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Michael Jansen: Mandela — one-man army of forgiveness
December 13, 2013
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Nelson Mandela was the last of the 20th century’s towering figures. They include Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Winston Churchill, and Charles De Gaulle. Mandela, who died last week at 95, was also the greatest of the African liberation figures. As well as being an inspirational and practical politician, he served only one term, did not rule autocratically or tolerate corruption.

The Indian and South African freedom struggles were connected by the Mahatma who began his career as a liberator in South Africa where he spent 21 years (from 1893-1914) and fought for the rights of Indian merchants and indentured labourers and, ultimately, for all coloured people. Gandhi evolved his strategy of resistance by civil disobedience while in South Africa and helped found the Natal Indian Congress in 1894, on which the African National Congress (ANC), established in 1912, was modelled. It is fitting that India’s President Pranab Mukherjee should be in South Africa for Mandela’s memorial events.

Born in 1918 into the Thembu royal family of the Xhosa tribe, Mandela grew up in the village of Qunu where he tended cattle as a child. He was sent to a local Christian school, where he was baptised and a teacher gave him the name “Nelson.” His mother placed the boy under the guardianship of a tribal chief who treated him as a son and sent him to secondary school at one of the few institutions for black Africans.

Mandela attended college and then worked for a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Fort Hare, an elite black institution. During this time, he made friends with men who would be his comrades in arms when he eventually joined the ANC. He served as a clerk in a law firm before undertaking law studies and joining the ANC in 1943 and became a leader in its youth wing.

At that time, he adopted the view that the black African struggle should be independent of Indians, still engaged in their own campaign against discrimination, and of Communists, who supported the black cause. It gained momentum after the 1948 election, which disenfranchised non-whites and propelled into power the hardline white racist National Party.

Mandela and his comrades were up against one of the oldest, most deeply entrenched colonial regimes which was supported by the West during the Cold War. The National Party transformed into law the racial separation doctrine imposed on South Africa when the Dutch began colonisation in the 17th century. This doctrine and its practical application was maintained by Britain as it took control of the country in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1931, the Union of South Africa was granted independence from Britain.

The newly adopted laws classified people as white, black, coloured and Indian. Fertile land went to white farmers while blacks were given about seven per cent of the land — the poorest, naturally. Residential areas, buses, trains, schools, and hospitals were segregated.

Facilities for non-whites were inferior. Non-white political representation ended in 1970 and Africans, called “bantu,” 80 per cent of the population, were deprived of their citizenship and compelled to become citizens of 10 impoverished tribal homelands, known as “bantustans.” Any mixing or gathering of people of different races was illegal.

Mandela used his skills as a lawyer to help free the ANC leadership during the infamous Treason Trial of 1956-61. Following the 1960 Sharpville massacre when 69 Africans were slain by police during a demonstration, Mandela co-founded the ANC’s militant wing. Along with the Communist party, this group mounted sabotage operations with the aim of forcing the government to change its policies.

Mandela insisted that such operations should involve no loss of life but he was ignored when radicals took over and the conflict escalated. He was arrested in 1962, convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the regime, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

He spent 27 years in prison, mainly on Robben Island, where ANC members were forced to do backbreaking physical labour but also managed to meet and formulate ANC policy. During this period, Mandela studied, wrote, learned patience, petitioned the authorities for improved prison conditions, and developed generosity of spirit.

But it was not until 1978 that international interest in Mandela began to grow. He was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1979 and in March 1980 the slogan “Free Mandela” was adopted, launching a campaign that prompted the UN Security Council to call for his release. However, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and US president Ronald Reagan considered him a Communist “terrorist” and backed the crackdown on the ANC. Violence spread across South Africa.

On February 2, 1990, realising that the situation was untenable, president FW De Klerk declared an end to apartheid, lifted the banning order on the ANC, and abrogated the repressive laws that had been put in place by his predecessors. Nine days later Mandela was freed. Although he had been in prison much of the time the ANC waged its anti-apartheid campaign, he had personified that struggle.

When he visited London two months after his release, he was greeted by thousands at Wembley stadium at a concert staged to provide financial aid to poor South Africans. During the televised concert he appealed to the international community to back the ANC’s continuing fight against apartheid. Although abolished by law, apartheid’s abuses continued.

In 1991, Mandela was elected president of the ANC and in 1993, he and De Klerk won the Nobel Peace Prize. Mandela was elected president in the country’s first free election in 1994.

He formed a government of national unity and established the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” with the aim of making a peaceful transition from the apartheid system to a fully democratic South Africa. He succeeded in this major endeavour and deserves credit for preventing a slide into civil conflict between whites seeking to reinstall apartheid and Africans determined to take revenge for centuries of hardship and abuse.

While Mandela brought in social welfare measures to improve the lives of his own people, crushed by poverty and discrimination, South Africa remains deeply divided between a minority of comfortable whites and the majority of poor blacks.

He also failed to address HIV/Aids. When he began his presidency about 1 per cent of the population was infected. Today, the figure is 18 per cent. After his second son died of Aids, he took a strong stand against the disease.

Mandela was not a saint. He was a great man who rose above his circumstances to liberate his people, confined by the cruel corral of apartheid.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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