Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was born in the Transkei, a rural part of Eastern South Africa in 1918. He was born into the Thembu royal house and was given the name Rolihlahla, meaning “Troublemaker” in Xhosa his native language. His homeland was populated by about 3 million of the Xhosa nation, of which he was a part and a few minority races. South Africa had disputed history over who was there first. European settlers, mainly Dutch, but also German and French, landed at the Cape in the mid-17th Century. Europe had been beset by devastating inter-religious/political wars for the previous 100 years and the settlers were trying to find a new colony where they could practice their Protestant faith in isolation. They claim that there was no one else there when they arrived, which was disputed by the indigenous African tribes. The British would arrive and colonise the Cape forcing the Boers to move north for a new homeland. Later the British would follow them to the Transvaal to exploit the rich mineral resources the Boers had found. The result was the Boer Wars. There was no love lost between British and Boer settlers. The majority population were from proud African nations, some who were the famous Zulus who defeated the British Army at Isandlwana in 1879. Spears and superior tactics had beaten the rifles and the might of the British Army. The British arrogance at underestimating the natives had lost them that battle and not for the last time. By the time of Mandela, South Africa had white minority rule where Africans and the Indian migrant workers did not have the vote and were officially treated by different standards.

Mandela came from a distinct culture and was of royal blood. Families were extended to cousins and the rest of the relatives, different to the Europeans. His status, independence and clear potential meant that he was able to receive a good education from a mission school. These were run by religious groups, in this case the Methodists, and although he did not strongly adhere to the faith, he was clearly influenced by some of their principles. His education meant that he had the benefit of being taught to think for him, unlike many other African kids who would be taught be rote. He went to train as a lawyer returning to his homeland on completion of his initial studies. But when he was being forced into a marriage that he knew would not work, he escaped with his cousin Justice. Through perseverance and downright deception, they eventually managed to escape the clutches of their family and start work in Johannesburg. As a lawyer it was easier for him to find work. There were liberal law firms who were keen to take him on despite the prejudices inherent in society. Eventually he would start his own firm with lifelong friend Oliver Tambo, being a very useful advocate for the black Africans disadvantaged by the system.

From this point in the 1940’s, Mandela started to be involved in the African National Congress. Taking the example of Mohandas Gandhi, who started his struggle in South Africa, they would use non-violence and non-cooperation. There were bus boycotts and strikes and demonstrations all designed to highlight the injustice of the system. Mandela started to become one of the leaders in the struggle. In 1948 things took a turn for the worse as the National Party were elected to parliament. They were a mainly Boer organisation who were promoting and institutionalising the racism Mandela and the ANC were fighting. They instituted Apartheid, public amenities divided by race. There was no intermarriage of the races; people were confined to certain areas. These policies were promoted by people who had supported the Nazis in the Second World War.

The ANC continued to fight and were matched with greater security threats as any freedoms in society were removed to protect the illogical regime. Mandela and the ANC leadership were put on trial for Treason; the proceedings would go on for 3 years. The ANC were accused of what the Boers feared the most. Communist inspired African takeover of the country, forcing them into the sea. The excellence of the defence lawyers, some who were Boers fighting for rights against their own heritage and the principled and self-sacrificial nature of the ANC would prevent a Government victory. Again the Africans were underestimated. They would not be intimidated, the case against them was mainly of unproven accusations and false testimony and the judges who were also Boers came from the pre Apartheid era and were not going to allow this injustice.

The trial became a platform for the ANC views and for the character and the ability of those charged. On release, the ANC would continue to be harassed by the state who attempted to bully them into submission. It would never happen. The decision was taken that non-violent struggle was not working against an ignorant and intransigent regime. Mandela studied armed resistance and started organising to prepare for a struggle if necessary. He formed a military wing and started military training in Ethiopia. He decided that the best plan would be sabotage. Direct confrontation would be unsuccessful against a stronger foe and would lead to escalation. Assassination or terrorism would stoke the fear that so pervaded the uninformed white South African society. There were some operations against targets such as electrical power plants, causing maximum disruption without loss of life.

