Friday, 6 December 2013

Nelson Mandela: The Struggle for Racial Equality (1918-1994)

The first of a two-part study of Nelson Mandela's life, work and legacy by Rachel Boylin. This was originally written as a PGS Extend essay in the summer of 2013.

Nelson Mandela as a young man
Rolihlahla Mandela was born in 1918 in Mvezo, a small South African village on the banks of the Mbashe River. He was a part of the Xhosa nation and he was Chief of Mvezo. Mandela has stated that his early life was dominated by ‘Custom, ritual and taboo’. In Xhosa Mandela’s given name, Rolihlahla, literally meant ‘troublemaker’. Being illiterate himself, Mandela’s father was keen for him to attend school. On his first day at Mandela’s teacher gave him the Christian name ‘Nelson’.
After his father died when Mandela was nine, he was placed in the guardianship of Thembu Regent Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo who treated and raised him as his own son. Attending church every week with his guardians, Christianity become a big part of his life and when attending the Methodist church next to the palace that he lived in, he studied English, Xhosa, History and Geography and developed a love for the stories of African heroes and warriors and African history.
Mandela has placed great attention on the importance of education saying once that “Education is the most powerful tool you can use to change the world”. With an emphasis having been placed on education when he was growing up Mandela began secondary education at Clarkebury Boarding Institute which was the largest school for black Africans in Thembuland. This secondary education was in training to become a privy councillor for the Thembu royal house. After finishing at Clarkebury Mandela attended a boarding school called Healdtown in Fort Beaufort. Here his interest in African culture become increasing developed. Soon after this Mandela started a BA degree at the university of Fort Hare.
At Fort Hare he studied, English, Anthropology, Politics, Native Administration and Roman Dutch Law. Here, Mandela befriended Oliver Tambo with whom he would later open the first black law firm in Johannesburg. Despite having friends within politics, many of whom were members of the ANC at this time Mandela attempted to stay away from politics. Nelson Mandela would however leave Fort Hare without finishing his degree. He became involved in the student representative council and, following a boycott concerning the food that they were being provided with, he was asked to leave the university. This appears to be one of the first instances that we see of Nelson Mandela taking action against authorities on behalf of others.
A ‘born fighter’ – Mandela learnt to box
in his youth and used the physical relief of boxing
to deal with the stress of life’s injustices
After returning to his home village in December 1940 Mandela found out that a marriage had been arranged for him. Along with Justice, the son of the regent chief, he fled to Johannesburg, and was introduced to Walter Sisulu and started to become increasingly politicised, although Mandela himself has said “I can’t pinpoint the moment when I became politicized, when I knew that I would spend my life in the liberation struggle”.

In August 1943, Mandela marched in support of a bus boycott to reverse fare rises. The march was successful. Mandela finished his degree at the University of South Africa in 1943 however instead of returning to Thembuland to become a Privy Councillor he took a more political path and started studying to become a lawyer. Over the next few years Mandela became increasingly politicised. He joined the African National Congress in 1944 and alongside Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu formed the ANC’s youth league (ANCYL).
The introduction of Apartheid started in 1948, with the winning of the election by the National Party. In a literal sense Apartheid is a system which separated people on the basis of race. The Black population who at that time made up about 70% of the population within South Africa were given separate places to live, given separate entrances to public building.  Blacks were now required to carry passbooks which could be checked by officials at any time and ‘black spots’ which were areas such as the predominantly black suburb of Sophiatown in Johannesburg, where all racial groups had been living peacefully side by side, were wiped out.

Apartheid touched every aspect of South African lives. The Prohibition of Mixed marriages Act in 1949 forbade anybody of different colours from marrying each other. This was followed by the Population Registration Act in 1950 which classified citizens into different racial groups, Blacks, Whites, Coloureds and Indians and the Immorality Act of 1957 which prohibited sexual intercourse between whites and non – whites.
The Bantu Education Programme accompanied the introduction of apartheid. Before apartheid, 90% of black schools were state–aided mission schools. However, the Bantu education system, which was introduced by the National Party in 1953, meant that the Government assumed control of the Black Education system curriculum and removed funding from any mission schools that did not comply with the new ‘racially discriminatory curriculum’. As the majority of missions did not agree with apartheid and were not prepared to be teaching it in schools, many were forced to close. The Roman Catholic Church became the main providers of black education without state aid; however, they were largely alone in this. The difference in the standard of education provided for Black children and for White children became one of the hallmarks of Bantu education. Black children had to pay to go to school. Initially, Black schools were funded by the taxes collected from Black workers within the country, meaning that they had very few resources. Black schools had only a tenth of the resources that white schools had. There was a teaching ratio of around 1:18 in the white schools compared to 1:56 in black schools.
During the times of Apartheid in particular, Nelson Mandela and the ANC had a vision that South Africa would one day become a place when all men and women no matter what their skin colour or racial background would have equal rights. They wanted children to be able to go to school and receive a standard of teaching that would enable them to get a job that would allow them to live without poverty. Above all the ANC wanted to create a constitutional democracy where all men and women had the chance to vote in free and fair elections for a government of their choice.

