. The questions about how his legacy would be maintained, which had become more pressing in recent years, will come to the fore once the huge welling up of grief has passed.

That legacy itself is by no means clear-cut here, as different factions hold different views about how he should be chiefly remembered.

To some, he was the freedom fighter who risked all to liberate his people, to others it is more important that he is remembered for having bridged the chasm of the divide between the races. For many, it is the fact that he led reconciliation without bitterness despite his suffering in imprisonment.

But in the battle over his legacy, over the greatness of his achievements and how they should shape the future, it is sometimes all too easy to overlook the long, grim years under apartheid when there appeared to be no hope for South Africa.

Older South Africans today may reflect on how little they knew about Mandela during the long years of his imprisonment.

The Rivonia trial of 1963 saw Mandela and other African National Congress leaders imprisoned for sabotage after the movement turned to armed struggle as a result of the obduracy of the apartheid regime. Mandela's statements at the trial were sensational, setting out clearly the grievances of the oppressed black population and the legitimacy of their struggle.

But when he and others disappeared to the prison on Robben Island, off Cape Town, the state saw to it that little was seen or heard from them for many years afterwards.

It is hard to believe now, when that most famous face appears so prominently in the media and is so well known around the world, that there was a time, particularly in South Africa, when people had no idea what he looked like after years in prison.

It was a time when people conjectured - quietly, so as not to attract the attention of the agents of the state - about what he might look like. Some even made drawings of what he might look like, based on old, banned photographs.

Similarly, the news of what Mandela might be saying or thinking was whispered, small snippets that somehow filtered past the attempts of the regime to keep him and other prisoners completely quarantined. It was only in the 1980s, when some long-serving prisoners began to be released, that more information began to seep out.

It is easy today to see some sort of inevitability about the change to majority rule that was achieved in South Africa. But many older South Africans are all too well aware that it was a close-run thing, given the apartheid regime's capacity for brutal repression.

Mandela's "long walk to freedom" was not only a struggle over many years but an arduous one where there were many dark days when the outcome appeared by no means certain.

Many commentators have remarked on the importance of the near-miracle that Mandela did not receive a death sentence at the end of the Rivonia trial. Older South Africans know how easily that could have happened - and how different history might have been as a result.

Today, in the outpouring of grief around South Africa, it is well to note that an entire generation has grown up since apartheid came to an end and Mandela became the president of his country.

Many of these young people have a pride and self-assuredness that is perhaps one of the greatest developments of the post-apartheid era - but they have had no direct experience of the brutal repression of that time and inevitably it is more difficult for them to understand it.

Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, northern Johannesburg, where leaders of the ANC's armed wing were arrested in 1963, is now a museum.

The role that it and other such places have to play in educating people about the circumstances which led to Mandela becoming such an internationally respected and admired leader cannot be stated too strongly.

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