Support the news

The Deeper Lessons Of Nelson Mandela

At the moment of his death we must not let the deserved avalanche of admiration for Nelson Mandela bury the uncomfortable reality that for decades he worried and angered those now rushing to praise him.

As a young man, Mandela drew people to him not because of his quiet wisdom but because of his passion. At birth, in July 1918, he was given the African name Rolilahla, which means "troublemaker” in his native Xhosa. He soon proved the aptness of that name. Believing that South Africa was moving steadily away from racial injustice, he went to a missionary school and to college and became one of a tiny handful of Africans to receive a law degree. He joined the African National Congress, at the time a centrist organization committed to equality, democracy, and non-violence.

A talented boxer and natty dresser, Mandela challenged both his superiors and his opponents. On one occasion he stormed a gathering of a more leftist group, seized the microphone, and broke up the meeting with his denunciations of their views.

To breath new energy into the ANC, he helped to start the ANC Youth League. In the aftermath of the war, it seemed as though South Africa, like the United States, might slowly loosen its policies of discrimination. Instead, in 1948, the National Party, made up of white Afrikaners with long grievances against British rule, won a key election and began implementing a far more brutal system of “apart-ness,” know as apartheid.

For the next 10 years, Mandela battled even more intensively for freedom, playing key roles in the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People. In the face of the relentless obliteration of African rights, he slowly moved away from his commitment to non-violence and helped to found Umkonto We Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. He traveled abroad secretly and even received military training in Ethiopia. Returning to South Africa, he was arrested and convicted of treason. At his sentencing in 1963, he said: “I am prepared to die.”

As was said at the death of Lincoln, Mandela now 'belongs to the ages.'

Over the next 27 years, locked away in a tiny cell, smashing rocks by day, and conversing with the other political prisoners by night, he kept his dream of freedom alive. Outside, especially in America, he was unknown, forgotten, or vilified. Even after the Soweto riots and campus protests began to raise awareness, leaders in the West rejected the idea of pressure on South Africa. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dismissed the leaders of the African National Congress as communists. President Ronald Reagan mangled history by defending South Africa as a key ally in World War II, apparently unaware that the prime minister, John Vorster, had spent part of that era in jail as a Nazi sympathizer. The executives of American companies in South Africa willingly cooperated with the security police who controlled their work force. Republican house leaders such as Vin Weber and Newt Gingrich accused Mandela of being a terrorist.

In this Feb. 11, 1990 file photo, Nelson Mandela, left, and his wife, Winnie, walk out of the Victor Verster prison in Paarl, near Cape Town, South Africa, after Mandela had spent 27 years in jail. (Greg English/AP)
In this Feb. 11, 1990 file photo, Nelson Mandela, left, and his wife, Winnie, walk out of the Victor Verster prison in Paarl, near Cape Town, South Africa, after Mandela had spent 27 years in jail. (Greg English/AP)

In the late 1980s, however, the whole system began to collapse. Police violence in South Africa increased, divestment pressure crested, Congress –- led by Senate Republicans — overrode Reagan’s veto of sanctions, American companies withdrew, international pressure rose, and resistance within South Africa itself intensified.

When Mandela was finally released on February 11, 1990, the whole world held its breath. According to South African anti-apartheid activist Allan Boesak, whites feared that blacks would do to them what they had been doing to blacks. After his brutal treatment for nearly three decades, would Mandela seek vengeance for his own suffering and that of his people?

At the moment of his death we must not let the deserved avalanche of admiration for Nelson Mandela bury the uncomfortable reality that for decades he worried and angered those now rushing to praise him.

To everyone’s astonishment, he did what he had promised for more than five decades; he advocated for democracy and racial quality. Throughout the crafting of a new constitution, the elections of 1994, and his term as president, Mandela worked tirelessly for unity and reconciliation. In doing so, he eased the fears and cynicism that had poisoned the minds of so many for so long.

As was said at the death of Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela now “belongs to the ages.” His words and actions will offer permanent guidance for every leader and every people, especially Americans. For since we, ourselves, are a nation formed by revolutionaries who were vilified for their vision and since we have battled to this day for true racial justice, we should never forget that those who today are calling for difficult changes may tomorrow be honored for their wisdom and truth.


Bob Massie is the author of "Loosing the Bonds: The United States and South Africa in the Apartheid Years" (Doubleday, 1998).


This program aired on December 5, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news