Nelson Mandela, prisoner 46664, in a contemplative mood, revisiting the bars of his old Robben Island jail cell where he spent 17 of his 27 years as a political prisoner.
Even after having lived in South Africa for 8 years, I found it very hard to write about the passing of Nelson Mandela, partly because South African society is so insular that one inevitably has to write a great deal of historical information to give American or international readers enough context to grasp the significance of some of Mandela’s most important life events. In the wake of Mandela’s death and the chorus of accolades for one of the greatest leaders of the 20th Century, there is much more to say, discuss and analyze. While Mandela has been lionized in the international press, many people in South Africa have more controversial and nuanced interpretations of his life and legacy. One narrative claims that Mandela is far too often described in terms of peace and reconciliation, while his true history as a revolutionary freedom fighter has been lost; others say that after Mandela was released from prison he made too many concessions in favor of accommodating South Africa’s white minority, thereby legitimizing the rigid racial and class inequalities of the apartheid status quo. I’m not sure that I can provide much clarity on these issues, which require a very different kind of conversation; but if I have written this article in such a way that it gives a broad insight into the some of the lesser known and understood forces that shaped Mandela’s imprisonment and rise to power, I feel my work is done.
Farewell Madiba: Reflections on the indelible life of Nelson Mandela, sacrifice and social change
On April 4, 1968, the world came to a standstill, as the hopes and aspirations of people of African descent – in the United States and around the world – suffered a traumatic body blow with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After the .30-06 caliber shot rang out from a rifle and Dr. King lay in a growing pool of blood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, a 26-year-old journalist snapped a photograph of the scene, with Dr. King’s colleagues pointing in the direction from where the shot came. The image, hastily developed at a local Memphis darkroom, was eventually acquired by Time-Life and became one of the most recognizable and iconic photographs of the 20th Century.
Few people know that the young photographer – the only journalist at the scene – was the late Joseph Louw, a black South African who was traveling with Dr. King and producing a documentary on his civil rights work. While it may seem unusual to some that a black South African journalist would find himself in the heart of a critical event in African-American history, Louw’s presence is actually a reflection of an abiding intimacy between the South African struggle against apartheid and the American civil rights movement. Despite the cruel and desperate isolation of African, mixed-race and Indian people by the apartheid government, there have been common influences, communication and enduring bonds that have influenced both causes. These ties go back to 1920, when co-founder of the African National Congress (ANC) Sol Plaatje traveled to the United States and met with W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). During the apartheid era, thousands of South African exiles like Louw studied at American colleges and universities, joining exiled musicians, artists and writers like Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba, Ezekiel Es’kia Mphahlele, Keorapetse William Kgositsile, Mongane Wally Serote and Dennis Brutus, who achieved international acclaim in the United States.
On December 5, 2013, the world lost a great light, as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela – the world’s most famous political prisoner and respected elder statesman – passed away at the age of 95. With a memorial service attended by heads of state – including U.S. President Barack Obama – and countless news reports, documentaries, online tributes, immense activity in social media and the blogosphere and the release of a feature film, the mourning of Nelson Mandela’s death was like no other in modern history. In Johannesburg, it seemed that the heavens were crying, pouring endless rivers of rain, with reams of thunder and lightning punctuating the pain of South Africa’s mass emotions at the great loss. The rain rolled right over the memorial service itself at FNB Stadium in Soweto, and President Obama’s eloquent speech; but rain is also a sign of prosperity and well-being in Africa, and crowds of ordinary South Africans came to celebrate in the deluge and feel the full spiritual impact of their history, with the whole world watching. On the streets of Soweto, in front of Mandela’s old home on Vilakazi Street, they had been singing and dancing in the rain for days. Their beloved “Madiba” – the Xhosa clan name by which Nelson Mandela is affectionately known in South Africa – left this world with an unfathomable outpouring of love and grace.
Much like Dr. King, Mandela became a charismatic leader and a personification of his nation’s human rights struggle, and the power of his personality somewhat overshadowed the complexity of the very movement he came to represent. Given South Africa’s unusual history and its insularity, it becomes tempting to summarize its transformation symbolically in the Father of the Nation, a black man who spent 27 years in prison and then forgave his white captors. Although Mandela would assume the helm of the transition to a new state, the forces that led to his release from prison and the fracturing of apartheid’s political power were far more complex than the ideals of non-violence and peaceful reconciliation that are typically ascribed to him.
The Congress Alliance and the Limits of Civil Disobediance
Twenty Congress Alliance leaders of the Defiance Campaign (a series of mass actions involving more than 10,000 protesters) appear in the Johannesburg Magistrates Court on charges of contravening the Suppression of Communism Act, August 26, 1952.
Both the American civil rights movement and the South African struggle against apartheid drew inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha – the moral power of the “insistence on truth” or the “force of truth” – to overcome political injustice. (Ghandi himself actually began his first experiments with non-violent political resistance and Satyagraha in South Africa in 1914 as a young lawyer, but his efforts were oriented toward securing rights for the Indian professional class.) In South Africa, civil disobedience tactics led to the Defiance Campaign of 1952, where 10,000 people of all racial groups – African, Indian, mixed-race and whites – protested the new apartheid laws and more than 8,500 were arrested, including Mandela.
