Nelson Mandela’s passing last week at the age of 95 has been met with a global outpouring of remembrance and reflection. A giant of modern human history has died. Mandela is rightly remembered for his remarkable ability to reconcile with his oppressors, and the political prescription his forgiveness entailed for the new South Africa. “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another,” Mandela said in his inaugural speech in Pretoria, on May 10, 1994. In the same speech, he pledged, going forward, “to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination.” Mandela has passed, but what he has passed on to succeeding generations is his deep belief in the power of movements to make change.
He spent his early years in the African National Congress (ANC) organizing noncooperation, like the Defiance Campaign in 1952, when he was photographed burning his passbook, the dreaded photo documentation without which black South Africans could not travel within their own country. By 1960, following the Sharpeville Massacre, where the white government’s police forces killed at least 69 people who were protesting the pass laws and the passbooks, the government banned the ANC. Mandela and others went underground, forming the ANC’s armed wing, calling it Umkhonto we Sizwe, or “Spear of the Nation.”
They led a campaign of sabotage, using crude bombs to damage and disrupt key elements in South Africa’s infrastructure, from rail lines to power plants. In 1962, Mandela was picked up at a police roadblock, disguised as a chauffeur. The New York Times reported in 1990 that it was the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency that provided the South African Special Branch with the specifics of Mandela’s whereabouts and appearance. The report went on to say that the CIA spent more on surveillance of the ANC than the apartheid regime did itself. Mandela spent the next 27 years in prison.
At his trial for sabotage with nine others, known now as “The Rivonia Trial,” Mandela spoke for the accused, defending their actions. “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this 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,” he declared from the dock, facing the death penalty. “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” To the surprise of many, and likely thanks to intense domestic and international attention to the trial, the activists were sentenced not to death, but to life imprisonment on South Africa’s notorious Robben Island.
The international campaign to end apartheid began in earnest then. Campaigns to divest from companies doing business in South Africa became a central strategy. In 1970, Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams, two African-American employees at Polaroid in Cambridge, Mass., noticed that their company was supplying the photo technology for the hated passbooks. Hunter and Williams organized a movement of Polaroid workers that forced it to withdraw all its involvement with South Africa.
Under increasing pressure, the apartheid regime cracked down even more on black South Africans, and the violence was broadcast globally, propelling students on campuses to action. A global movement formed, pressuring university boards to pull their endowment funds from South African investments. In Washington, D.C., Randall Robinson, the founder of TransAfrica, began a protest movement in front of the South African embassy. He told us on “Democracy Now!” “Three of us were arrested, followed by 5,000 Americans who came to the embassy over the following years to be arrested … of course that helped to propel through the Congress the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. And then American investments in South Africa began to tumble.”
Robinson was referring to the bill that California Congressman Ron Dellums introduced, which passed with bipartisan support. President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill, but, in a sign of the nation’s determination to fight apartheid, both houses of Congress voted to override Reagan’s veto, imposing crushing sanctions on the apartheid regime in Pretoria. “That, combined with the internal pressures in the country,” Robinson continued, “produced the circumstances in the government there, the readiness to negotiate and to ultimately release Nelson Mandela.”
President Barack Obama spoke at Mandela’s memorial service in Soweto this week, and provoked a firestorm of criticism back in Washington for shaking the hand of Cuban President Raul Castro. Mandela was a devoted friend of Fidel Castro, who always supported the ANC. The U.S., on the other hand, did not remove Mandela from its “terrorist watch list” until 2008, 14 years after he was elected president of South Africa.
Nelson Mandela ended his autobiography by saying, “When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. … The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.