Monday, 6 January 2014

by Lee Ting An, Junior 1 Higgs, Class of 2015

1950. We are the people of South Africa: Xhosa, Cape Malay, Bantu and various other ethnic groups, whose families are torn apart simply because of the tone of our skin. ‘Divide and conquer’. The Nationalists who govern my country understand that concept well. The Group Areas Act forcefully ends the era in which we lived side by side.

1958. Any call for change is banned by the Suppression of Communism Act. We are torn from our land and transferred to resettlement camps where we are left to rot.

Unceasing propaganda slowly molds the perspective of the white man — the ruling class. We are the lower class — scum who are prevented from doing any form of skilled work.  The lower class who exist to perform menial hard labour, and for which education, the bane of dictatorship, is deemed unnecessary.

1970. We are the blacks, whose roots lie in the native tribes of South Africa. We may not ride the same buses, pray at the same churches, attend the same schools, or eat at the same restaurants as the white man. A state of emergency is declared and we are stripped of the rights that we, the original citizens of South Africa, possess. It is against the law to protest or go on strike. Imprisonment and indefinite detention without a trial is legalized.

Our children are born into a world where you obey every order of the white man. We carry identification wherever we go, facing arrest if we fail to produce these documents if asked; a cold reminder that we exist at the bottom of a tyrannical system built on racism. But we will fight, as long as it takes, for freedom.

Nelson Mandela was the leader of the South African anti-apartheid movement. He devoted his life to achieving democracy in a nation so racially biased that his legacy has lived on for generations.

Rolihlahla Mandela was born to the Thembu people of the indigenous Madiba clan of kings on July 18, 1918. His biological father died when he was nine, but memories of him were recounted in Mandela's autobiography, ‘The Long Walk to Freedom’. In his earliest years, he lived in relative luxury until his father, chief of the tribe, was summoned to appear before the local white magistrate after a complaint had been lodged. He refused, and this act of defiance cost him his land, title, and a large sum of his fortune.

Much of Mandela's childhood was happily spent in the rolling maize fields of the Qunu village where his life wasn’t yet touched by apartheid. Here, his African roots grew deep in a land rich with culture, customs and rituals. He enrolled in a primary school where he was given the name Nelson by his English teacher. He spent his time playing with the other boys, reenacting the great battles of his ancestors in a youthful approximation of war in large, open grasslands.

"I was not born with a hunger to be free. I was born free. Free in every way that I could know. Free to run in the fields near my mother's hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my village, free to roast corn under the stars… It was only when I learned that my boyhood freedom was an illusion that I began to hunger for it."

Upon his father’s passing, Nelson was adopted by Regent Jongintaba (chief of the Xhosa at that time) to ensure that he was educated enough to counsel the future Xhosa chief. However, Nelson Mandela was temporarily expelled from his university for refusing to withdraw his resignation from the Student Council. He was sent back home, but in a few months and in yet another streak of rebellion he ran away from home with his brother when the regent arranged marriages for the both of them. 

After traveling from acquaintance to acquaintance, staying as long as their hospitality extended, he finally found a job as a clerk at Witkin while he completed his B.A. degree in law to become a clerk or civil servant; there was no higher position for a black man at that time. It was there in the city of Alexandria, that he met the many important people that feature in his life, including his first two loves and fellow anti-apartheid activists. Truth be told, only when he left behind his roots and strayed from his path did his life begin to flourish, and his story begin to unravel.

"There is no passion to be found in playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living."

The apartheid, literally ‘separateness’ in Afrikaans, was the racial-segregation system adopted by the Afrikaner National Party when they won the elections in 1948. 

After becoming increasingly interested in the politics of his rapidly dividing nation, a 20-year-old Mandela joined the Youth League of the African National Congress — the most prominent party at the time that supported black rights — where he quickly rose through the ranks. With a few others, he came to lead the small group of young, spirited activists who agreed that, against an opponent like the Afrikaner National Party, their previous tactics of polite petitioning would no longer garner results. 

Mandela and his colleagues proceeded to orchestrate non-violent protests around the country in a series of events known as the Defiance Campaign. In his book, he says that they used boycotts, work strikes, civil disobedience and ‘general disobedience’. When staying out after curfew, they would inform the policemen in advance that they were going to be out and accepted their arrests without any resistance. When carrying out strikes, the authorities would be told exactly when their workers were going on strike and why they were protesting. Though some insisted that it was time for violence to show that they meant business, Mandela correctly predicted that any violence on their part could not stand up to the immense power of the Afrikaners. More importantly, it would lead to unnecessary harm and loss of life. Anyone and everyone who felt that the time for reform had come joined in on the peaceful protest - the war though in its infancy, had begun.