Nelson Mandela, then leader of the ANC Youth League, with ANC president James Moroka, left, and president of the South African Indian Congress Yusuf Dadoo, outside a Johannesburg court during a trial connected with the 1952 Defiance Campaign
It was this vision for freedom against the oppression that apartheid imposed which caused groups such as the ANC to take action through civil disobedience and strikes. The ANC adopted a programme of action at their December conference in 1949. This was one of the biggest turning points for the ANC. The defiance campaign was one of the main policies of the programme of action and it was a joint programme between the ANC and the South African Indian Congress. It was the largest non violent resistance that was ever held in South Africa and the first and biggest campaign that was held by both Blacks and Indians.
IAt the beginning of the defiance campaign, Nelson Mandela led a group of 50 Black men down a street in Johannesburg, after the 11pm black curfew and without passes. Despite the group being stopped, the rest of the country followed their example. Blacks all over South Africa started entering buildings through ‘White only’ entrances, going out without their passes and after curfews. During the campaign thousands of non – whites when to jail and the ANC’s membership rose by tens of thousands. 

Protesters at Sharpeville running for cover
as the police open fire. Many were said
to have been shot in the back as they fled.
Over the next decade travelling without a pass became one of the most important and widely used forms of defiance. The defiance to the carrying passes laws culminated in the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. The massacre occurred when between 5,000 and 7,000 black South Africans gathered outside a police station without their passes. However, as the crowd grew larger, the atmosphere grew more hostile and police armed with guns were called in. They opened fire on the protesters, killing 69 people. Many of the protesters were said to have been shot in the back as they fled the scene. The Sharpeville massacre caused outrage within the black South African community with many people taking part in marches and demonstrations.  Sharpeville caused South Africa to become more isolated as a country by the international community and the massacre contributed to South Africa leaving the Commonwealth of Nations in 1961. The banning of the ANC came after the Sharpeville incident; however, the massacre acted as an accelerator for the group in taking up armed action. Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was the militant wing of the ANC which was partly formed by Nelson Mandela in 1961 with their headquarters in Rivinova. The MK was an armed group that led by Nelson Mandela that performed sabotage attacks on government buildings.
After a raid on Rivinova, 10 of the main leaders of the ANC were put on trial for acts of sabotage and plotting to overthrow the government. The Rivinova trial took place between 1963 and 1964.  Originally the death penalty was requested for the men on trial. However, none of the men were given the death penalty and eight of them, with Mandela among them, were sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela was taken to Robben Island where he was to spend the next 18 years.

On Robben Island, Mandela was confined to a cell with a width of six feet and walls that were two feet thick. Mandela was given the prison number 466/64. He was imprisoned alongside Walter Sisulu, and other members of both the ANC and other anti apartheid groups, including Zephania Mothopeng who was a member of the PAC high executive. The political prisoners were seen by the authorities as a threat to non-political prisoners because it was believed that they might influence them, and they were therefore separated. 

On Robben Island, the prisoners were made to work. Firstly breaking rocks which would be brought to their court yard each day. Secondly there were made to work in a lime quarry. In Robben Island, political prisoners were treated in the same way as all criminals according to skin colour.


Prisoners on Robben Island were forced to break rocks.
Much of the future planning for a new South Africa
took place during work breaks.

During his time in Robben Island, Mandela’s wife Winnie, Oliver Tambo (who was in exile) and other members of the ANC fought to raise awareness of apartheid and the plight of Mandela and the others in jail. Others also did the same to keep Mandela in the public light; in 1979, Mandela was awarded the Jawharlal Nehru, Human Rights Award in India and in 1981, he was nominated as a candidate for the honorific post of University Chancellor at the University of London.

In 1982, Mandela was moved off Robben Island and taken to Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town. This was the first time Mandela had been in talks with the Government and making agreements. At Pollsmoor, he was allowed to see and touch his wife and daughter for the first time since he had gone to prison.
On the 31st January 1985, 3 years after Mandela had been transferred to Pollsmoor, P.W. Botha offered him a compromise for his release. He was offered freedom if he ‘unconditionally rejected violence as a political instrument’. Mandela rejected this in a statement read by his daughter Zindni in which he stated that ‘the ANC only adopted violence as a means of protest when no other forms of protest were open to us’.
In 1988, he was transferred to Victor Verster Prison. Here, he was housed in relative comfort, was allowed visitors and was able to finish his LLB degree. He also had a cook and cleaner. In 1989, F.W. de Klerk became president of South Africa. He was key to bringing about the end of apartheid. He unbanned the ANC and in 1990 he released Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela walks free from prison, in 1990

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