Tribute by Kapiti Independent Co-Editor Roger Childs
The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy… We want a just share in the whole of South Africa… I have cherished the idea 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 and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. Nelson Mandela at his trial for treason in 1963
His speech lasted several hours and could not be banned under the apartheid laws that applied outside courtrooms. The world heard the stirring appeal for justice and equality, and consequently the South African authorities decided that a life sentence rather than execution would be prudent for Mandela and his fellow accused.
Thirty years later he was able to achieve the goal of a free and democratic society in South Africa. In his own words, it was a long walk to freedom.
A respected figure worldwide
Over the last 40 years Nelson Mandela has been the world’s most revered political figure and is probably the only person who could merit the title of global elder statesman. He is most remembered as the man who spent 27 years as a prisoner of South Africa’s apartheid regime, mostly in the grim Robben Island prison near Capetown and then, on his release, became the country’s first black president.
However the political prisoner and president played many parts during his 94 years. He became active in opposing the government’s racist policies from his student days in the early 1940s and sixty years later was president of the nation. Mandela has been a lawyer, boxer, orator, revolutionary, freedom fighter, author, family man, catalyst for protest, Nobel Prize winner, ambassador for democratic South Africa and a hero around the world.
From village life to the national stage
Rolihlahla Mandela was born in 1918 in the Eastern Cape area. He was from the Thembu tribe – one of many Xhosa speaking peoples. It was one of his early teachers at a Methodist mission school who gave him the name Nelson. “Rolihlahla” in Xhosa means “pulling the branch of a tree,” but is commonly translated as “troublemaker.”
Mandela caused plenty of trouble for many authorities from the time he went to the country’s only Black University at Fort Hare. He was expelled for refusing to accept a position on the Student’s Representative Council and eventually finished arts and law degrees in Johannesburg. Along with his friend Oliver Tambo he set up the first Black African law firm.
In the early 1940s, Mandela was attracted to the African National Congress (ANC), the chief outlet for Black opposition to the white government’s segregation policies. He became a key figure in the Youth League of the ANC, which wanted the parent body to become more active in openly challenging white oppression. The League led the way and supported the successful 1943 Alexandra bus boycott which forced the white owned bus companies to abandon a fare increase.
Causing trouble for the white apartheid regimes
We the people of South Africa declare for our country and all the world to know: that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white and no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people. 1955 Freedom Charter
The 1948 election, in which only whites (20% of the population) could vote, brought the extremist National Party to power. The new government enacted apartheid (apartness) policies, which increasingly separated the races and suppressed non-white political opposition. Along with various anti-apartheid groups, the ANC used a range of tactics to try and undermine the white minority government. Mandela was a leading figure in this struggle.
- He was active in the 1952 Defiance Campaign where non-white refused to obey unjust laws and carried out acts of civil disobedience.
- He became ANC Vice-President in the early 1950s and was a key figure in on-going peaceful protests against apartheid laws.
- He was involved in editing the 1955 Freedom Charter.
- Though banned from political meetings, he attended the anti-apartheid 1955 Congress of the People at Kliptown, in disguise. The Freedom Charter was unveiled at this meeting.
- He stood trial for treason in 1956, along with 155 other activists who had been photographed and identified at Kliptown. In 1961 the accused were found not guilty.
- In 1961, conscious of the failure of peaceful tactics to end apartheid, he set up a military wing of the ANC: Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the nation). The violence carried out by Umkhonto however, was aimed at infrastructure, not people.
- In 1962, Mandela and Oliver Tambo slipped out of the country to raise international support for their cause.
On his return in late 1962 he was arrested and put on trial. Along with other ANC leaders Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment. The Times in London observed: The picture that emerges is that of men goaded beyond endurance… The verdict of history will be that the ultimate guilty party is the government in power.
Free Nelson Mandela!
From this time on, anti-apartheid groups around the world, including New Zealand, continued to protest against the South African government’s racist policies and for the release of all political prisoners.
In the mid 1980s, the popular song Free Nelson Mandela was hugely popular and in 1988, on his 70th birthday, millions around the world linked up in a mammoth pop concert dedicated to the man who symbolised the anti-apartheid cause.
Free Nelson Mandela
21 years in captivity
Shoes too small to fit his feet
His body abused, but his mind is still free
You’re so blind that you cannot see
South Africa’s President and global senior statesman
His achievement has been dependent on mastering politics in its broadest sense, on understanding how to move and persuade people and change their attitudes. Biographer Anthony Sampson
In 1990, the newly elected leader of the National Party, F W de Klerk, abandoned apartheid, and Nelson Mandela and other political detainees were released. South Africa held its first democratic election in 1994 and, as expected, the ANC swept to power. Nelson Mandela became president.
As head of state, he travelled the world, including a visit to New Zealand, and gained international respect for his work in bringing about a peaceful transition from white minority rule to multi-racial democracy. He gained many awards, including the prestigious Noble Peace Prize which he shared with de Klerk.
In the area of sport, which had been a crucial part of boycotts against the apartheid government, Mandela was very active. After the 1995 Rugby World Cup victory against the All Blacks, Nelson Mandela, sporting a Springbok jersey, presented the Webb Ellis Cup to captain Francois Pienaar. He was also a key figure in securing the hosting rights for the 2010 Football World Cup in South Africa.
After retiring from politics he worked with other world leaders in addressing global problems and was a key figure in recognising the seriousness of the Aids epidemic in Africa.
A towering figure on the world stage
No political figure has been held in higher esteem in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries than Nelson Mandela. In the words of America’s first black president, Barack Obama, made in a speech shortly before the great man’s death: Nelson Mandela is a towering historical figure who paved the way to social justice and racial reconciliation in a nation torn asunder by generations of white-minority rule.