“The doors of the liberation struggle are open to all who choose to walk through them.”

Though the the government still remained firmly rooted in power after the campaign was over, it was never the intent of the campaign to overthrow the government. What it was meant to achieve was to show the people of South Africa that they had a voice; a chance to speak in their own country, to express their opinion and show their displeasure. Undoubtedly, it was a huge success, and the number of ANC supporters swelled from 20,000 to 100,000 people from all around the nation. But what scared the government the most wasn’t the sheer volume of people - it was the fact that all the races, whether Black, Indian, or Coloured, were working together against a common purpose: them. The apartheid was meant to segregate, to separate. The leaders of the ANC, Mandela included, had to work hard to pull all the races together despite disagreements and arguments. They succeeded, and thus formed the beginning of the end of the apartheid, the first steps of a long journey to liberation.

"No single person can liberate a country. You can only liberate a country if you act as a collective."

Eventually, the government struck back. One night in 1956, simultaneous arrests of 156 different ANC leaders and activists were carried out throughout the country. This sudden arrest, unexpected and surprising, was only the first of Mandela’s many stints behind bars. They were charged by the government with high treason, but the main accusation was the use of violence.  Although the ANC had up till then had never participated in violent acts or encouraged violent behaviour, the government was still convinced that they could (despite their rather pathetic evidence) charge them with treason. Mandela who had previously worked as an attorney along with a group of very capable lawyers managed to fight the case. All 156 of them were released.

The government however, was not finished yet. A state of emergency was declared in South Africa. Now even walking around without a pass was deemed an offensive act which could get you arrested and sent to jail. This show of brute strength by the government peaked one day in 1960, during what is still remembered as the Sharpeville massacre. The PAC, a different group of protesters with the same purpose, organised a public burning of passes in several locations around South Africa, and one particular protest in Sharpeville was met with extensive violence by the authorities. It is a tragedy still remembered to this day, where the peaceful protest of thousands of blacks was shattered by the police. Nervous, confused and perturbed by the massive crowd of angry yet, disciplined group of people before them, the police opened fire. 69 people died, almost all with gunshots to the back: they were shot as they fled and ran away. It was the spark that lit the fire of violence in South Africa. Mandela, who’d always petitioned for non-violent methods, realised it was a tactic which usefulness had run dry. Fuelled by the fury and sorrow of the people, he formed the famous militant branch of the ANC: the Umkhonto we Sizwe, literally, ‘Spear of the Nation’. The time to fight for their freedom had come.

“The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power to defend our people, our future, and our freedom.’

Nelson Mandela was often compared to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King - both of whom were freedom fighters who preached non violence. However Mandela himself admitted that he was very different from these men, no matter how much they inspired him. For them, non-violence was a matter of principle. Their firm adherence to peaceful protests to achieve freedom were their defining aspects. In retrospect, Mandela often referred to himself as a strategist. As much as he did not wish to harm, he would willingly do so to achieve his means especially when all other options were exhausted. Violence, as much as peaceful protesting, was a tactic used to reach his goal.   When the Umkhonto we Sizwe was formed, its primary purpose was sabotage; Disarming strategic locations around the country such as power stations with minimal loss of life. However over the years, the number of casualties and deaths inevitably grew. Some people hence regard him as a terrorist - a controversial issue, holding him responsible for the loss of life. Yet Mandela has never said he was not guilty of violence. He never claimed all his actions were peaceful, never claimed he was not accountable for the deaths caused under his leadership. His armed struggle was controlled and calculated. For all people whitewash or besmirch his past, his legacy is testament that for violence, there is no clear answer. No clear line between black and white. Though it should be only the final option and the last resort, it may just have been a necessity.

“I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by the Whites.”