While the Defiance Campaign changed little with respect to the government’s discriminatory laws, the campaign solidified heightened opposition to apartheid and increased multiracial cooperation among the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), the Colored People’s Congress (CPC) and other activist organizations. Later, the Congress Alliance would all merge into one organization, under the banner of the ANC.
As South Africa’s ruling National Party dug in its heels and continued to enact discriminatory legislation, the Congress Alliance began its next round of civil disobedience in the form of strikes, boycotts and protests that culminated in the Treason Trial of 1956. Nelson Mandela and 156 co-defendants – once again, men and women of all racial and ethnic groups – were in the national spotlight for sedition. Despite their notoriety, Mandela and his co-accused were all acquitted on March 29, 1961, a little over a year after the anti-apartheid movement reached a turning point with the new pass law protests. The brazen defiance of the new anti-pass law movement, organized by Robert Sobukwe and the more militant Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) – led to the infamous Sharpeville Massacre.
On March 21, 1960, when between 5,000 and 7,000 protestors came to the Sharpeville police station to hand in their passbooks, police indiscriminately opened fire and killed 69 and injured 180 demonstrators, including many women and children. The despised passbooks were a politically emotional tripwire, as they were required to be carried by any non-white person outside of their segregated township residences. Ironically, the contrast of the nonviolent actions of the Congress Alliance protests throughout the 50s may have led to the acquittal of Treason Trial defendants; however, by that time, Mandela, the lead defendant and president of the ANC Youth League, had already begun forming the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe – “The Spear of the Nation” – to begin a new phase of targeted armed resistance to government repression.
In the wake of Sharpeville, both the PAC and the ANC were banned in 1960 and were labeled terrorist organizations by the South African and U.S. governments; in 1959, facing a banning order, Oliver Tambo, deputy president of the ANC and Mandela’s partner in the formation of South Africa’s first black law firm, went into exile in London, to build the ANC’s international anti-apartheid movement.
The Rivonia Trial
Rivonia Trial defendants (left to right, top to bottom) Nelson Mandela; Walter Sisulu; Govan Mbeki; Raymond Mhlaba; Elias Motsoaledi; Andrew Mlangeni; Ahmed Kathrada and Dennis Goldberg. The defendants were all sentenced to life in prison on June 12, 1964.
After his acquittal at the Treason Trial, Mandela wasted no time in organizing the new strategy of the ANC’s struggle. Between 1961 and 1963, Mandela became known as the revolutionary “Black Pimpernel,” for evading authorities and going underground to foment continued resistance. Mandela even slipped out of the country and traveled throughout Africa – as far away as Libya and Morocco – to seek military aid, finance and training for Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). But once he returned to South Africa, he and his MK comrades were arrested on July 11, 1963 at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, a suburb of Johannesburg. Of the 13 people who were arrested, eight – including Mandela, as “Defendant Number 1” – would stand trial for conspiracy and subversion in what would become known as the “Rivonia Trial.” It was during this trial that Mandela gave his famous speech from the docket,challenging the apartheid government’s legitimacy and moral authority to question his patriotism and charge him with sedition. While the Rivonia Trial and Mandela’s subsequent life sentence eventually made him the world’s most famous political prisoner, it is less well known that – in typical Congress Alliance multiracial fashion – seven other Rivonia Trial defendants were given life imprisonment sentences along with him, including five Africans (Walter Sisulu, Andrew Mlageni, Raymond Mhlaba, Govan Mbeki and Elias Motsoaledi) one Indian Muslim (Ahmed Kathrada) and one white Jew (Dennis Goldberg.) Beyond the Rivonia Trial defendants, Robben Island continually filled with new political prisoners from more militant organizations like the Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO) the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the PAC; the apartheid government so feared Robert Sobukwe that they built a separate housing unit to completely isolate him from all contact with other Robben Island prisoners.
As the ANC became the most well-known anti-apartheid organization internationally, its singular promotion of Mandela as the face of the movement tended to eclipse the contributions of other leaders like Robert Sobukwe and awareness of other dimensions of the struggle. A similar trend happened in the African-America civil rights movement, with many people assuming that all nonviolent resistance was led by Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), while most of the lunch counter desegregation actions and the Freedom Rides were organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) through leaders like James Lawson of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), who trained 60s youth activists like James Bevel, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, Marion Barry and John Lewis.
With time, apartheid resistance assumed new forms and police suppression became increasingly fierce, brutal and violent; quite often activists who were not imprisoned (or lucky enough to escape) disappeared and were tortured and killed, like the PEBCO 3 or the Craddock 4. But even as Mandela, Sobukwe and their comrades were captive on Robben Island, a loose alliance of trade unions, black “Civic” township governments, white anti-draft and anti-apartheid organizations and student groups gradually began to build broad coalitions to put economic and political pressure on the National Party government from within the country. In addition to growing public protests, strikes and boycotts, the ANC, PAC and AZAPO all organized their own underground military organizations, with arms being secretly funneled into the country from exiles and clandestine allies in surrounding states. South Africa was becoming an increasingly tense and violent powder keg, ready to be set off.
