Nelson Mandela is dead

Born in 1918 in Mvezo, grew up in Qunu, small villages on the East Cape of South Africa. Named Rolihlahla Mandela, baptised Nelson by a Methodist teacher: went to Fort Hare University (from which he was expelled due to his political activities) and then to Wits University (from which he never quite graduated, again due to focus on political activities rather than study) and became a lawyer in 1953. In 1944 he was a founder member of the Youth League of the African National Congress and by 1950 he was a member of the National Executive of the ANC and elected national president of the ANC Youth League.

Between 1906 and 1914 another lawyer, Mohandas K. Gandhi, had worked to gain more civil rights for the Indian community in South Africa, but not the black Africans. A year after Rlihlahla Mandela was born, South West Africa – which had been the colonial property of the German Empire – was granted to the South Africa Union, then a territory of the British Empire, under British Mandate. (The BBC leaps smoothly over all of this from 1919 to 1948.) In effect South West Africa remained annexed to South Africa until 21st March 1990 when it became the independent democracy of Namibia: registration laws for black Africans and, after 1948, white apartheid, imposed on it by the South African government.

In 1923, the Native Urban Areas Act enshrined in law the presumption that a black African in an urban area of South Africa could only be there “so long as their presence is demanded by the wants of the white population” – it was amended in 1930 specifically to restrict women as well as men. In 1936, the Representation of Natives Act removed black Africans from the common electoral roll and allowed them only permission to vote for a small number of white representatives to the South African assembly. In 1913, 7.3% of the land in South Africa had been set aside for “reserves” for black Africans: in 1936 the Native Trust & Land Act made it unlawful for any black South African to buy land outside of those reserves. In 1948, the National Party won the general election, and the process of discrimination hardened into apartheid.

In 1952, black South Africans and Indians joined together in the Defiance Campaign against apartheid, and Mandela was arrested for the first time and sentenced to nine months in jail. The Natives Abolition of Passes & Coordination of Documents Act required all black South Africans – women as well as men – to carry at all times a 96-page “reference book” with photo, fingerprints, and information about them which they were required to keep up to date. Any black South African stopped by the police who was not carrying this comprehensive pass would be fined: anyone who could not pay the fine would be jailed. In August 1953 Mandela qualified as a lawyer and founded South Africa’s first black-owned law firm in Johannesburg: in that year the Bantu Education Act was passed, denying all black African children education in mission schools and requiring them to be taught in “African vernacular” until the age of 7. In 1948 “Whites Only” signs had appeared throughout South Africa, but a court judgement had ruled that it was not lawful to provide separate public faculties for different racial groups unless they were of the same quality. The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act in 1953 required separation of public amenities and did not require them to be of the same quality.

The mixed suburb of Sophiatown, established on the outskirts of Johannesburg in 1904,had been planned for clearance by the city since 1944 – it was perceived to be too close to working-class white-only suburbs that had grown up nearby as the city expanded – and in February 1955, thousands of white police descended on the suburb and forcibly evicted over sixty-five thousand people. Nelson Mandela was one of the political figures involved in the resistance to the clearance and demolition of Sophiatown: it is said that this was the time when he became confirmed in his belief that black South Africans must violently resist apartheid: though Mandela and other members of the ANC were acquitted of the charge of violent revolution in the Treason Trial of 1956-1958.

In 1960, five thousand black South Africans gathered at Sharpeville to protest the pass laws – and the police, unable to arrest so many, ordered them to leave and then began to fire into the crowd, killing nearly 70 people. No police officer was charged, either then or later, for this crime. The ANC was made illegal.

In 1961 Mandela co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, “Spear of the Nation”:

The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom. The government has interpreted the peacefulness of the movement as weakness; the people`s non-violent policies have been taken as a green light for government violence. Refusal to resort to force has been interpreted by the government as an invitation to use armed force against the people without any fear of reprisals. The methods of Umkhonto we Sizwe mark a break with that past.

Mandela traveled in South Africa disguised as a chauffeur: he went to Ethiopia and to the UK. He became known in the South African press as the “Black Pimpernel”. He was captured by the police in 1962, and began his 27-year jail sentence which was intended to be lifelong.

From the 1970s onwards, international resistance against the South African regime was expressed by left-wing boycotts both individual and collective: refusal to buy South African produce, refusal to allow South African white athletes to compete in sporting events, refusal to allow South African white academics – universities in SA had been subject to apartheid since 1959 – to participate in academic conferences. Free Nelson Mandela was painted on walls, sung, shouted: broadcast. Squares and streets were named for Mandela. (Edinburgh Council refused to name what became Festival Square “Mandela Square” in his honour: but the statue of “Mother and child” at the corner, facing on to Lothian Road, by Ann Davidson, 1986, is the first publicly-funded statue of a black woman in the UK.) Nelson Mandela was intended by the white authorities of South Africa to die in jail. Governments around the world – including the UK under Margaret Thatcher – assumed that he would: that the apartheid regime would continue.

Last night, after months of serious illness, Mandela died. Freed from prison in 1990: won Nobel Peace Prize in 1993: served as President of South Africa 1994-1999: retired from public life in 2004. Politicians who never supported his release from jail were required by the exigencies of public convention to stand up and mourn his death as a great statesman.

A revolutionary: an amazing politician: an extraordinary hero.


(Soweto Gospel Choir flashmob tribute to Nelson Mandela in a Woolworths store in Parkview, Johannesburg.)

Some of the nerdish things I saw: BBC Question Time, effectively cancelled because it had been recorded before Mandela’s death was announced but would be broadcast after – thus rendering the poor clutch of politicians and broadcasters nattering obliviously about current events that no longer seemed current. Wikipedia’s biography page for Mandela has not had to be locked: there have been hundreds of edits, but very little sabotage. Because of his leadership South Africa became the fourth country in the world to lift the ban on same-sex marriage, and the first country in Africa.

Nelson Mandela

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Filed under Politics, Racism

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