It was a cold February night nearly 24 years ago. We were on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, over a hundred of us huddled together. We sang, chanted, cried and danced the Toyi toyi (a South African dance of protest or celebration). It felt like the triumphant culmination of a mighty battle against a daunting evil. The scene was repeated in hundreds of parks and plazas, street corners and college campuses from Los Angeles to London, Kingston to Harare. Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa, political prisoner for some 27 years, had finally been freed and the racist system of apartheid was crumbling. Many of us had rallied, petitioned, organized and engaged in civil disobedience as gestures of solidarity. “Mandela” was so much a part of our lives - there were buttons, posters, T-shirts, stories and songs. My young son was convinced that ‘Uncle Mandela’ would come and visit us as soon as he was released. In other words, the ANC informed our politics, and Mandela touched our hearts.
Mandela was a powerful symbol of a powerful movement. The anti-apartheid protests which matured into the international Free South Africa movement was one of the defining social movements of the late 20th century. The apartheid (apartness in Afrikaans) system was put in place in 1948 when the all-white Afikaaners’ National Party came to power. The exploitation and repression of South Africa’s black majority was a longstanding practice, but the establishment of apartheid laws represented an even more ruthless regime of forced segregation and brutal suppression. Blacks were wholly disenfranchised and exiled to remote “homelands,” forced to carry passes in order to move about, the equivalent of passports in their own country. There was resistance in various forms from the beginning. Nelson Mandela, born in 1918 and later trained as a lawyer, became a part of that resistance. As protest campaigns escalated so did efforts by the white minority regime to crush those uprisings. In 1961, one year after the bloody Sharpeville massacre that marked the killing of unarmed black demonstrators, the ANC turned to armed struggle and formed Uhkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). The following year Mandela was arrested, convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison.
South African apartheid was a racial system but it rested upon an unjust economic system. A country rich in gold and diamonds, “migrant” black laborers worked under slave-like conditions in its factories and mines. It was a particularly heinous form of racial capitalism and Mandela and his comrades in the ANC spoke out and actively fought against it, along with the young activists in Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement. While Mandela languished in prison the resistance movement, fueled by his example of defiance, continued to grow.
The Soweto uprising of black schoolchildren in 1976 was a turning point. Nearly 20,000 youth took the streets to protest. Hundreds were jailed, killed and exiled. Their actions became the inspiration for an escalating international solidarity movement. The central demands of that movement were that institutions and governments divest from the South African economy, that the United Nations and other international bodies impose sanctions, that individuals engage in boycotts, and that the South African government free Nelson Mandela and all political prisoners. “Free Mandela” and “Divest Now” were chants heard round the world. Finally, isolated and afraid of growing rage and impatience, the apartheid leaders surrendered power, at least partly. In 1990 Mandela was released from prison. Apartheid laws were dismantled, a new constitution was written, and Mandela became the nation’s first democratically elected president.
But the story did not end there. Mandela’s administration oversaw sweeping reforms in South Africa. Still, reforms did not fully transform the society. In recent years the struggles of impoverished “shack dwellers,” the struggle for rights and resources for people living with AIDS, the shooting down of striking miners by government troops and the persistent poverty and inequality that still plague the nation all point to need for a continued freedom struggle in post-apartheid South Africa.
So, then how should we remember the great Nelson Mandela? What did he symbolize for my generation of activists? What does his story and legacy teach us about myth-making and historical memory, commitment and perseverance, individual courage and collective action? Three answers come to mind.
First of all, for much of his life Mandela was labeled a terrorist by some of those who later praised him. That term is thrown about loosely today to discredit and dehumanize many activists who operate in Mandela’s tradition of militant resistance to injustice. This is a lesson and a caution.
Secondly, Mandela did not only belong to the South African freedom movement, he was an internationalist and spoke out against injustices around the world. He was unafraid to take on controversial issues. In 2001 he wrote these words to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman: “Palestinians are not struggling for a ‘state’ but for freedom, liberation and equality, just like we were struggling for freedom in South Africa.”
Finally, Mandela was a remarkably generous and humble man who actively rejected the narrative of being a singular great hero, a savior of a people. Rather he rightly credited the courageous actions of literally tens of thousands of people who rose up to say no to apartheid, who forced the South African regime to free Nelson Mandela, and who continue to this day to struggle to build a truly free South Africa: a South Africa still unrealized, but one to which Mandela passionately aspired.
Barbara Ransby is a professor at University of Illinois (UIC) at Chicago and author most recently of of “Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson.” Ransby was very active in the student Free South Africa Movement and Divestment campaigns in the 1980s, and continues to be active in progressive struggles today.