The young Madiba was coming of age in the 1940s. As the rest of the world seemed to be marching to freedom, South Africa was turning back the clock. After the 1948 election in which only whites were allowed to vote, long-standing discrimination was expanded and codified into legislation, inaugurating the apartheid era. Madiba threw himself into the struggle to overthrow apartheid and embraced Marxism, partly influenced by friends and partly because the Soviet Union was supporting wars of independence in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
The apartheid government cloaked its suppression of the black majority in the garb of an anti-communist struggle. The Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 led to the creation of a brutal police state where suppression became the norm. In February 1955, Madiba participated in the protest that failed to prevent the demolition of the all-black Sophiatown suburb of Johannesburg. This proved a turning point. He declared that the African National Congress (ANC) “had no alternative to armed and violent resistance” because “the attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with only bare hands.”
After the Sharpville massacre on March 21, 1960, Madiba co-founded the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or “Spear of the Nation,” which began guerilla attacks against the apartheid government. On August 5, 1962, he was captured. Madiba’s conduct during the trial that followed made him a hero. Instead of defending himself, he set out to make a case for the moral bankruptcy of apartheid. On October 15, he turned up in traditional garb, a kaross made of leopard skin because, as he told his white legal adviser, “I want our people to see me as a black man in the white man’s court.” He did that and more. In the years to come, the subsequent Rivonia Trial, named after the farmhouse where a number of ANC leaders were apprehended, would stand as a symbol of injustice throughout the world.
Madiba’s closing speech in the Rivonia Trial questioned the legitimacy of the court that was sentencing him. The trial had attracted enormous international attention, which might be the reason why Madiba was not sentenced to death. Instead, he was imprisoned for life, but only after his speech exposed the toxic nature of apartheid. He pointed out the terrible human and moral cost of white supremacy. He gave a harrowing account of how black Africans were denied schooling, jobs, liberty, the right to buy land and fundamental human rights. He pointed out how whites had dehumanized blacks by treating them as an inferior race. He called for equal political rights and declared that he was ready to die to achieve “the ideal of democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”
On June 12, 1964, Madiba was sent off to prison. He spent the next 18 years as Prisoner 466/64 on Robben Island, a South African version of Alcatraz. On this cold and windy island, Madiba lived in a damp cell measuring eight by seven feet and slept on a straw mat. He suffered verbal and physical abuse. He was not allowed to use sunglasses in the lime quarry where prisoners were forced to break stones in blinding sunlight, permanently damaging his eyesight.
It was in prison that Madiba grew to greatness. He began the “University of Robben Island,” an informal school where prisoners lectured on their areas of expertise and debated contentious topics. He grew egg plants, tomatoes and strawberries. Even in captivity, he continued to fight on. He insisted that prisoners be treated with dignity. He refused privileges that were not offered to fellow prisoners. He hated shorts but continued to wear them until other prisoners were allowed to wear trousers too.
It was at Robben Island that Madiba started learning Afrikaans in an effort to reach out to his captors and to win their respect. It was here that this hot-tempered former boxer learnt self-restraint and patience. Even when he was not allowed to attend the funerals of his mother and his firstborn son, he behaved with extraordinary dignity. In April 1982, he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison where he created a roof garden and shared what he grew with his prison warders.
As South Africa erupted in turmoil and international pressure mounted in February 1985, PW Botha, the apartheid leader known as “the crocodile” offered to release Madiba if he renounced violence and other illegal activity. The offer was a ruse to discredit the ANC and paint it as a terrorist organization. Madiba rose to the occasion and asked Botha to renounce violence, dismantle apartheid and unban the ANC. He demanded freedom for the people and declared that he could not “sell the birthright of the people to be free.”
At Pollsmoor, Madiba contracted tuberculosis because of dank conditions. Whilst he was recovering, the government moved him to Victor Verster Prison in December 1988. By this time, negotiations had begun between Madiba and the government, which decided that he should be moved to a closer location. Finally, at 70, he had some comfort in the form of a warder’s cottage and a personal cook. As the Cold War was ending and communism collapsed in Europe, apartheid started coming apart. After years of rebuffing Madiba, Botha invited him for tea. FW de Klerk, his successor, released all ANC prisoners except Madiba. When the Berlin Wall fell, de Klerk realized that the game was up and met Madiba in December. On February 2, 1990 Mandela was pardoned unconditionally and all formerly banned political parties were legalized. On February 11, Madiba walked out of prison after spending nearly 28 years in captivity.
