Nelson Mandela, veteran campaigner for equality and justice in South Africa has died aged 95. His death will be felt by millions who supported the struggle for freedom from the racist segregation and white minority rule that defined apartheid South African until it’s final collapse.
Mandela was a leader in the fight against the denial of basic human rights and the brutal oppression and exploitation of the black majority in South Africa and was brutally punished for it. His courageous opposition to South Africa’s racist regime in the 1950’s and 1960’s made him a target for state repression.
He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964, narrowly escaping the hangman’s noose, for his role in organising armed actions against the racist state following the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 where police shot into a group of black protesters, killing 69. Black people rose in protest and the state responded by detaining 18,000 people and banning the ANC, effectively closing the road to peaceful protest.
For the first 18 years in jail he was condemned to hard labour in a lime quarry. He was allowed to write and receive one letter every six months and a visitor once a year—for 30 minutes.
Mandela became the world’s most famous prisoner. Across the world the slogan “Free Nelson Mandela” was a campaigning demand involving millions. Yet rather than demand an end to apartheid and Mandela’s release many countries around the world, including Britain, continued to trade with South Africa to share in the profits of the apartheid system. Notably Margaret Thatcher branded the ANC a “typical terrorist organisation” and the Federation of Conservative Students wore “Hang Nelson Mandela” badges. Prime Minister David Cameron went to South Africa on an anti-sanctions fact finding mission when millions were calling for the end to the racist regime. These facts should not be forgotten when world leaders line up to honour Mandela.
While Mandela remained in prison the struggle for freedom grew with mass strikes and revolts like that of the Soweto school students. In order to head of the growing struggle Mandela was told he could walk to freedom if he would renounce violence. He refused until the ban was lifted on the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations, giving a clear path to votes for all.
It would take five more years of mass strikes and urban uprisings, thousands of deaths and the continued bitter suffering of black people until the government cracked and released Mandela and agreed the end of apartheid.
As Mandela walked free in Feb in 1990, much of the world cheered, laughed and cried with joy. The anti-racists had won.
In 1994 the ANC won the elections and Mandela became president.
As a result of the struggle against apartheid and the sacrifice of Mandela and many others black people now had political rights and formal equality. There was change—but not nearly enough.
A tiny minority of black people became fantastically wealthy, the rich whites retained all their economic power—and the vast majority stayed poor. Today South Africa is the second most unequal country in the world. Two thirds of people live below the poverty line.
In September 1993 Mandela made a remarkable speech to trade unionists. He declared, “How many times has the liberation movement worked together with workers and then at the moment of victory betrayed the workers? There are many examples of that in the world.
“It is only if the workers strengthen their organisation before and after liberation that you can win. If you relax your vigilance you will find that your sacrifices have been in vain.
“You just support the African National Congress only so far as it delivers the goods. If the ANC government does not deliver the goods, you must do to it what you have done to the apartheid regime.”
Once more Mandela had courageously told the truth.
We mourn his passing. We remember his great sacrifice. The struggle goes on.
Hamba Kahle Madiba