(from the January issue)
By Vishal Narayanaswamy
On December 5, 2013, former South African President and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela passed away at the age of 95. An instrumental force in ending racism and colonialism in South Africa, Mandela leaves behind a legacy of nonviolence and humanitarianism.
Born on July 18, 1918 into the Madiba clan of the Xhosa ethnic group’s royal Thembu family, Mandela was named “Rolihlahla”, or “troublemaker”. In his early days, he adopted the name “Nelson”, after an exchange about “Christian” names with his primary school teacher. As a young man, Nelson Mandela studied law at South Africa’s University of Fort Hare and University of Witwatersrand, ultimately setting his sights on combating the nation’s system of racial segregation- apartheid.
Due to strong Dutch colonial rule and Afrikaner minority rule, South Africa during Mandela’s era had become a deeply segregated nation ruled by a policy known as apartheid- or “apart-hood”- in which the minority white government enforced poorer social, economic, and civil opportunities upon different racial groups. From Indians to native South Africans, apartheid oppressed many and gave Mandela a cause to pursue.
In 1944, Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC), a democratic nationalist political party, and spearheaded the opposition to apartheid. Through ardent political work, Mandela eventually entered the ANC’s highest ranks and coordinated its 1952 Defiance Campaign, a protest against apartheid centered upon principles of civil disobedience. Taking cues from leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Mandela advocated for peaceful noncooperation with the racist South African government, but soon found himself persecuted by the authorities. Seeing intensifying police crackdowns as too powerful to peacefully counter, Mandela and the ANC’s Youth League began to turn their attention to more guerilla warfare-like tactics in the struggle against apartheid. With aid from the South African Communist Party, Mandela organized a campaign of sabotage against the government. In August 1962, Mandela was arrested on charges of treason and sentenced to life in prison for the ANC’s anti-apartheid activities. Although his organized resistance activities had been halted, Mandela reaffirmed his commitment to peace as he was taken to prison, stating that democracy was “an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.
For 27 years, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in Cape Town’s Robben Island, Pollsmoor, and Victor Verster prisons as outside pressure mounted for his release. The broad influence of apartheid had discredited South Africa’s government on the international stage, and the atrocities committed by the South African authorities, such as the killing of 69 unarmed protesters at Sharpeville, had left the country internationally isolated. Throughout the latter 1980s and early 1990s, Mandela negotiated with South African President FW de Klerk for an end to apartheid. Upon being released from prison in 1990, Mandela pursued the implementation of democratic, constitutional foundations for post-apartheid South Africa, subsequently being elected as the nation’s first black president in 1994. Throughout his presidency, Mandela ensured the transfer of South Africa from an oppressive minority-rule to an all-inclusive democracy, spearheading domestic social programs and willingly relinquishing his country’s nuclear stockpile. In 1999, Mandela retained his commitment to democracy and stepped down as President after one term.
In his post-presidential years, Nelson Mandela became a strong advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness and founded the charitable Nelson Mandela Foundation For Memory and Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.
A fearless freedom-fighter, forgiving pacifist, and respectable statesman, Mandela espoused and embellished the ideals of democracy and equality for generations to come.
Vishal Narayanaswamy (’15) is a junior and regular contributor to The Sword & Shield.