In February of 1990, the United States news was abuzz with word that Nelson Mandela had been freed from prison after twenty-six years. I was a high school sophomore taking geography at that time, and in my complete ignorance of South Africa, I asked why people thought it was important that its government had released this particular prisoner. My friend Odetta looked at me like I had just said something very distasteful. Obviously I had a lot of catching up to do.
If you like to get your history in dramatic format, I suggest you watch the 2013 film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Watching it this afternoon gave me a lot of food for thought, and I hope to share that meal with you! My central question in framing Mandela’s life is this: How could a man imprisoned in 1964 be regarded as key to the future of his country in 1990 by both the existing government and the revolutionary forces within it?
Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 with the name Rolihlahla, meaning “troublemaker,” to a family of hereditary royal counselors in a tribe of the Xhosa people. Until age 16, he lived a tribal life, but after his ceremony marking him as a man he began attending a Western high school run by Methodists, where he received the name “Nelson” from his teacher. He continued to college at University of Fort Hare but was suspended for organizing a protest against the food quality. He then ran away from an arranged marriage and became a law clerk in Johannesburg in 1941 during the second World War. This is where the action picks up in the movie, as Mandela met Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo (both are very well known activists in South Africa). Mandela completed his college degree by correspondence with the University of South Africa, and he began studies as the only native African-ancestry law student at the University of Witwatersrand. His friendship with Sisulu, Tambo, and the fiery Anton Lembede led to the creation of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League in 1944.
I would interject here that the ANC has an interesting relationship with its own Youth League. Unlike the relationship between the United States Democratic Party and the Young Democrats of America on college campuses (where the former tries to train up its future talent by means of the latter), the ANC borrows rather heavily from the passion and energy of its younger members. One commonly sees the Youth League pushing the ANC to greater action, and Lembede and Mandela were quite a team for this.
1948 was a huge year for South African history as the National Party under D.F. Malan began leading the government of the country, passing the vile laws that put apartheid policies in place. Mandela was very forceful during this period, guiding the ANC to direct action rather than passive resistance. He also failed out of law school during this period, but in 1950, he took a seat on the ANC Executive Council. A 1952 Defiance Campaign led the ANC back to a passive resistance strategy, and Mandela’s oratory brought him to the attention of the law. Mandela qualified to become a fully-fledged attorney and opened a law practice with Tambo, frequently dealing with police brutality cases until the law firm was forcibly relocated by the government.
In 1955, Mandela was part of a large group that created the “Freedom Charter,” a document that influenced him for the rest of his life. His 1944 marriage broke down acrimoniously, and he married Winnie Madikizela in 1958. Mandela returned to his prior course of direct action rather than peaceful protest. The Sharpeville massacre in 1960 solidified this stance, and he began traveling the country (now a Republic) incognito to organize a new cell structure for the ANC. In 1961 he organized the Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”) with Susulu and leading communist Joe Slovo. He trained his fighters from manuals on guerrilla warfare. Umkhonto we Sizwe had essentially the same relationship to the ANC as the Irish Republican Army had with Sinn Fein in Ireland; the former was explicitly preparing for violence, while the latter served as the political wing. The new group began an extensive program of sabotage bombings, with 57 taking place on December 16, 1961.
In 1962, however, his fortunes changed considerably. He was arrested and sentenced to prison for five years. A raid on Liliesleaf Farm revealed how extensive his activities had become, and he was forced to stand trial on additional charges as part of the famous Rivonia Trial, where he delivered a three-hour speech in which he announced his willingness to die for his cause.
This, then, is the activist and saboteur whose legacy would be remembered by government and resistance alike for the 27 years of his incarceration. Memory of his leadership would lead to his followers demanding his release in the increasingly violent 1980s, and an apartheid government looking for any way out of the spreading danger would turn to him for answers. Happily, Mandela’s conviction that peace was the only viable future for all South Africans led to a peaceful transition to today’s democratic South Africa.