The last of his era just left us. Arguably the most powerful civil rights, human rights, black African rights leader of his time, just left our time. Power itself just departed from us. I started writing this under a haze of my own tears a couple weeks ago. There is no mourning, of course, for a 95-year-old man, especially a man with the accomplishments of this one. I mourn us.
More than any time in history, there is a rush to prevent the rise of another “black messiah” along the lines of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, by any means necessary. During Apartheid (Apartness, Separateness) and segregation, there were laws and policies that guaranteed social inequity. While Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, and their supporters all played a key role in ending official discrimination here in the US, Mandela miraculously broke down Apartheid while still incarcerated.
Apartheid was nothing more than South Africa’s legal segregation. In the US, segregation was legal in the old south, not the whole country. Racism was the dominant policy in North America, but was not written on paper everywhere. Just picture King having to battle Jim Crow/Bull Connor treatment from the Gulf Coast to the tip of Maine and you will start to get some idea of what Mandela went through. Such intense hatred in a nation much smaller than the US, but almost twice the size of Texas, will work its patience on anybody practicing passive resistance for a prolonged period. And it did.
The story of Nelson Mandela is compelling, if not inspiring. Four years after getting expelled from the University of Fort Hare for leading a student protest (which may or may not have to do with his objections of an arranged marriage) he took his official plunge into radical politics, and then enrolled in law school. It was 1944 when he co-formed the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, which would expand the older ANC into a pan-African, Black Nationalist group. Mandela practiced passive resistance until the March 21, 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, when South African police fired blindly into a crowd of black protesters, mostly women and children conversing and laughing amongst each other. In all, 69 people were murdered and another 180 were wounded. During the time of Sharpeville, Mandela and five other ANC co-defendants were on trial for treason. It was an ANC splinter group known as the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) of Azania or South Africa which had organized a protest against pass laws (anti-freedom of transportation laws against blacks).
Author/Psychiatrist, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela (“A Human Being Died That Night”), provided a firsthand account of the Sharpeville massacre:
“The first time I witnessed a scene of violence I was five… that day several thousand black people gathered in the township of Sharpeville to protest the notorious pass laws requiring blacks to carry internal passports. Thus totally regulating their lives. The police opened fire on the crowd killing 69 and wounding 186, including women and children.”
“At least this is how I would remember the events that I witnessed as a little girl of five from behind the hedge of my mother’s small garden of our tiny house at 69 Brinton Street.”
“Men I knew as fathers of the girls and boys I played with were running past looking frightened, jumping fences to be anywhere but in their own homes. These were men I referred to as ‘father’ or as ‘so and so’s father.’ These were men who brought us candy, but they were scared and running.”
What young Pumla was forced to witness was the most feared byproduct of passive resistance; running. You can make an argument about this being the natural reaction to getting sprayed by bullets, and you would be correct. But this account also hints toward an unwillingness of the men of her community to save or protect the children and women.
News reports about Mandela’s many legal problems were compounded by a bad first marriage. He avoided a forced union only to fall in love with someone who belonged to a regime more insular than the South African government’s Apartheid; the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It wasn’t the first time that faith taught its members to meet imminent danger with delusion. Were it left up to the Watchtower Society’s neutrality alone, Apartheid would still exist there today. Thus a man who was on the verge of changing the world-at-large was also going home to a wife who believed such change was secondary to faith. The book “Mandela: The Authorized Portrait” discloses:
“As thoroughly as Mandela was embroiling himself in the politics of liberation, so Evelyn (Mase) was committing her life to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. She took to distributing their magazine The Watchtower, thrusting copies at her husband and trying to convince him to accept her faith… he found her belief obsessive and wondered if this was to cover some hurt in her life.”
Perhaps she was covering some buried pain, as he inferred, but information on the effects of religious indoctrination wasn’t as accessible as it is today, especially in relation to black followers, who often seem desperate to find a prefabricated hope from their condition outside of themselves.
On May 31 1961, in response to a South African media blackout of a stay-at-home which was in response to white South Africa’s celebration of their reconstitution, the ANC- commissioned Mandela formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (abbreviated as MK, translated as “Spear of the Nation); a guerilla group aimed at preventing further Sharpeville massacres as well as carrying out the sabotage and bombing of South African Apartheid targets. Shortly thereafter, Mandela was arrested and stood trial for either organizing or participating in these “selected violence” strikes. Though considerable damage ensued from said actions, MK had no desire to hurt or injure anyone. Miraculously, on March 29, 1961, Mandela was acquitted of his treason charges by three judges, only to be arrested again on August 5, 1962 on the charges of inciting workers to strike and leaving the country without a passport.
