Baba G. Jallow, Ph. D.
Assistant Professor of History
Director, African Studies Program
On Thursday, December 5, 2013, the world received the news it has been dreading for the past several years: Nelson Mandela was dead at age 95. Born on July 18, 1918, the former South African president spent 27 years of his life in prison before being released by F. W. de Klerk, the last president of Apartheid South Africa in 1990. In 1994, he became the first black president of South Africa after that country’s first multi-racial, democratic elections in over 300 years. After serving a single term of five years, Mandela stepped down from the presidency in 1999 and was succeeded by Thabo Mbeki. After his retirement from politics, Mandela set up the Nelson Mandela Foundation in 1999 and dedicated much time and energy to the fight against HIV/AIDS, lack of adequate school buildings in South Africa, and other humanitarian causes. During his lifetime, Mandela has won over 250 honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. He goes into history as one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known and will ever know.
Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) in the early 1940s. In 1944, he and other young members of the ANC formed the ANC Youth League with a mission to further radicalize the organization. Founded by John Dube as the South African Native National Congress in 1912, the ANC got its current name in 1923. Dube was influenced by the ideas of Booker T. Washington, and because Washington was largely a pacifist who encouraged Black Americans to be content to just gain technical skills which would then make them acceptable to white society, the early ANC was not as radical as Mandela, Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu and other young members wanted. They formed the ANC Youth League to inject more energy into the organization.
Mandela and members of the ANC Youth League did not immediately turn to violence against the South African government. Even after Apartheid became official state policy with the coming into power of the Purified National Party in 1948, the ANC still used peaceful means to advocate for the rights of black and colored people in South Africa. But Apartheid brooked no opposition, however peaceful.
In 1956, Mandela, Luthuli and other 154 members of the ANC were arrested and tried on treason charges. The trial lasted until 1961 when all the defendants were acquitted and discharged. It was not until the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 that the ANC leaders decided that the only effective way to deal with the Apartheid regime was through violent revolution. Consequently, Mandela and his colleagues went underground and formed Unkhomto we Sizwe (MK) or Spear of the Nation in 1961 to engage the Apartheid regime through guerrilla tactics.
In 1962, Mandela was arrested again and sentenced to five years imprisonment. While he served his term, further charges of plotting to overthrow the government were brought against him. A new trial at Rivonia found him guilty and he was sentenced to life imprisonment in June 1964. First kept in Robben Island prison, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison and eventually to Victor Verster Prison from where he was released on February 11, 1990.
Throughout the period of his incarceration, the MK conducted relentless bombing campaigns and other acts of guerrilla warfare against the Apartheid regime from bases in what were known as the Frontline States: Botswana, Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, bordering South Africa to the north.
By 1990, prominent members of the National Party Government in South Africa had realized that Apartheid was no longer a feasible government policy. The MK’s bombing and guerilla warfare was exacting a heavy toll on South Africa’s internal security. Mass protests and demonstrations, especially in the aftermath of the Soweto riots and massacre of June 1976, and the state-killing of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko in 1977, were making it impossible for the South African government to maintain order. By the 1980s, the anti-Apartheid movement had become so persistent that Prime Minister P. W. Botha declared a state of emergency and launched what he called his Total Strategy because, in his estimation, his government was under a Total Onslaught by anti-Apartheid groups in the country.
At the same time, international pressure against the Apartheid regime had steadily picked up steam in the 1970s and gained momentum in the 1980s. Anti-Apartheid UN Resolutions and protest marches had become a common feature of international politics by 1985. When the U.S. Senate overrode a veto by President Reagan and passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986, the Pretoria regime began to crumble in upon itself.
Washington was one of the strongest supporters of the Apartheid regime since its inception in 1948, which coincided with the heating up of the Cold War. Taking advantage of the anti-communist paranoia in Washington and other Western capitals, the Apartheid regime branded the ANC, the Pan-Africanist Congress, the Black Consciousness Movement and all other anti-Apartheid groups communist and thereby won the unconditional support of successive U.S. governments. This all changed in 1986 when the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act imposed trade and travel sanctions against South Africa, demanded an end to Apartheid, called for the release of Nelson Mandela and asked for a time-table for the conduct of democratic elections in that country. When F. W. de Klerk took over after P. W. Botha’s resignation in 1989, he knew he had to end Apartheid or risk letting South Africa slide into full-blown civil war and economic ruin.
Mandela and the ANC were swept to power in the first democratic elections in South Africa in 342 years. Since Jan van Riebeck, an agent of the Dutch East India Company landed at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, the majority of South Africans had suffered racial discrimination and oppression by a small group of white rulers and their enablers, including black South Africans. For the first time in 1994, the disenfranchised people of South Africa enjoyed universal adult suffrage and voted overwhelmingly for Mandela and the ANC.
Shortly after coming into power, Mandela and the ANC government passed the Promotion of National Unity Act which set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Under the Chairmanship of Bishop Desmond Tutu, the TRC was mandated to help South Africans deal with their violent past. Perpetrators of Apartheid era atrocities were encouraged to come forward and confess to their crimes. Where their crimes were not too extreme, these people were granted amnesty by the TRC and their victims and their families granted some compensation. Where their atrocities were too much to forgive, or where they denied committing crimes in the face of evidence, their cases were passed on to the judicial system and they were tried and if found guilty, convicted.
Through the TRC process, Mandela was able to help South Africa come to terms with its violent past and helped its people to learn to live together as a rainbow nation. While the TRC has been criticized on many fronts, it was a lesser of two evils: the greater evil being allowing a regime of retributions and vendettas to grip South Africa and lead to untold consequences for the newly freed nation.
But while the TRC was certainly one of Mandela’s greatest achievements, his abiding legacy for most Africans is the fact that he stepped down from power after serving only one five-year term as president of South Africa. In a continent with a long and ugly tradition of sit-tight dictators who cling on to power for as long as they are alive, Mandela’s act represented an example that will yet be South Africa’s ultimate saving grace. Once he set that precedent, no South African president will ever be able to cling on to power beyond their mandated terms. Having given all his adult life to the struggle for justice in South Africa, Mandela could have continued winning elections for as long as he wanted; but he was an honorable giant who would not stoop that low and who had the honor, the integrity and the foresight to know that stepping down after only one term was perhaps the best service he could render his people. They are no doubt grateful for that honorable gesture. And so are all of us who long for leaders of Mandela’s stature in Sub-Saharan Africa.