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Mandela: Hero Thwarted

Posted on Dec 8, 2013
AP/Ben Curtis

A well-wisher pens a message on a poster of Nelson Mandela in the street outside Mandela’s old house in Johannesburg on Friday.

By Alexander Reed Kelly

Though he is popularly regarded as one of the most significant political figures of the late 20th century, Nelson Mandela, the former South African president who became a living symbol for peace, dignity and reconciliation after 27 years as a political prisoner, played only a peripheral role in my political education. Since his death from natural causes at age 95 on Thursday, innumerable articles by people far more informed than I have sprung up across the Web, rendering the prospect of my saying something useful about the meaning of his life more conspicuously absurd. Nonetheless, I did what I could in a Saturday reading about the man—grasping along the way that like all dead people of public consequence, his memory would be twisted, cleansed and bent, especially by the right—and will share some of what I found and what I thought of it here.

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The legal policy of racial and social segregation known as apartheid, which translates literally from the local Afrikaans to “apart-hood,” goes back to the consolidation of political and economic power in the Dutch and British colonial-based South African National Party in 1948. Naturally within colonialism, the white minority, which at the time enjoyed the highest standard of living in all of Africa, exerted near complete control over the vastly larger black majority. Members of the black underclass were disadvantaged in every way: They suffered lower incomes, marginal educational opportunities, poor housing conditions and shorter life expectancies. Early in the ’40s, while working as a law clerk during his 20s, Mandela was exposed to and became sympathetic with the pro-black African National Congress party. Only whites were allowed to vote in the election of 1948. Against the increasing power of the openly racist National Party, Mandela, now studying law and gaining influence in the ANC, pushed the organization in a “more radical and revolutionary” direction.

In 1950 Mandela was elected national leader of the youth league of the ANC. He consumed and took seriously works by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin, the traditional texts of communism. On pragmatic grounds, he adopted Mahatma Gandhi’s method of nonviolent resistance. He gave speeches to crowds of 10,000 people, was arrested, rose higher in the ANC’s ranks and was arrested again. A full-fledged attorney in 1953, he opened Mandela and Tambo in downtown Johannesburg, the only African-run law firm in the country. During this time he struggled to be a husband and raise a family while evidence he was having affairs with ANC members alienated him from his family, and his wife, who was uncomfortable with his civic interests, joined the officially politically neutral Jehovah’s Witnesses. (The two divorced in 1957.)

The failure of nonviolence to secure political victories against the oppressive ruling whites persuaded Mandela to turn to “armed and violent resistance.” He sent for weapons from Communist China and advocated the transformation of South Africa into a democratic, non-segregated state with public control over major industries. The arrests and crackdowns under various laws designed to keep the black majority from organizing continued. Riots broke out, people were killed and Mandela was unsuccessfully tried over a period of six years for treason. Following the not guilty verdict in 1961 he co-founded a militant group inspired by Fidel Castro’s success in the Cuban Revolution. The members committed acts of sabotage, bombing military facilities, power plants, telephone lines and transportation routes with minimal casualties in attempt to scare the government into cooperation. Possibly with help from the CIA, the South African authorities captured him in August 1962. He was initially sentenced to five years in prison on charges of inciting worker strikes and leaving the country without permission. The charges became more serious when a raid on a farm turned up paperwork linking Mandela with the sabotage group: four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. The accused used the trial to give impassioned speeches giving voice to the organization’s cause, with Mandela famously ending an address with the words: “If needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” The court found the members of Mandela’s party to be violent communist agitators and in June 1964 sentenced them to life in prison, rather than death, which was expected.

The next stage of his life is the one most amenable to legend. Twenty-seven years in prison in damp, tuberculosis-producing cells measuring little longer or wider than a man is tall, forced to perform manual labor in the blinding sun without protection, which damaged his eyesight, refused newspapers, permitted at times only one visit and letter every six months, and locked in solitary confinement for possessing smuggled news clippings. He struggled to continue his education, debating politics with fellow prisoners. He was kept from attending funerals for his mother and his son and denounced as a terrorist by some of his capitalist bête noires, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In time his privileges improved. A commanding officer’s respect enabled him to create a roof garden and read and correspond more frequently. He enjoyed the support of a devoted second wife: social worker, ANC member and current member of parliament Winnie Mandela, whom he married in 1958. A lucky break came when the country’s then-president, P.W. Botha, attempted to divide the anti-apartheid movement across race lines by granting Indian and other citizens the right to vote for their own parliaments but withholding the right from blacks. Mandela had been appointed a leader of the multiracial United Democratic Front, and in 1985, when violence across the country flared and economic stagnation became possible due to the withdrawal of investments from the country by international banks, Botha sought to defuse the situation by offering to release Mandela. Mandela refused on the grounds that the ANC remained an illegal organization. Violence between the government and the organization continued. Secret talks Botha held with his cabinet led to the terms that political prisoners—including Mandela—would be released and the ANC legalized provided they permanently renounced violence, broke ties with the Communist Party and promised not to insist on majority rule. Mandela held his ground and refused the offer, demanding that the government renounce violence too.


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In 1989 a single health crisis changed history. President Botha suffered a stroke, and his successor, F.W. de Klerk, heeding the demands of growing international pressure, announced apartheid was unsustainable. After freeing all other political prisoners, de Klerk in 1990 freed Mandela, then 71, unconditionally, and legalized all formerly banned political parties. Apartheid was dismantled in a series of negotiations from 1990 to 1993. The 1994 elections, the first in South Africa with universal suffrage, saw the election of an ANC government with more than 62 percent of the vote. Nelson Mandela was its president.

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