By Ted Braun
When Nelson Mandela was born into a Xhosa family in South Africa in 1918, he was given the name "Rolihlahla," a term meaning "Troublemaker." Later, when his mother sent him to a local Methodist mission school, his teacher gave him the English forename of "Nelson." Mandela later commented that he had inherited his father's "proud rebelliousness" and "stubborn sense of fairness."
At the university level he entered law studies, feeling that this would offer a fitting venue for his concerns about justice issues in the areas of politics and economics. In South Africa only whites were permitted to vote, racial segregation had been expanded, and new apartheid legislation passed by the South African National Party.
Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) that supported the struggle of black Africans for political self-determination through direct action against apartheid, such as boycotts and strikes. The ANC drafted a post-apartheid Freedom Charter which began: "We, the people of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: That South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people."
In 1960 during an anti-pass campaign many Africans burned the passes they were legally obliged to carry. Their peaceful direct action was met by increasing violence and martial law by the government, resulting in several large massacres. The ANC then came to the conclusion that it had no other alternative than to engage in armed and violent resistance that included acts of sabotage against military installations, power plants, and other such targets. After this the ANC was banned by the government. Most of the ANC leaders, including Mandela, were arrested and brought to trial for high treason against the government.
In 1964 Mandela and two fellow ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to prison on Robbens Island where Mandela spent the next 18 years, permitted one family visit and one letter every six months. All the political prisoners there took part in a number of work and hunger strikes.
In 1982 Mandela and four other ANC leaders were sent to less restrictive prisons and finally offered release if they renounced violence and no longer insisted on majority rule. They refused. In 1989 the newly elected National Party president, F.W. de Klerk, believing that apartheid was not sustainable, finally released all ANC political prisoners except Mandela, and then finally released him in 1990.
It was at this point that two remarkable developments took place. President de Klerk agreed to holding a multiracial; general election in 1994 that would result in a five-year coalition government of national unity, a constitutional assembly and a constitutional court. Mandela, transformed by his 27-year prison experience, gave his full support to a peaceful transition to such a coalition government, even though he and de Klerk had a major disagreement over the government's basic structure: de Klerk desired a federalist structure and Mandela, a unitary one (the same conflict now going on in the U.S. between our two major parties).
The ANC, with its motto of "a better life for all," came out on top in seven of the nine provinces, and Mandela became South Africa's first black president as head of its Government of National Unity. Fate had brought him face-to-face to a huge challenge: to help guide the nation in its transition from apartheid minority rule to a multicultural democracy. To help meet this challenge, Mandela saw national reconciliation as the primary task of his presidency so that South Africa could truly become a "Rainbow Nation."
He chose two main strategies. He installed a coalition cabinet with ministries headed by both ANC and National Party members. And he set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate crimes committed under apartheid by both the government and the ANC, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Commission was given power to grant individual amnesties in exchange for testimony of crimes committed during the apartheid era.
But the most important reason for the peaceful transition has been Mandela's irenic character and his belief in human dignity, racial equality, empathy, forgiveness, and his commitment to justice. He understood how the exclusion of groups destroys the social fabric of a country by creating a politics and economics of inequality (as we are now seeing in our own country). Overcoming poverty, he said, is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. He also believed that an enemy is a friend waiting to be made. As an example, he invited his white former jailer to attend his presidential inauguration as a VIP guest.
After Mandela was confirmed by Parliament as South Africa's first democratically elected president on May 9, 1994, on the Friday he went to a mosque and on the following day attended a synagogue. On Sunday he attended a larger interdenominational service at the FNB Stadium in Soweto. And at his inauguration, prayers were offered by Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Christian ministers.
Despite this new national environment, there are still a number of major pre-1994 economic problems confronting South Africa that will need to be dealt with. In the past the South African government was pressured to adopt a number of neo-liberal policies in the name of pro-market stability and corporate profit. Today World Bank and business leaders continue to limit what South Africa can do to regulate industry, invest in job creation, and fight poverty. Will Mandela's successor be able to affirm the Freedom Charter's bold claim that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, with a governmental authority based securely on the will of the people?
For most of Mandela's life our nation viewed him as a troublemaker and terrorist while giving its official support to the South African apartheid regime he fought against. Now as South Africa moves ahead without him, may Mandela's irenic spirit and concern for reconciliation continue to be an inspiration not only to that nation but to the larger family of nations, as well.