During this time Mandela was underground avoiding the authorities and organising his people around the country. He travelled by car staying in places the white establishment would not go. He disguised himself as a chauffeur or a farm worker. Eventually he was caught along with the whole leadership in decisive response from the authorities. Although the physical impact of the armed struggle had been minimal the effect was to scare the security forces into action. The high command of the ANC was tried for sabotage and conspiracy. A lengthy trial would ensue, with much evidence claiming again that the ANC were attempting a Communist takeover of the country. Again and again the defence demonstrated that they were political prisoners who were challenging injustice and were prepared to use force, as their oppressors did, to emphasise their point. Again the defendants used the trial as a political platform, demonstrating their ability to outwit the Government legal team. They chose to stick to their principles and even were to accept the death penalty rather than submit to the court. Ultimately the judge found them guilty, but accepted their motivation and they were sentenced to life in prison. It was in a sense a victory as there were no executions as the Government wanted, but a vindication of the legal system.

The ANC leadership were sent to Robben Island. It is situated 18 miles to the south of Capetown in the Indian Ocean. Here the brutish, ignorant and poorly paid Boer prison warders told the Freedom Fighters that they were going to die on this rock. Harsh conditions in terms of accommodation, food, clothing and treatment were meted out assuming that there was nothing to stop the abuse. But the experience of Mandela and his comrades knew that they could use the law, which they understood better, to show up the guards and achieve minor victories. Gradually they overcame the system by not only their refusal to bow to the authority imposed on them, but to do so in an honourable fashion that brought grudging respect from some of their captors. The Boers would have had little understanding of African culture, educated Africans and quite frankly little education at all. The superiority of the ANC leadership in jail was beginning to tell. As security started to slack, more privileges allowed study of all kinds, secret communication with the outside world and the gold dust of newspapers. Rather than submit to the authorities, Mandela and his comrades used the 27 years wisely to consider, prepare and train for any eventual release. Since the movement had not been repressed and the younger generation were becoming more militant, more progressive National party politicians started to realise the need to reach out to prisoners to negotiate a compromise. The 1980’s brought an increase in political activity, particularly by Desmond Tutu who was able to use his position as Bishop and Archbishop to appeal to the world for help, primarily for sanctions. Also the cry “Free Mandela” became a slogan for people who did not know who he was. With sanctions biting the ANC and the National party would draw closer through relaxation of rules and better conditions. Negotiations would lead to President de Klerk foretelling the end of Apartheid in 1990, relaxing many restrictions and freeing Mandela and the political prisoners.

Negotiations would start in earnest, but the problem was that the National party tried to cling to a form of shared rule that would guarantee their positon and power. After four years, of violence against the ANC inspired by the Government funding of rival African groups, negotiations were halted and the Mandela threatened to return to non-cooperation. The ANC won the right to vote for all, through sticking to principles that the Government could not stick to themselves. After years of disenfranchisement, the whole country queued for 4 days to register their historic vote. The ANC received 62% of the vote, gaining power, but not enough to force a constitution without others consent.

The battle had been won. But Mandela now an old man, who had become separated from the family he hardly knew, leaving him quite lonely. He struggled to institute the Rainbow nation he had envisaged for the previous 50 years.

He stuck to his principles, not in stubborn defiance of the enemy, but in the principle of love and respect. He learnt not to hate his enemies but to understand their fear and ignorance that led them to that position. He created a South Africa that was designed for the benefit of all races, united as brothers and sisters in a shared, but diverse nation. The lesson is for the Freedom Fighter is stick to those principles, adjust them if necessary, never give up, train in anticipation of success and be ready to apply them in love, wisdom, faith, self-sacrifice and creativity. God bless Africa.

Conway-Laird (2016)

 

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