Recently, the world’s attention has turned to the health of Nelson Mandela, the vaunted anti-Apartheid fighter and former president of South Africa. Mandela was born and lived much of his life in a South Africa dramatically different than it is today, a testament to his own courage, tenacity and leadership.
South Africa’s history is marked by competition for land and power by competing groups, including the many different groups of black natives, the descendants of Dutch settlers known as Afrikaners, and British colonizers. In the beginning of the 20th century, British colonial powers began unifying the country. That consolidation also included the creation of a highly segregated society, with black South Africans ” the vast majority of the population ” relegated to second-class status.
Black South Africans were severely limited in their ability to own land outside of small “reserves” created for them, over 80 percent of land was held exclusively for whites. Blacks faced severe restrictions on their ability to vote, to enter the military, to travel without passes, to join with other workers in a strike or to enter into skilled trades. Other non-white groups faced similar barriers. Evolving ever more restrictively over the 20th century, this system became known as “Apartheid,”and it ensured complete control of the economic, political and landowning system by the white minority.
Within this context of oppression, the African National Congress emerged as a group organized to fight for black rights. As a young man in the 1940s, when he was a worker and a student, Nelson Mandela joined this group and became a committed activist, advancing high in the leadership of the ANC. He sought at first to achieve the liberation of his people through nonviolent means, organizing boycotts and strikes. When repression continued and even worsened ” in 1960 the “Sharpeville Massacre” saw police shoot dead 69 protestors ” Mandela turned to an armed campaign as a last resort.
He organized a campaign of bombings and other military actions, and was arrested for insurrection in 1962. Though a long trial drew worldwide sympathy and attention to Mandela’s political goals, he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Mandela would remain jailed for 27 years. Hard labor damaged his eyes, and he was often in solitary confinement, with limited outside contact. He rarely saw his family, missing the funeral of his son and the death of his mother. Gradually, through organizing prisoners and constant appeals, he improved conditions, allowing him greater contact with the outside world. Through letters and messages from visitors, he brought global attention to the cause of black freedom in South Africa, though some, including leaders from Great Britain and the U.S., still viewed him as a “terrorist.”
Eventually, with the help of international pressure and continued protest action, Apartheid began to crumble. Mandela was freed from prison in 1990, to the joy of the black South African majority and to his admirers around the world. Over the next several years, groups came together ” amid continued violence” to shape a new South Africa. In 1994, the first free and fair election in modern South African history saw Nelson Mandela elected. He was the first black president in the country’s history, and over the course of his term he brought the country together to heal the wounds of the past and to seek new, shared prosperity.
For his relentless devotion to equality and democracy, Mandela was awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. It is a fitting tribute to a leader who worked so hard to liberate his people, and who inspired people worldwide to demand justice and end oppression. In the words of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, ”Nelson Mandela never wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and learning. Despite terrible provocation, he never answered racism with racism. His life has been an inspiration to all who are oppressed and deprived, to all who are opposed to oppression and deprivation.”