His legacy teaches us the universal lessons of love for freedom and human rights.
After the declaration of apartheid as South African state policy in 1948, Mandela and other leaders of the ANC Youth League convinced the ANC to supplement the approach of dialogue it had followed for more than 45 years with more militant tactics of strikes, boycotts and defiance.
The apartheid regime responded to the mass, nonviolent resistance by banning leaders and passing new laws to prevent public disobedience.
A turning point came on 21 March 1960, when police opened fire on the unarmed and peaceful crowd protesting the much hated pass laws, killing 69 and wounding 186 persons in Sharpeville. This brought an end to a decade of peaceful protest.
The liberation movements — ANC and the Pan African Congress — were banned, and thousands of activists were arrested. Mandela vanished underground and argued for the establishment of a military wing within the ANC, which resulted in the foundation of Umkhonto we Sizwe (or MK) — the Spear of the Nation.
MK’s main targets were the symbols of oppression. It launched its first sabotage attacks against government installations on 16 December 1961. Looking back on his life in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela reflects, “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.”
After the attacks, MK was classified as a “terrorist” organization by the South African government and the United States, and it too was banned. MK continued to exist until its eventual integration into the South African National Defense Force in 1994, after the democratic elections.
“I was called a terrorist yesterday”
In 1963, Mandela was tried for his role in MK’s acts of resistance against apartheid symbols in the famous Riviona trial. Together with his comrades he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964.
Speaking from the dock the day he was sent to prison on Robben Island, Mandela expressed his deep-felt dedication to freedom, democracy and equality: “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. 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.”
The first eighteen years of his imprisonment, Mandela was on Robben Island, forced to work in a lime quarry. In 1982, he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, held there until his release in 1990. Four years later, he was democratically elected as the president of South Africa. Apartheid had fallen.
Mandela shared an important lesson in an television interview with Larry King on 16 May 2000: “I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists.”
It is telling that the US government waited until July 2008 to remove Mandela and the ANC from its official “terrorist watch” list.
Mandela’s steadfastness to achieve freedom is exemplary, knowing that liberation is the result of a collective effort with the participation of the masses. When people lauded his role in breaking down apartheid, he played down his role by referring to all the people who had joined in the fight.
Mandela’s passion for human rights was inclusive. His fight did not end with overthrowing South African apartheid: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others” (from Long Walk to Freedom).
Mandela explicitly and clearly voiced his solidarity with the Palestinian people by saying “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” on The International Day Of Solidarity With The Palestinian People in 1997 (“Address by President Nelson Mandela at the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People,” ANC website).
May the Palestinian people be inspired by Mandela’s legacy and be assured that injustice cannot sustain itself forever. Apartheid fell in South Africa and it will fall in Palestine: “It always seems impossible until it is done.”
Hamba kahle Madiba. Go well, Nelson Mandela.
Adri Nieuwhof is human rights advocate based in Switzerland who, as a member of the Holland Committee on Southern Africa, provided political and material support to the liberation struggle of the ANC from 1978 until 1991.