According to Mandela, shortly after passing through the hamlet of Howick, they were overtaken by a car of white men which slowed to a halt and forced them to stop. When Mandela glanced in the rear-view mirror he saw they were sandwiched between two more cars packed with white men. Surreptitiously, he slipped the pistol and a notebook with names and addresses into a gap between the two front seats. His life on the run had come to an end. Remarkably, the car was never searched or “the charges against him would have been greater and many others would have been arrested.” As it turned out, Mandela was sentenced to five years and, later on, he, Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Elias Motsoaledi, and Andrew Mlangeni were charged with sabotage and were sentenced to life in prison.
After being sentenced in ’64 to Robben Island, Mandela resumed fighting, only this time for prisoners’ right to obtain newspapers, letters, radios, literature, and better food. Much of the world-at-large was fighting on his side. During the ’68 Olympics, two sprinters pumped their fists in solidarity with the Black Power movement and as a symbolic gesture directed at South African Blacks. In ’72, then-Congressman Ron Dellums introduced what would become known as the Comprehensive anti-Apartheid Act, creating economic pressure that would eventually become the norm against the South African government. The possibility of legal segregation coming to an end was in sight until President Ronald Reagan came to Apartheid’s rescue. Reagan countered the growing sanctions against white minority rule and the CAAA with “Constructive Engagement.” Reagan’s racism was skillfully hidden beneath an outwardly exaggerated fear of communism. He was a conniving racist, defending a long-outdated regime that, even by then, many Republicans had condemned.
From the time of his election, Reagan publicly declared his support for Apartheid, a stance which stood in stark contrast to his predecessor Jimmy Carter’s support for South Africa’s black majority.
Decades later, the government, now wanting to establish a line of communication with the incarcerated Mandela and four other ANC leaders, moved them to a prison outside Capetown in ’82 (Pollsmoor Prison). Botha’s main concern was the continuing guerrilla campaign against Apartheid by the ANC and MK. When the South African government began secret talks with Mandela, they sent in seasoned attorney and negotiator, Hendrik Jacobus (Kobie) Coetsee, a former deputy minister of National Intelligence.
In an interview with John Carlin on “Frontline,” Coatsee disclosed that he initiated these talks with Mandela in 1986. Others believe these talks began in ’85 as a lot was happening that year – Oliver Tambo began a “Free Mandela” campaign promising to “make South Africa ungovernable and apartheid unworkable,” and Winnie began a program of “necklacing.” Mandela’s gateway to Botha was in a new group of prison guards who specialized in their understanding and empathy of and for political prisoners. Chief among them was Christo Brand. In “Mandela,” Kathrada commented on the close association between Mandela and Brand:
“Before we had visits, Christo would warn me that today you can’t talk because you are being bugged. During other visits, we were free to talk about anything because he had told us we were not bugged. And over the negotiations, we could guess what Madiba (Mandela’s clan name) was doing but we had no real idea, so Christo Brand came to me one afternoon and he’d tell us, ‘Last night we took Mandela to Kobie Coetsee’s house.’ So, in this way, he would keep us informed.”
Coetsee also revealed his impression of Mandela prior to meeting him:
“He was one of the leadership. He was not the leader, but he was one of the leaders. He was also a leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). He was a man who designed the possible destruction of many lives, which came out at the Rivonia trial. So, in my mind, I had a picture of a man that was determined to seize power at all costs. That was the initial picture; yet, I had sympathy. I had a kind of sympathy with the ideals of the liberation movements… When I took office (as Minister of Justice) in October of 1980, I was given a portfolio of prisons. Mr. Botha called me in and said to me that the numerous court cases of which he reads in newspapers, and most of which we lost, must stop. In that sense, I experienced Mr. Mandela as one of the key figures.”
Coetsee believed the key to the success of the talks started with burying the past: “For me it was a challenge to defuse the tension between government and security prisoners.” “Security prisoners” was their term for political prisoners. The goal was to get Mandela to meet with the EPG (Eminent Persons Group; prominent individuals appointed by an organization to investigate an issue) as equals. Coetsee hinted that the meetings with Mandela had been an eventuality for years, explaining that, “in the beginning, Robben Island was causing the government discomfort.” They both discussed their positions relating to communism, minorities, violence, and law. They even discussed Nelson’s then-wife, Winnie. Coetsee talked about meeting her for the first time on the same plane trip that brought him to see Mandela. Though, he also told Frontline about the “football team,” or her “band of thugs operating under the ‘guise of a football team.” Nelson was very concerned about the constant police surveillance of his wife, but he never mentioned the Mandela United Football Club (which he was clearly disenchanted with) or any of its highly flagrant activities.
