COVER STORY: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
The legacy of Nelson Mandela
, July 6, 2013
At the time of writing, the 94-year-old former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, lay critically ill in hospital, forcing South Africans to contemplate life without the man who changed their country forever.
Born in 1918 to the family of minor African royalty in a village in Cape Province, Mandela was a beneficiary of efforts by Methodist missionaries to provide education for young Africans. He received both primary and secondary education through the Methodists, and eventually gained entry to the University of Fort Hare, one of the oldest universities in southern Africa, and the first to be open to non-white students.
The university became the place where many of the elite in post-independence African states received higher education.
Mandela did not graduate, having been suspended for leading a student boycott. Later, he became an articled clerk in Johannesburg, and studied arts by correspondence at the University of South Africa, before graduating as a lawyer from the University of Witwatersrand.
In the 1940s, he joined the African National Congress, an organisation working for equal rights for black Africans, and formed close friendships with African nationalists such as Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, and South African Communist Party members such as Joe Slovo and Ruth First.
Afrikaners took control of South Africa in the whites-only election in 1948, and proceeded to establish apartheid — that is, racial segregation — as a guiding principle of state. The African National Congress, Mandela and others were subjected to constant police harassment, suppression orders and arrest.
In 1955, the ANC convened a Congress of the People, which drafted a Freedom Charter declaring that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people”. It also called for the nationalisation of banks, gold mines and private land.
It confirmed the close working relationship between the ANC, the South African Communist Party and the Council of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which has been maintained to the present day.
In 1956, Mandela and other ANC leaders were arrested and charged with high treason, but after a lengthy trial were found not guilty.
In the meantime, the National Party implemented its policy of apartheid, the forcible separation of different races in South Africa. Later, it secured the support of a majority of the white population to become a republic in 1961, and withdrew from the British Commonwealth.
After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, when 69 protesters against the government’s pass laws were shot dead and hundreds injured, the ANC was declared an illegal organisation, and Mandela became a fugitive. The ANC then shifted further to the left, supporting the violent overthrow of the state, and Mandela went underground, until he was arrested in 1962.
He was convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment, the first 20 years of which he served on the notorious Robben Island prison, off Cape Town. He became the focus of international protests against apartheid as well as a symbol of resistance within South Africa.
An international trade sanctions campaign against South Africa, a campaign to free Mandela, and the defeat of the white minority government of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1980, forced the National Party to reconsider its position.
In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the white South African President F.W. de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC, and in 1990 unconditionally freed Mandela who demanded equal rights for all South Africans, but offered a policy of reconciliation with the Afrikaners.
In South Africa’s first multi-racial elections in 1994, Mandela was elected President, and the ANC won 62 per cent of the popular vote.
Presiding over the transition from apartheid minority rule to a multicultural democracy, Mandela saw national reconciliation as the primary task of his presidency. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to investigate human rights abuses by both the white government and the ANC.
Inheriting a deeply divided country, in which wealth and opportunity were overwhelmingly in the hands of whites, Mandela tried to restore the balance.
In a population of 40 million, around 23 million lacked electricity or adequate sanitation, and 12 million lacked clean water supplies. Two million children were not in school, and a third of the population was illiterate. There was 33 per cent unemployment, and just under half of the population lived below the poverty line.
Mandela retired in 1999, leaving his successor to continue his work. The ANC continues to dominate South African politics, but most of the social problems Mandela inherited remain. Additionally, South Africa has one of the highest rates of AIDS in the world, crime and domestic violence are very widespread, and the ANC government has been mired in allegations of bribery and corruption.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.