Nelson Mandela and South African History: A Learning Journal
These sections of Mandela’s autobiography demonstrate that more than diving into liberation politics, the leader stumbled into freedom fighting. As he explains, “I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments, produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people” (Mandela, 1994, p. 83). Working as a lawyer with his longtime friend Oliver Tambo exposed Mandela to the injustices and indignities suffered by blacks. Practicing in Johannesburg, he met Walter Sisulu and other nationalists who also provided him with greater insight into the suffering of fellow blacks. Mandela became a committed African nationalist and member of the African National Congress (ANC). When the ANC’s “Freedom Charter,” a document that the South African government viewed as a threat to power, was released, Mandela was ultimately tried for “High Treason” (Mandela, 1994, p. 182; 173). After finding no evidence the Freedom Charter envisioned a Communist state or that the ANC was a Communist organization, Mandela was found not guilty and released.
Mandela’s purpose in these sections seems clear. He not only wishes to explain his journey into becoming a freedom fighter, but he also hopes to illustrate the various injustices and indignities visited upon black Africans in South Africa under the Apartheid System. Time and again he explains the numerous injustices blacks faced living in country where racism and discrimination were official policy. He tells us after his not guilty verdict that one of the reasons he was successful is because “there were no examples of individuals being isolated, beaten, and tortured in order to elicit information. All of those things became commonplace shortly thereafter” (Mandela, 1994, p. 227). Mandela’s account shows blacks were not only discriminated against but often had no legal recourse and were not permitted to vote. As Mandela (1994) explains, blacks were desperate for legal help at is was “a crime to walk through a Whites Only door, a crime to ride a Whites Only bus, a crime to use a Whites Only drinking fountain, a crime to walk on a Whites Only beach, a crime to be on the streets past eleven, a crime not to have a pass book and a crime to have the wrong signature in that book, a crime to be unemployed” (p. 130). These and other indignities and injustices were routinely visited upon blacks living under Apartheid. It was even illegal for blacks to live in certain areas, and many blacks were evicted from the meager lands their families had worked for generations.
The practice of law put Mandela in an excellent position to be aware of how to lead the struggle for liberation to make the laws more just for blacks.
Mandela was an intensely passionate man who could not tolerate the injustices and suffering of his fellow blacks. While he stumbles into freedom fighting, he has a vision of liberation and democracy that is as strong as that held by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mandela’s depiction of racism and segregation in South Africa are eerie reminders of the past in American society, when blacks were also prohibited by law from using restrooms or water fountains marked “Whites Only.”
The study of law helped Mandela detect certain justices in ways that compare to some of my own studies. Recently I have been studying the legality of gay marriage bans and find that homosexuals are being denied their constitutional guarantees of due process and the 14th Amendment. In this way, homosexuals are being treated like second-class citizens in the world’s greatest democracy because despite being citizens not all of the guarantees of the U.S. Constitution are being extended to this group. The interaction of law and liberation politics became clearer to me from Mandela’s experiences revealed in these sections.
These sections of Mandela’s struggle to free blacks living under Apartheid in South Africa cover the period where he became the leader of the ANC’s military arm, Umkhoto we Sizwe, and then faced a trial for treason that resulted in a life sentence with Mandela being sent to Robben island. Mandela seems to reluctantly take up his post of military leader, having little experience in such matters but knowing non-violence as a means of resistance will not break the power of the South African government. As Mandela (1994) explains of this fateful choice that would ultimately see him sentenced to life in prison, “Henceforth, the ANC would be a different kind of organization. We were embarking on a new and more dangerous path, path or organized violence, the results of which we did not and could not know” (p. 239). During Mandela’s trial for treason, we see many cases of ethical misconduct by those trying him. We also see that Mandela’s trial and ultimate conviction along with his life being consumed by the struggle for liberation take an enormous toll on Mandela’s family. Mandela’s initial prison years are dark, “Prison not only robs you of your freedom, it attempts to take away your identity…As a freedom fighter and as a man, one must fight against the prison’s attempts to rob one of these qualities” (p. 291). By educating himself and others and by befriending his warders rather than making enemies of them, Mandela was able to achieve this despite 27 years in prison.
