Nelson Mandela was, in addition to many other things, a survivor. Many freedom fighters have been murdered, often at fairly young ages. Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance, never lived to see his fortieth birthday. Mandela, however, survived about seventy-five years of state-sponsored persecution, including twenty-seven years in prison, and another twenty years or so after his release. But no person lives forever, at least not in the literal sense. Last week, Nelson Mandela passed away at the age of ninety-five. I think that it is important to look back at his amazing life in order to give him the tribute that he deserves.
In 1918, the year that Mandela was born, South Africa was a place in which legal inequality ruled the day, much like in the United States, where the infamous Jim Crow was in place. While the most brutal form of apartheid was not yet in force, black South Africans were denied equal rights under the law, including the right to vote. In 1943, Mandela became involved in the African National Congress (ANC), an organization that would become famous for its challenging of South Africa’s oppressive government. Five years later, the already horrific plight of black South Africans became even worse. In the 1948 general election, the National Party took control. Ramping up apartheid, the party passed new legislation, including laws that mandated residential segregation and banned interracial marriage. South Africans of Indonesian, Indian, and Chinese descent were also targeted by apartheid laws. In 1949, Mandela helped draft the Programme of Action, a plan for non-violently achieving civil rights. While he initially opposed allowing whites who opposed apartheid to join the ANC, he eventually changed his views and supported making ANC membership available to people of all races. Like figures such as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Mandela understood that people, regardless of their race, could work together to end racial oppression. As time went on, Mandela became more like Frederick Douglass than Martin Luther King, Jr. He saw that, with blacks forbidden from voting and apartheid showing little sign of abating, non-violence might be insufficient. Just as Frederick Douglass had supported integration and equal rights, rather than racial separatism, but had also believed that violence might be necessary in order to bring about racial justice, Mandela concluded that he and his allies of all races had to use violence to resist South Africa’s tyrannical government. It was important that he travel to mobilize forces for an uprising, but South Africa’s “pass laws” restricting the movement of blacks made this difficult. A solution was hit upon, in which Mandela would pretend to be the chauffeur of Cecil Williams, a gay white man who had immigrated to South Africa from Cornwall, England and vehemently opposed apartheid. This plan, which Williams was in on, would give Mandela an excuse to travel outside of the areas his pass would allow him to. His collaboration with Cecil Williams may have contributed to the support for gay rights that Mandela showed as president, which will be discussed later in this essay.
While Mandela’s and Williams’s ruse worked for some time, Mandela was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life imprisonment for attempting to violently overthrow the government. During his trial, the judge asked if Mandela wished to plead guilty or not guilty, and the freedom fighter poignantly replied, “My Lord, it is not I, but the government that should be in the dock. I plead not guilty.” While the judge was unimpressed with this response, the logic behind it was irrefutable. By denying black South Africans equal rights and refusing to even give them the chance to vote their oppressors out of office, the South African government had made violent resistance justified and unavoidable. For almost thirty years, Mandela was imprisoned. He was unable to even help bury his oldest son, who died while Mandela was in prison. He was absent for most of the childhood of his two daughters from his second marriage and was forbidden from seeing his grandchildren during part of his imprisonment. In 1989, in the face of national and international protest, he was at last freed from prison and finally helped break down apartheid and create a new government for South Africa.
In 1994, he was elected president in the first election in which South Africans of all races were allowed to vote. It is worth noting that he was seventy-five when he entered office and eighty-one when he left office. For comparison, Ronald Reagan entered office at age sixty-nine and left at seventy-seven. It is hard not to be impressed by the vigor shown by Mandela at this point in his life. As president, he followed a path of racial reconciliation. His work with white opponents of apartheid undoubtedly helped prevent him from supporting discrimination against whites in retaliation for the atrocities that black South Africans had suffered through. And while it would have hard to blame Mandela for having become bitter, he instead forgave those who had wronged him. Instead of using his newfound power to inflict retaliatory violence on his old oppressors, he supported a successful attempt to abolish the death penalty in South Africa. His anti-death penalty stance, as well as his signing of a bill that included a clause outlawing corporal punishment in South African schools, demonstrates that while Mandela had come to see violence as a necessary evil, he always abhorred it.
One of the most important aspects of Mandela’s presidency was gay rights. During apartheid, homosexuality had been illegal in South Africa, but the new government, perhaps thinking of the help Cecil Williams had given Mandela years ago, began instituting reforms. Mandela signed legislation banning discrimination against LGBT people by the government or by private individuals. He also appointed Albie Sachs, a man who had once been compelled to leave the country due to his opposition to apartheid, to the Supreme Court. It was Sachs who wrote the decision in 2005 ruling that gay South Africans had a constitutional right to marriage.
The admiration for Nelson Mandela is not universal. There are those who claim that he beat his first wife, despite the fact that such allegations were never proven, were denied by Mandela, and seem utterly inconsistent with his character. There are those who criticize his support for dictators like Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi. This, of course, is somewhat hypocritical, since many of the same conservatives who criticize Mandela for being friendly with dictators involved in the international anti-apartheid movement were among the people who advocated coddling South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s because the government was an important ally in the Cold War. Apparently, they consider it fine for the United States to ally with oppressive government leaders if it is supposedly in our national interests but unforgivable for Mandela to have been allied with with oppressive government leaders who were willing to take a stand against apartheid. Despite his friendly relations with many Communists, Mandela helped make South Africa into a capitalist republic. Finally, the idea that Mandela’s use of violence makes him an evil terrorist is interesting coming from hawkish conservatives who defend the violent American Revolution and even the slaughter of multitudes of Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Unless one is a pacifist, it is rather absurd to argue that black South Africans were wrong to violently resist the apartheid government. Mandela was not a perfect man, but he was a good and great man. We should all mourn his loss and celebrate his life.