After forming the Umkhonto we Sizwe also known as MK, Nelson Mandela was outlawed. He traveled from safe house to safe house throughout the country while organising and reading banned manuals on guerrilla warfare and tactics, with principles gleaned from strategists like Mao ZeDong and Che Guevara. Mandela was sent to various places around the world to ask for weapons and funds to support their cause, garnering mixed responses, and finally to Ethiopia, where he underwent a course of strenuous military training that was rudely cut short. He studied the rudiments of combat, military science, and trained as a soldier before he was called back to South Africa after two months - the revolution was beginning to take off, and it wanted it’s commander back at the helm. Traveling back to Africa under a fake identity, he returned to his hideouts where he was arrested by policemen who were suspected to be tipped off. Initially, he was arrested for leading the worker’s strikes and leaving the country illegally without a passport (or at least, a real passport). He was to be imprisoned for five years, and he was in jail for around nine months when policemen raided the hideout of the High Command of the ANC and the MK. There they found documents and paperwork involving their use of sabotage, and more importantly, the documents outlining their contingency plan to use guerrilla warfare or terrorism should the government response to their sabotage evolve to a full-blown war. Several other prominent ANC and MK leaders were arrested and temporarily sent to jail while awaiting judgement. They went to court in what is probably the most famous political case in Africa’s history: the Rivonia trial.

“From that moment on we lived in the shadow of the gallows. The mere possibility of a death sentence changes everything.”

The aptly described ‘trial that changed South Africa’ is named after the suburb where they hid and worked, Rivonia. The accused were not just blacks. Testament to the cooperation and colour-blindness of those who led the ANC, there were blacks, Indians, and even white Jews among the accused. For two years, Mandela and his fellow accused fought the case in court, facing an impending death sentence. Although the state’s case against them was riddled with holes and fake evidence, in his famous speech Mandela did not attempt to plead not guilty, or even deny his actions. Instead, he confessed to founding the resistance, leading the ANC, (which had been banned and deemed an illegal organisation) and organising sabotage around the country which had led to unwilling loss of life. 

Unencumbered by the stern penalty he would most likely receive, he then went on to condemn first the court for the prejudice with which the trial was conducted, the government for its unfairness against the people of South Africa, and then the whole system for its blatant racism and oppression. Finally, after speaking for three hours straight to a riveted courtroom, he delivered his often-quoted closing statement, looking his accusers straight in the eye.

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Though death had seemed the undisputed outcome of the trial, the government had faced growing international pressure from countries who supported the anti-apartheid movement. Fearing the combined wrath of the people and the countries who argued against their execution, Mandela and his fellow political prisoners were instead sentenced to life imprisonment. By then, they were no strangers to prisons. The harsh way of life, living with no freedom and under constant scrutiny from guards and wardens was experienced by many freedom fighters of the day. The prisoners were sent to Robben Island, which despite its scenic beauty was heavily guarded by the jailers and waters surrounding the prison. Life at the prison was at first brutal: living conditions were poor and the guards spared no expense in making their lives more miserable. For many years hard labour was part of their daily routine, mining limestone under the hot South African sun. In a cell only five metres square with no proper bed or desk (in the early years), they received their meagre meals which consisted mainly of diluted pap (porridge). Yet over time, conditions began to improve as they fought against the treatment they were receiving and as they gained international attention. Mandela organised strikes and talks with the head of the prison and several outside organisations like the Red Cross, and eventually they received the treatment they deserved.

“No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but its lowest ones.”

The prisoners were later transferred to two other jails during the course of their imprisonment, which came to an end when Mandela entered negotiations with South Africa’s new president, Frederik Willem de Klerk. Though he was a white, Frederik was a firm anti-apartheid supporter and initially offered many times to free Nelson Mandela in the interests of preserving peace. However, his attempts were met with refusal. He disagreed again and again when the president offered to free him, and instead, he began negotiating with the him on ending the apartheid.

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

And truly, the rest of his life is history. After the murky past that Mandela’s earlier years cleared up, the rest of his meaningful life is much more well known. His negotiations with the president succeeded. Through peaceful means, the reign of the apartheid was finally brought to an end as the cruel laws were taken down one by one. Both men won Nobel Peace Prizes on 1993 for their work. Mandela was released from jail on February 1990, where he returned to lead ANC and negotiated the first election in South Africa where every race could participate and cast their vote. He became South Africa’s first democratically elected black president - the first black ever to become president of South Africa with the full support of every person in the country. Not just the blacks, but the Coloured, Indian, and even the White minority - and with good reason. Nelson Mandela was a man who worked tirelessly to free his people and would resort to any means possible to do so. As much a strategist as a compassionate man, one cannot deny he has caused hurt in attempting to liberate his country. However one also cannot deny he himself endured much suffering and faced many trials on his journey, often neglecting his family to serve his country. He was, and even despite his recent passing, still is, a symbol of dedication and freedom to his people, who can now live freely thanks to the efforts of great men like him. Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. God bless Africa.

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk has not ended.

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