Asia, Africa And Mideast History

The Role of Nelson Mandela in the Fight against Apartheid in South Africa

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"The Role of Nelson Mandela in the Fight against Apartheid in South Africa"
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Nelson Mandela was a persistent, untiring activist in the "push" to end apartheid in South Africa. He was more than an active, revolutionary leader in the fight against British apartheid in South Africa. He was a peacemaker, a quiet achiever, even during his 27 year long confinement in Robben Island prison. He was a visionary, dreaming of a "rainbow government" for South Africa. In short, his pivotal role in South African politics changed the tide of African and world history.

Preparation for this important role began with Mandela's childhood experiences. A black world ruled by a "foreign" British and Dutch white world was the only world Nelson Mandela knew growing up. When he was born in 1918, South African independence was only 8 years old. His grooming for Xhosa chieftainship meant nothing in this world. He was one of the lucky "black" ones to get some education before laws established low standard school systems for non whites. (By 1978, statistics show that average education expenditure on whites was $696 per child. For blacks, it was $45 per child.

And Nelson Mandela turned his "fortunate life" into a strength. He was determined to give other black people the right to such a life.

In the early days of his political career, Nelson Mandela actively tried to overturn a string of white government, apartheid legislations by leading protests and demonstrations. When the National Party gained office in 1948, elected by white voters only, the raw reality of apartheid or "apartness" became locked in a series of laws. Racial segregation was fast becoming a way of life in Africa. The African National Congress (ANC) had been founded in 1912. It was a major political party trying to steer South Africa away from the misery of discrimination. By 1948, it was developing a militant programme because all attempts to stem the violent racial tide had failed. But, in 1944, there was a new dimension to the ANC. Nelson Mandela and other young nationalists formed a resistance organization known as the ANC Youth League.

To understand the importance of Mandela's role in South African politics, it is necessary to consider the political climate of the time. In 1950, the Population Registration Act required that all South Africans be racially classified into white, black (African), or colored (of mixed decent). The Group Areas Act established separate areas for each race. Members of one race were forbidden to live, work, or own land in areas owned by other races. Pass Laws required non-whites to carry a "pass" to travel in white areas. And the ultimate insult was the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act. It created several small "nations" within South Africa for black South Africans. All black South Africans, regardless of where they lived, were citizens of homelands, while more than 80% of South Africa's land was set aside for its minority white residents; they were less than 10% of the South Africa population. Other laws ensured racial contact was limited and even public facilities were segregated. So all this meant that the "not welcome" mat was put out to the blacks. This meant "if you live here, expect over-crowding and no western privileges". This act also meant blacks were "aliens" in South Africa, excluded from participating in its government.

Mandela reacted, leading a series of protests. If one failed, he simply tried another. His determination inspired others to keep following him; and the followers were a mix of blacks, coloureds and those whites who opposed apartheid. He inspired them all. First, he opened the first black legal firm in 1952. The ANC (Mandela was the Transvaal president of the ANC by now), was banned after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. This was when whites slaughtered a group of blacks who refused to carry their passes. But, undeterred, Mandela simply found another way to lead a revolution against apartheid. In the same year, he created Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) which led a campaign of sabotage against any government institutions. For this, he was convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. But at least he could know that he had been instrumental in bringing the racial atrocities in South Africa to world attention. In 1961, South Africa was forced to leave the British Commonwealth. South Africa's apartheid grievances were impacting on world history.

Mandela's spirit was still not broken. Prison was simply another opportunity to mend racial barriers. He interacted with warders and staff, determined to learn Afrikaans, the language of the white minority Dutch group of settlers. And he put his earlier "education privileges" to work while laboring with the prisoners in a lime quarry. Robben Island was a prison primarily for political activists. They were a motley bunch. And Mandela united them with words from literature, ironically, mainly British literature, and especially Shakespeare. In short, he educated them in a white man's culture. And the play "Waiting for Godot", by Samuel Beckett, was a particular favourite. The theme of "endless waiting" suited the prisoners' spirit.

Finally, in 1990, most of the apartheid laws were repealed by the new president of South Africa F.W. de Clerke; he lifted the 30 year ban on the ANC and released political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela. At last the repressive era of P. W. Botha was over. White South Africans, in March 1992, voted to end apartheid and, in 1994, South Africa hosted its first multi-racial election. Nelson Mandela became president of a new, democratic "rainbow" South Africa, the South Africa of his dream. Mandela's new government reflected his values of a harmonious, multi-racial society. His government had black, white, Indian, coloured, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Communist, liberal and conservative ministers. Never in Africa, or the world, had such a government been seen.

Nelson Mandela held the magic key for ending apartheid. Instead of meeting discrimination with violence and cruelty with revenge, he tapped into the spirit of all people, regardless of race. He taught the value of the "inside person". He appealed to peoples' need to feel safe and equal, educated and free. He gave people a common will and a love to learn and to let learn. In short, he awakened an understanding of a common spirit.

In 1964, when facing trial, Mandela explained why he did not choose to stir up open, armed revolt against apartheid. "It has taken more than fifty years for the scars of the South African War to disappear. How much longer would it take to eradicate the scars of inter-racial civil war, which could not be fought without a great loss of life on both sides?" ( This is a man who cares not just for black humanity, but all humanity.

Nelson Mandela was more than a leader in the apartheid stakes; he was a quiet, timely mentor that humanity sorely needed.




More about this author: Gemma Wiseman