Reconciliation, Not Revenge
When Madiba was released, South Africa was a tinderbox waiting to explode. Not only was there tension between the white minority and the black majority but also there was tension between the ANC and the Inkatha party. For long funded by the apartheid regime, it was led by Chief Mangosuthu Buthulezi who tried his best to derail the process to build a new democratic South Africa. Despite having spent years in prison, Madiba acted with incredible astuteness to navigate the tricky post-apartheid process. Although he clashed with de Klerk and even called for a UN peacekeeping force in South Africa to stop state terrorism, he was nimble enough to reach a compromise.
It is easy to forget how explosive the situation when the negotiations were going on. Even before talks began, de Klerk asked Madiba not to include Joe Slovo, the Jewish leader of the South African Communist Party, in his delegation. Madiba slapped de Klerk down. He told de Klerk that both of them could choose anyone to their delegations and de Klerk had no right to tell him who to include or exclude. Madiba turned up with a multiracial delegation that included Slovo while de Klerk’s crew consisted of 11 Afrikaner men. Negotiations were testy and were frequently in danger of breaking down. The combination of various parties and factions within them, tribal rivalries and a resentful white minority threatened to explode into cornucopia of violence.
As de Klerk and Madiba clashed, violence did break out. Far-right Afrikaner parties and black ethnic-secessionist groups like Inkatha made common cause. More people died between 1990 and 1994 than in the thirty years before. One by one, all sticking points were addressed. It was the much reviled Slovo who came up with the idea of the “sunset clause.” This led to the big breakthrough of 1992 where both sides agreed to a coalition government for five years after the first election. All sides agreed upon guarantees and concessions. Today, de Klerk and his team pay tribute to Slovo who would not have been at the negotiating table if they had their way. The Record of Understanding was signed on September 26, 1992 by the government and the ANC. Next year, Madiba and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel peace prize.
The next phase of negotiations continued to be tough and violence continued. When ANC leader Chris Hani was murdered in April 1993 by a far-right white immigrant, it seemed that the country was headed for disaster. Hani was second only to Madiba in popularity. A member of parliament who opposed dismantling apartheid has lent his pistol to the murderer.
Madiba was also dealing with personal tragedy. The ailing Oliver Tambo, his closest friend who had carried the torch as president of the ANC when Madiba was in prison, died on April 24. Speaking at Tambo’s funeral, Madiba appealed for calm. He asked all South Africans to stand together for “the freedom of all of us” and pointed out that it was a white Afrikaner woman who called the police and identified the assassin. Madiba’s handling of the situation was one of his finest moments and contributed significantly to the successful conclusion of the negotiations.
The elections of 1994 led to ANC victory and Mandela became the first president of a post-apartheid South Africa. He graciously allowed de Klerk to retain the presidential residence and called it Genadendal, an Afrikaans word that means the valley of mercy. It was an extraordinary gesture and the years that Madiba spent learning Afrikaans came to good use to empathize with the white elite that felt insecure in the new Rainbow Nation, a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Madiba showed tremendous magnanimity in meeting senior figures of the apartheid regime declaring that “courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.” He even met the widow of Hendrik Verwoed, the architect of apartheid.
Perhaps his most symbolic act as president was supporting the Springboks, the much-reviled national rugby team. Black South Africans loved football – or soccer as the Americans would say. Cricket and rugby were white sports. Rugby in particular was like religion for Afrikaans, a game of muscular masculine camaraderie in which they excelled. Much to the discomfort of many of his supporters, Madiba threw his support behind the all-white Springboks team that won the World Cup at home, forging a new identity for the country.
As president, Madiba shepherded the young nation through the drafting of a new constitution. It came into effect on February 4, 1997 and has been widely regarded as one of finest constitutions in the world. It guarantees civil liberties for everyone, minority protection, separation of powers and an independent judiciary. The beauty of the constitution is that it involved massive public participation. People shared their views and sent suggestions that were incorporated in the document. It includes a famous Bill of Rights that promises the right to equality before the law and freedom from discrimination, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth. Kader Asmal and Albie Sachs, two noted jurists of Indian and Jewish origin respectively, authored the bill, demonstrating that the diversity and inclusivity of the new South Africa.
Madiba’s greatest achievement as president was the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Headed by Archbishop Tutu, its goal was to investigate crimes under apartheid by both the government and ANC. It was highly controversial. Many believed that it allowed people to get away with murder and more. The premise behind the TRC was exceedingly simple: the new nation had to forgive the sins of the past to forge a more harmonious future. For two years starting February 1996, the TRC conducted hearings of rapes, torture, bombings and murder.
The TRC remains controversial to this day. Many believe that it allowed the perpetrators of injustice to get off scot-free and that South Africa ought to have had trials as were conducted in Nuremberg. The reality is that the TRC could never have achieved racial reconciliation or pleased everyone. It did achieve its purpose of finding out the truth about the crimes of the apartheid era and certainly contributed to a peaceful transition of power.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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