A fighter for equality
South Africa’s first black president who fought for peace, forgave his enemies, inspired change
Published: Friday, December 13, 2013
Updated: Friday, December 13, 2013 17:12
There are few figures of the 20th century who stood as tall as Nelson Mandela.
Mandela, the former president of South Africa, died on Thursday at his home in South Africa. He was 95 years old.
Leaders in South Africa, and from around the world, took to the public stage to voice their words of mourning and remembrance for the man many see as the greatest fighter for freedom the world has ever known.
Yet, there was a time when Mandela was not held in nearly the esteem he is at the time of his death. Mandela had a place on the terrorist watch list until 2008. The United Kingdom’s former prime minister Margaret Thatcher went as far as to call Mandela a communist terrorist during her time in office.
The United States even once cast a vote in the U.N. Security Council against Mandela being freed from prison.
Mandela himself once said, “I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies. I am admired by the very people who said I was a terrorist.”
President of Diablo Valley College’s Pan African Union, Dieudonne Brou, said, “You have to study history. You have to put what he was fighting for into context in order to understand Nelson Mandela.”
South African history is a history of struggle against racism, a history of violence and is intimately tied to Mandela.
South Africa was once a British colony, but became a commonwealth country in the early 20th century. And in 1948, South Africa’s white-run minority government instituted a policy of segregation known as apartheid, which literally means “the state of being apart.”
The South African government passed laws that gave rights to people based upon which of the four racial categories the government instituted they fell into. The categories were white, coloured, Indian and black, and stepping out of the rights designated by your racial category was punishable often by death or imprisonment. The right to vote in national elections was taken from the black natives of South Africa — which removed their power to change public policy. By denying them the vote on the national stage, they could not improve their own living standards and were at the mercy of the white controlled government, which represented a very small minority of South Africans.
Today, according to their own census, white South Africans represent only 5 percent of the country.
Pass laws were also instituted. These laws made it illegal for black South Africans to travel between cities and regions in their own country without first being approved by a white official. By 1970, black South Africans were officially made non-citizens by the government.
Though they could trace their roots back to the soil they stood on, black South Africans had had their country stolen from them, completely.
Mandela was 30 years old when the policy of apartheid was instituted in his homeland. Mandela joined the African National Congress, a group dedicated to fighting for the rights of black South Africans. He quickly became very vocal about his belief that violence needed to be used in order to achieve equality and freedom.
The ANC initially opposed Mandela’s view, but would come to change their minds dramatically.
In 1960, thousands of South Africans gathered in the town of Sharpeville to protest the pass laws the government instituted. The crowd marched toward the police station in town, where 300 white police officers were waiting. The officers reportedly became nervous, and begun firing into the crowd, injuring almost 189 people, killing 69. The entry wounds of those shot were shown to be primarily in their backs.
The ANC quickly instituted the “M-Plan.” The plan called for bombings of government institutes as well as public gathering places that were frequented by the white minority of South Africa. The plan also called for political assassinations.
Mandela was not free for long. In 1963, only three years after he had begun leading the UmKhonto we Sizwe — the group within the ANC tasked with carrying out the M-Plan — Mandela found himself arrested and on trial for sabotage against the government. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
From prison Mandela would write. His critics have linked his writings to subsequent bombings that occurred in the 1980s. In 1976, Jimmy Kruger, South Africa’s minister for police, offered Mandela his freedom if he completely renounced violence as a political weapon. Mandela chose to remain in prison.
In prison Mandela spent his time taking correspondence classes from Oxford University and fighting to improve the conditions of prisons for his fellow inmates. He also had letters smuggled out to leaders within the ANC that were still fighting for freedom.
The U.N. Security Council, as well as leaders from around the world, called for Mandela’s release, yet the South African government refused. Only three world leaders, including then U.S. President Ronald Reagan, opposed Mandela’s release. Concerts, marches, and rallies were held world wide in protest of South African apartheid and for the release of Mandela.
His release came in 1990, after spending 27 years behind bars in some of South Africa’s harshest prisons. Quickly after his release the political climate in South Africa began changing, and in 1994 Mandela was elected as South Africa’s first black president. He was the first president elected in a completely democratic South Africa.
His struggle for the freedom and equality of his people is not what makes Mandela a truly heroic icon. It is what he did when he was released from prison that makes him a legend.
Contra Costa Community College District Governing Board President John Marquez said, “His policy of unity is what makes him amazing. He never dwelled on his time in prison and when he was released he forgave his enemies. That’s what makes him a great man.”