The 1976 Soweto Uprising, Internal Activism and Global Dimensions of Resistance
A group of high school students protesting during the 1976 Soweto Riots.
On June 16, 1976, a group of more than 10,000 Soweto school children planned a peaceful protest at Orlando Stadium against the government’s new policy of providing education in Afrikaans, the language of white Afrikaners, as opposed to English that had been the standard based on the British education system. The protest, organized by Soweto Student Representative’s Council (SSRC) and the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) was intended to be peaceful, but police blocked off the students’ initial route and the gathering quickly erupted into chaos. After the police opened fire on students armed only with rocks, at least 176 were killed, although it is said that as many as 700 youth may have died. A full 16 years after the horrendous Sharpeville Massacre, the Soweto Uprising once again focused an international spotlight on apartheid repression, while galvanizing youth throughout South Africa and making the black townships increasingly ungovernable. A year later, on September 12, 1977, founder of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) Steve Biko would be killed in detention, becoming a martyr and a national symbol of youth resistance. The impatience, fire and angst of Soweto youth ignited the final, most bloody and polarized phase of the anti-apartheid struggle that would not stop until the South African government unbanned the ANC and other liberation movements and released Mandela from prison on February 11, 1990.
Throughout the 80s the apartheid government doubled-down on its authoritarianism and state-of-emergency tactics, while it became increasingly isolated internationally as a pariah state. With Cold-War era support from U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the South Africa government had free reign in its cruelty – including banning activists through house arrest, detention without trial, torture and murder of prisoners in detention and kidnapping protest leaders – while also waging war against socialist governments in bordering states of Angola, Namibia, Mozambique and sustaining covert hostilities against Zimbabwe. The National Party’s grip on power was unbending, propped-up by the high price of gold within an international finance system that maintained strong government revenues and one of the world’s highest standards of living for South Africa’s wealthy white minority.
But behind the scenes, some business and political leaders recognized the situation as being untenable, and gradually initiated negotiations with ANC leaders in exile and with Nelson Mandela while he was still in prison. To his courage and credit, Mandela refused to renounce armed struggle in return for being released from prison; yet once he was freed, Mandela worked tirelessly to bring peace and reconciliation to South Africa. In the end, international events, the forces of economic globalization and worldwide resistance to apartheid would gradually break huge cracks in the fortified armor of the South African government. In Angola, the South African military suffered a humiliating defeat at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988 (in addition to other defeats in Angola in 1975 and 1976) that heralded new hope for South Africa’s black population – along with disillusionment among white South Africans and a strengthening of their own domestic anti-war movement.
Cuba’s interventions marked the first time an outside military force came to Africa to assist in the African people’s liberation, with Castro’s soldiers defeating the “White Giants” – Southern African military and paramilitary forces, armed and trained by the United States. Relentless work by international anti-apartheid activists to pass economic sanctions (particularly in the United States, where the Congress overrode a presidential veto by Ronald Reagan in 1986) as well as protests leading to the withdrawal of Citibank and calling back its loans to the South African government, creating panic in financial markets along with a dramatic drop in the South African rand/U.S. dollar exchange rate and capital flight.
The Congressional Black Caucus and the African American community were the spearhead of these protests, and deserve great credit for marshalling the moral ideals of the majority of Americans to steer the U.S. government toward passage of economic sanctions through the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. It is hard to overestimate the role sanctions played in devastating the South African economy and pressuring the National Party government to dismantle apartheid.
While South Africa’s police and security forces intensified their violent repression in the mid to late 80s, the National Party government seemed to be lashing out like a frightened, wounded and limping animal, cornered on all sides. Despite the government’s intransigence, in many ways large numbers of the white population had outgrown apartheid’s ideology, as the protest songs of South African popular music held forth a transcendent belief in a better, more hopeful multiracial future. Perhaps it can be said that the victory over apartheid, as well as Nelson Mandela’s release from prison – was truly a chain of interrelated global and domestic events, and a moral victory of the goodwill of ordinary citizens and activists.
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.” – Nelson Mandela
As we celebrate the memory of both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, let us remember that these great souls were figureheads of their movements, but no one leader acts alone. Both Dr. King and Nelson Mandela were at the vortex of the forces and wide-ranging actions of many groups and individuals. The life of Nelson Mandela, the death of apartheid and the peaceful transition toward South Africa’s new, multiracial democracy are a testament to what the world can accomplish when people of moral conscience and goodwill work together to end oppression.
Image credits: Nelson Mandela at Robben Island, Jurgen Schadeburg; Defiance Campaign, Jurgen Schadeburg; Rivonia Trial defendants, ANC archives; Soweto Uprising, Alf Khumalo; Nelson Mandela portrait, Greg Bartley.