A Struggle’s Echo, from South Africa to Brazil

Brazil scholar Cheryl Sterling explains how Nelson Mandela's message has inspired movements for black freedom throughout the diaspora.

By Cheryl Sterling Dec 08, 2013

"I hate the practice of racial discrimination, and in my hatred, I am sustained by the fact that the overwhelming majority of mankind hate it equally…. Nothing that this Court can do to me will change in any way that hatred in me, which can only be removed by the removal of injustice and the inhumanity which I sought to remove from the political, social and economic life of this country."

–Nelson Mandela, Address to the Court

These lines from Nelson Mandela’s address to the court before his sentencing at the Rivonia Trial may be less famous than his declaration that he was prepared to die for his vision of a free society, but they are no less powerful. These words set the standard for the movements and peoples around the world to unite against injustice, to identify the ills of their societies, to dedicate themselves to the greater movement of change and freedom and to connect with the struggles of suffering peoples everywhere. 

Nelson Mandela was born to be a leader. He was from the royal family in the Transkei, the great-grandson of the King of the Tembu people, a Xhosa subgroup, and he was groomed to become the advisor to the next king.  His path to instead being a lawyer was his own choice, as he realized that the transformation he desired for his country meant that he had to embrace the whole nation and help push for that change. In his dedication to the struggle against apartheid and his roles within the African National Congress, he was always the one who volunteered for the most dangerous missions, from organizing the first major strikes against the businesses and government to pursuing the armed struggle to form the military organization Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation).  

Mandela was jailed for 27 years under charges of treason and that he had left the country illegally. That journey had taken him to meet the major freedom fighters and leaders across the African continent, including Ben Bella in Algeria, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania and Leopold Sédar Senghor in Senegal. It allowed him to see what freedom could like in South Africa, but it also helped spread the message for what apartheid really signified for black South Africans. That was a message that continued for decades to reach–and inspire–black people struggling for freedom around the world.

Brazil’s Movement

When the Movimento Negro Unificado (United Black Movement) formed in Brazil in 1979, they turned to the anti-apartheid struggle and to Mandela, in particular, for a vision for change and a symbol of empowerment. They looked at the apartheid structure; its separation of the races; the mandatory passes that blacks carried that showed all aspects of their lives; the separation of place and space in social, economic and political spheres, and they concluded that Brazil was an apartheid state.

Apartheid in Brazil is social and economic, in that the poor and the black population are deemed by the Human Rights Index as living under "subhuman conditions." Scholar France Winddance Twine also named it a "spatial apartheid" because the black and poor populations and the wealthy whites live within visual proximity of each other, but under opposite conditions. The black and poor populations often live in the favelas–orbroken down shantytowns–while the whites live in properties that would command the best market rates anywhere in the world. In major cities like São Paulo, the attempted remediation of this disparity meant moving the black and poor populations to the suburbs, which are ghettos formed on the periphery of a city with limited transportation and access, so as to prevent continuous interaction with the middle class and the elite. There also exists in Brazil an abnormally large prison population of darker men, who are jailed on any charge, subject to random police brutality and who have limited-to-no opportunities.

Afro-Brazilians leaders, in searching for paradigms to help transform their society, read the works of freedom fighters everywhere. But with Mandela they found a symbol for their resistance, a symbol of courage and an articulated demand for the type of justice they wished for in their own society. His struggles and story were so evocative that one of the most famous modern day Afro-Brazilian poets, Márcio Barbosa, penned this praise poem titled,  "Mandela," as a testament to how imprisonment cannot stop the fight for freedom:

No prison can hold, between the stonewalls and moss
The music of those marching on,
The rebellious voice of the youth
The loving kiss of the women on the faces of black men
The dawn of a new world in the ghettos made from tin and gunpowder… /
No, no prison will stop the sunrise or the bloody march of the times

The Movimento Negro similarly began protest marches against governmental policies, strikes against key establishments and grassroots educational campaigns to organize and mobilize the people. Its demands were similar for a free society, with equal opportunity for all and a nation where all could live together in harmony.  Brazil has always touted itself as a "racial democracy," even a racial paradise, where supposedly all peoples of all colors live in harmony. The black movement has helped to expose that lie, but the demands for full civil justice and participation in the nation still loom. A recent census from 2010 found that over 50 percent of the Brazilian population is of African descent, and just this recognition is seen as a leap forward in the movement’s demands for equal rights.  

A Global Movement

When Nelson and Winnie Mandela arrived in New York City after he was released from prison, I and so many New Yorkers were determined that we would miss none of the event. I followed them all over the city that day. In Harlem, the streets were packed with people joyously celebrating, it was simultaneously a carnival and a spiritual event; we laughed, we talked and universal love and fellowship flowed on the streets.  

Nelson Mandela’s passing over got my friends and I to reminisce about that day; how we finally felt that there was justice in the world, that we could effect change from our voices and our protests and our aligning with causes that felt so right that they became a part of how we defined ourselves.

I feel the same way when I am marching again with my friends in Brazil. Nelson Mandela spent his life fighting against racism and for more democracy, and his words and deeds are a model for us all.  Ngawethu!

Cheryl Sterling is the author of "African Roots, Brazilian Rites: Cultural and National Identity in Brazil." She is a Fulbright Scholar and is currently the Director of Black Studies at the City College, City University of New York.