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By Baba G. Jallow
OMAHA, Nebraska – On Thursday, December 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela died at age 95. Born on July 18, 1918, the former South African President spent 27 years in prison before being released in 1990 by F.W. de Klerk, the last president of Apartheid South Africa.
In 1994, Mandela became the first black president of South Africa after the country’s first multi-racial, democratic elections in over 300 years. After serving a single term of five years, Mandela stepped down from the presidency in 1999 and was succeeded by Thabo Mbeki.
Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) in the early 1940s. In 1944, he and other young members of the ANC formed the ANC Youth League with a mission to further radicalize the organization. Founded by John Dube in 1912 as the South African Native National Congress, the ANC got its current name in 1923. Dube was very much influenced by the philosophy of African-American author and educator Booker T. Washington.
But because Washington was largely a pacifist who encouraged black Americans to only strive for gaining technical skills to make them employable in white society, the early ANC was not as radical as the version Mandela wanted. Politician Albert Luthuli, who eventually became the ANC’s President, and Walter Sisulu, an activist who would become the ANC’s Deputy President, agreed with Mandela. Forming the ANC Youth League, they believed, would energize the organization.
Mandela and members of the ANC Youth League did not immediately turn to violence in protest against the South African government. Even after Apartheid became official state policy with the Purified National Party coming to power in 1948, the ANC still used peaceful means to advocate for the rights of black and colored people in South Africa. But the Apartheid government permitted no opposition, however peaceful it might have been.
In 1956, Mandela, Luthuli and 154 other members of the ANC were arrested and tried on charges of treason. Their trial lasted until 1961, when all defendants were acquitted and discharged. It was not until the 1960 Sharpeville police massacre of black protesters that ANC leaders decided the only effective way of dealing with the Apartheid regime was through violent revolution.
Consequently, Mandela and his colleagues began holding clandestine operations, forming Unkhomto we Sizwe – also referred to as the MK and “Spear of the Nation” – in 1961 to engage the Apartheid regime through guerrilla tactics. In 1962, Mandela was arrested again and sentenced to five years in prison. While he served his term, further charges of plotting to overthrow the government were brought against him. A new trial at Rivonia found him guilty and in June 1964, he was sentenced to life in prison.
First held in Robben Island prison, Mandela was eventually transferred to Pollsmoor Prison and later to Victor Verster Prison, where he was finally released on February 11, 1990. Throughout Mandela’s incarceration, the MK conducted relentless bombing campaigns and other acts of guerrilla warfare against the Apartheid regime from bases in what were known as the Frontline States: Botswana, Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, bordering South Africa to the north.
By 1990, prominent members of the National Party Government in South Africa had realized that Apartheid was no longer a feasible government policy. The MK’s bombings and guerrilla warfare were also exacting heavy tolls on South Africa’s security forces. Mass protests and demonstrations, particularly in the aftermath of the June 1976 Soweto protests by high school students, the successive killing of protesters by police and the 1977 murder of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko – also by police – made it impossible for the South African government to maintain order.
By the 1980s, the anti-Apartheid movement had become so persistent that Prime Minister P.W. Botha declared a state of emergency and launched what he called his “Total Strategy” to counter the “total onslaught” by anti-Apartheid groups in the country. Meanwhile, international pressure was mounting against the Apartheid regime, beginning in the 1970s and gaining momentum by the 1980s. By 1985, anti-Apartheid U.N. resolutions and protest marches had become a common feature of international politics.
When the U.S. Senate overrode a veto by President Reagan and passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986, the Pretoria regime began to crumble. Washington had formerly been a strong supporter of the Apartheid regime since its inception in 1948, which coincided with the peak of the Cold War. Taking advantage of the anti-communist paranoia in Washington and other western nations, the Apartheid regime branded the ANC, the Pan-Africanist Congress, the Black Consciousness Movement and all other anti-Apartheid groups as communist, thereby winning unconditional support from many western governments.
But in 1986, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act changed this, imposing trade and travel sanctions against South Africa, demanding an end to Apartheid, calling for Mandela’s release and requesting a timetable for democratic elections in South Africa. When F.W. de Klerk came to power after P.W. Botha’s resignation in 1989, he knew he had to end Apartheid or risk having South Africa slide into full-blown civil war and economic ruin.
Mandela and the ANC rose to power in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 342 years. Since Jan van Riebeeck, an agent of the Dutch East India Company, landed at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, the majority of South Africans had suffered racial discrimination and oppression by a small group of white rulers and a handful of sympathetic black South Africans. But in 1994, the disenfranchised people of South Africa enjoyed universal suffrage for the first time and voted overwhelmingly for Mandela and the ANC.
Shortly after coming into power, Mandela and the ANC government passed the Promotion of National Unity Act, which established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Under the Chairmanship of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the TRC undertook the cause of helping South Africans deal with their violent past. Perpetrators of Apartheid-era atrocities were encouraged to come forward and confess their crimes. In cases where crimes were not too extreme, these people were granted amnesty by the TRC. Victims and their families were also granted some compensation. In cases where atrocities were deemed unforgivable, or perpetrators denied committing crimes despite evidence, their cases were delegated to South Africa’s judicial system, where they underwent further trials.
Through the TRC, Mandela was able to help South Africa come to terms with its violent past and foster unity between South Africans of different races. While the TRC has been criticized on many fronts, many see it as the lesser of two evils, the greater evil being the rise of a regime that favored retribution and revenge, which could have had dire consequences for the newly freed nation.
While the TRC was certainly one of Mandela’s greatest achievements, his most prominent legacy for most Africans is the fact that he stepped down from power after serving only one five-year term as President of South Africa. Bucking a long and ugly tradition of long-ruling African dictators who clung to power for decades, Mandela’s act set an example that would serve as precedent for future South African leaders.
After retiring from politics, Mandela created the Nelson Mandela Foundation in 1999 and dedicated much of his time and energy to the fight against HIV/AIDS, the lack of adequate school buildings in South Africa and other humanitarian causes. During his lifetime, Mandela was awarded over 250 honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. He has gone down in history as one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known and will ever know.
Having given most of his adult life to South Africa’s struggle for justice, Mandela could have very well continued winning elections for as long as he wanted. Instead, he chose a path of honor and demonstrated the integrity and foresight to know that stepping down after only one term was perhaps the best service he could offer his people. They are no doubt grateful for that honorable gesture, as are all of us who long for leaders of Mandela’s stature in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Baba G. Jallow is Assistant Professor of History and Director of the African Studies Program at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.