Other than his attempts to explain why violence was justified by the ANC and his desire to demonstrate how a strong-willed man with moral convictions can survive imprisonment, Mandela (1994) seems to have the main purpose of showing the impact on him and the liberation struggle due to his treason trial. From the Free Mandela Committee’s use of the “Free Mandela” campaign to Mandela (1994) viewing the case as one representing the “aspirations of the African people,” the trial put Mandela away for nearly three decades but also helped foment unity and support for liberation among black South Africans as well as the international community (p. 283). Throughout his trial and imprisonment Mandela never loses sight of the fact that one day he will be free. When he is defending himself at his trial, he explains to the judge that he will still fight against racism and for freedom when released. As Mandela (1994) states, “I will still be moved by my dislike of the race discrimination against my people when I come out from serving my sentence, to take up again, as best I can, the struggle for the removal of those injustices until they are finally abolished” (p. 290). In this sense, Mandela’s trial for treason only made him more convinced that it was the South African racist government that was criminal and more determined he would one day see blacks liberated in his homeland.
Mandela seems to believe that South African blacks could not be liberated through nonviolent means because they did not have a foreign adversary like Gandhi nor did they have protection of the legal system like blacks during the U.S. Civil Rights movement.
During the trial it seems evident that the South African government was a corrupt body that was intent on getting rid of Mandela from the liberation struggle because he was an effective leader.
Mandela’s education and significant rhetorical skills serve him well during his trial which is more about fighting for the freedom of blacks than it is about fighting for his own freedom.
Mandela’s struggle during his trial and conviction reminds me of how we often see the criminal justice system fail. A friend I know has a father who had hired immigrants to do work at his home. He had no idea these women were not legal and did not believe by hiring them he was doing anything illegal. However, he was branded a “white slave trader” by the press when the charges came out, because the girls contended that they were forced to live in poor conditions on the property and were only paid in food and other necessities while they worked for the man. This was untrue but it tainted the man’s business image for years.
These sections of Mandela’s autobiography recount his years at Robben Island where he earned a degree, educated others, and ultimately was able to endure the spirit-crushing existence of prison life. He is ultimately transferred to what he refers to as the prison’s “penthouse,” a nicer, more expansive prison quarters at Pollsmoor Prison (Mandela, 1994, p. 447). Mandela believes the transfer is to undermine Robben Island of its ANC leadership mystique. At Pollsmoor he is more able to keep abreast of outside world events, including acts of violence by the ANC he justifies as being necessary due to “the violence of the Apartheid regime” (Mandela, 1994, p. 451). These sections also tell of Mandela’s efforts to reach out to the leadership of the Apartheid government and his shock when leaders like President De Klerk provide him with the “novel experience” of listening to what he has to say (Mandela, 1994, p. 485). When De Klerk lifts the bans on the ANC, PAC and other political organizations Mandela is elated. Ultimately, freed from prison, Mandela does not believe the liberation of his people makes them truly free. Instead, he writes, “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. The true test of devotion to freedom is just beginning” (Mandela, 1994, p. 544). With freedom Mandela is a pragmatist rather than an idealist and understands that it requires ongoing sacrifice.
The main purpose of this section of Mandela’s story seems to illustrate how he successfully navigated prison and ultimately adopted the role of leader of the ANC in his liaisons with South African government leaders. He also seems intent on showing it is his leadership and natural leadership abilities that made him take the initiative to launch talks with government officials. In this sense, he claims the ANC leadership and leadership of the liberation struggle. As Mandela (1994) writes of his feelings about not discussing his proposal with colleagues or others in the organization, “There are times when a leader must move out ahead of the flock, go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading his people the right way” (pp. 458-459). Mandela figured is things went poorly; others in the organization could have labeled him as an old man whose isolation had put him out of touch with reality. Mandela also seems intent on illustrating that the struggle for freedom is never one that is won without sacrifice or a struggle that ever ends. He explains the release from the chains of Apartheid for blacks in South Africa is only a beginning and comes with great responsibilities for the freed. Mandela (1994) also shares that his commitment to the struggle left him little to no room for family, what he labels his “greatest regret” and the “most painful aspect” of the choices he made (p. 523). This demonstrates the kind of sacrifice liberation of a people often takes on individuals involved in the struggle.
Mandela’s years in prison seem to have made him more calm and stately than the impassioned and angry young man he was in his youth. It seemed to give him a wisdom and weight that were absent in his youth, especially with how to deal with interactions related to the liberation struggle.
Mandela was a great man to have sacrificed his family and the best years of his life in jail to help other blacks achieve liberation.
The government ultimately seems to have realized it fell behind the times by striving to maintain a racist and separatist structure to society.
The experiences of Mandela in prison are ones I really relate to with respect to the impact on his family. My father had to sacrifice a lot to provide for my family and he is typically away on work assignments. He has missed some birthdays, a few holidays, and my middle school graduation. While I understand his sacrifices were for our family, I can relate to the pain of Mandela’s daughters barely knowing their dad or the impact of his sustained absence on Winnie and his sons.