“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
—Nelson Mandela, statement from the dock at opening of his trial [aka the Rivonia trial] on charges of sabotage, Supreme Court of South Africa, Pretoria, April 20, 1964
We wish to join with the thousands, indeed millions of admirers around the world who are paying tribute to the wise and dignified world leader who died yesterday in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the age of 95. When one considers that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years by the apartheid government of South Africa, subjected to a life sentence of hard labor and often solitary confinement, it is a wonder he even survived to be released in 1990, much less that he lived another 23 years.
We admire Mandela not only for his courage to risk his life in opposing a cruel, oppressive regime, not only for his will to survive through a potentially never-ending imprisonment, but also for his insistence on making peace and building a “rainbow” country where many ethnicities coexist. One of Mandela’s greatest achievements, besides being the first black president of South Africa (1994–99), was his establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation commission to investigate human rights abuses carried out by the apartheid regime of the Afrikaner National Party that ruled South Africa from 1948 to 1994. (The white Afrikaners, mostly descendants of Dutch colonialists, comprised only about 20 percent of the population.)
Wikipedia summarizes his early life:
A Xhosa born to the Thembu royal family, Mandela attended the Fort Hare University and the University of Witwatersrand, where he studied law. Living in Johannesburg, he became involved in anti-colonial politics, joining the [African National Congress] and becoming a founding member of its Youth League. After the South African National Party came to power in 1948, he rose to prominence in the ANC’s 1952 Defiance Campaign, was appointed superintendent of the organization’s Transvaal chapter and presided over the 1955 Congress of the People. Working as a lawyer, he was repeatedly arrested for seditious activities and, with the ANC leadership, was unsuccessfully prosecuted in the Treason Trial from 1956 to 1961. Although initially committed to non-violent protest, he co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1961 in association with the South African Communist Party, leading a sabotage campaign against the apartheid government. In 1962 he was arrested, convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the government, and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial.
Rachel Maddow opened her show last night with a concise but comprehensive overview of the apartheid (Afrikaans = “apartness”) system that Mandela and other South African activists risked their lives to oppose, including a brief account of the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 in which the South African police opened fire on a crowd of protesters, killing 69. Rachel spoke with Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, who described how inspiring the South African struggle was to young American civil rights activists were inspired by the courage of the South African resistance movement, and later spoke with former congressman and Oakland mayor Ron Dellums about the push for divestment from South African corporations that finally cracked the De Klerk regime.
In “Six Things Nelson Mandela Believed That Most People Won’t Talk About,” Think Progress reminds us:
1. Mandela blasted the Iraq War and American imperialism.
2. Mandela called freedom from poverty a “fundamental human right.”
3. Mandela criticized the “War on Terror” and the labeling of individuals as terrorists, even Osama Bin Laden, without due process.
4. Mandela called out racism in America.
5. Mandela embraced some of America’s biggest political enemies [he is shown embracing Fidel Castro].
6. Mandela was a die-hard supporter of labor unions.
All of these stands make us admire him even more. Read the whole piece for important details.
And, demonstrating how this principled activist was an annoyance and a threat to the views of the right in the U.S. as well as in Johannesburg and London, Think Progress also details “The Right Wing’s Campaign to Discredit and Undermine Mandela, in One Timeline.”
Anti-Apartheid Activism at LSU and South Africa House in London
On a personal note, we recall attending a lecture at LSU in the mid 1980s by South African journalist Donald Woods, a close friend of Steve Biko, leader of the anti-apartheid Black Consciousness Movement who had died from beatings while in police custody. Woods was banned from editorship of his newspaper and harassed by the South African government; he fled South Africa and became a traveling spokesman against apartheid. (Peter Gabriel recorded the popular song “Biko” , and director Richard Attenborough made a popular film of the story of Woods and Biko’s friendship, starring Kevin Kline and Denzel Washington, titled Cry Freedom .)
We were in London in the summer of 1986 and witnessed the large anti-apartheid protests outside South Africa House, the embassy, in Trafalgar Square, where demonstrators were holding up Divest Now posters and chanting against the whites-only regime in that former British colony. Some years later, the anti-apartheid protests were going strong in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well—and that is one reason why, when Mandela toured the United States a half year after his release from prison, he came to Oakland to thank the citizens of the Bay Area for their strong push for institutions there, including the University of California, to divest from South African companies. The financial pressure took a toll, and at length the regime buckled and released Mandela and took steps to dismantle the apartheid system.
2013: Passing of African Lions
We note with sadness but enduring respect that this year has seen the death of two great men of Africa who are admired around the world. In March the renowned Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe (b. 1930), author of Things Fall Apart, died at the age of 82. Things Fall Apart (1958) has been translated into about 50 languages and has sold some 8 to 10 million copies. Guardian (U.K.) obituary of Achebe here.
The Guardian (U.K.)
The Times (Johannesburg)
Statement by President Barack Obama on the Death of Nelson Mandela
Audio recording of Mandela’s statement at the Rivonia trial, April 20, 1964 (from National Archives of South Africa)
Photo credit: Greg Bartley / Camera Press / Redux. Free Mandela poster found at The Man in the Green Shirt (Tumblr blog).