Mandela had the respect of Botha and Coetsee. “Is it farfetched if I say to you, yes… the first time I met him,” said Botha, “I already saw him as President?” For Botha to say such a thing was nothing short of miraculous. Many Blacks died under his regime, and only a handful of conservative politicians sided with him. Unfortunately one of them happened to be the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. In 1986, the late-syndicated columnist, Carl Rowan, described the relationship between Reagan and Botha as a sort of soul music duo along the lines of Sam and Dave:
“There was Botha, Tuesday afternoon, telling Congress of his ruling national party that communism is at the root of all evils and woes of South Africa. Then came Mr. Reagan, that same evening, asserting that the communist party of South Africa ‘joined with and just moved into, the African National Congress’… What isn’t so easy to understand is why President Reagan is playing this ‘commie threat’ game. He has been told repeatedly by Secretary of State George Schultz and others that the US must protect its long-term interests by engaging in a respectful dialogue with leaders of the ANC. The State Department has urged South Africa to release Nelson Mandela.”
What fewer know, still, is yet another point man was sent to do a series of interviews with Mandela in order to clear the way for Botha, but this latest envoy was not a diplomat like Coetsee. In fact he was quite the contrary; Dr. Lukas Daniel “Niel” Barnard. Barnard described a meeting with Botha:
“I remember telling him that the time was absolutely right to meet Mr. Mandela, as quickly as possible. If not, we are going to slip, perhaps, one of the most important opportunities in our history. My views with Mr. Botha were the following, ‘Mr. President, if you meet him and it becomes the basis – the foundation for future development in our country – history will always acknowledge you as the man who started this due process. In my concerned opinion, there is only a win-win situation.'”
Barnard, a man who has not received the historical due he deserves (both for good and evil), is a unique individual. He is the only man to have got to know both Botha and Mandela very well, to have spent long hours in private discussion with them, and to have seemingly earned the trust of both. Barnard stressed to Mandela, during their first meeting, not to mention his desires to free his ailing comrade, Sisulu, because he didn’t think Botha wanted to discuss him at that point and was concerned such a mention would be counterproductive. Though, perhaps sensing the clout he had inherited, Mandela mentioned this desire anyway, and Botha listened without opposition.
Eventually, the anticipated meeting between the South African President and the man who seemed destined to become President materialized on July 5, 1989. Mandela and Botha met each other face to face at Tuynhuys. By then, Mandela had been transferred to Victor Verster prison (’88-’90). Of course it bears mentioning that some South African blacks thought Mandela was “selling out” by meeting with Botha, an accusation that was largely and rightfully refuted by many of Mandela’s co-defendants and supporters, especially within the ANC. After all, they understood. Years before talks with the incarcerated Mandela began, secret meetings between ANC members and the National Party had taken place for the purpose of discussing Apartheid’s demise. This was also after the time Reagan sent Robert Cabelly to talk to the ANC about accepting the reforms drawn up by Botha in 1983.
If some were so fearful as to think Mandela was selling out, then what could have been the perception of Botha’s camp? He was the orchestrator of, among other such programs, “Total Onslaught:” Death squads within his police force, causing divisions among black South Africans, and lengthy detainments of them without charge or trial. It can be safely assumed that many white South African insiders viewed this secret meeting with more than a raised eyebrow. Both Mandela and the ANC were under no delusions regarding the highly anticipated secret meeting, according to an official statement:
“PRESS STATEMENT ISSUED BY COMMUNITY LEADERS South Africa, 9th July, 1989:
Yesterday afternoon, a senior member of the South African government released a statement referring to a meeting which took place between South African President PW Botha and the people`s leader, Mr. Nelson Mandela, at Tuynhuys – PW Botha`s official residence.
Since then, Mr. Mandela`s family and various leaders in the community have been approached for their response to this news. The family urgently contacted community leaders. Because of the short notice, obviously some of these could not be reached. Due to the urgency of the matter, however, those who were present hereby wish to issue the following statement:
`Our leader, Mr. Nelson Mandela, has, for the past 27 years, been a prisoner of the South African government. Up to this day, he remains one. Consequently, whatever meeting which might have taken place did so in the context of a prisoner and his captors. PW Botha and Kobie Coetsee just happen to be the most senior of Mr. Mandela`s captors, but they remain just that – his jailors.
The oppressed community of this country takes very strong exception to these devious plans of the government to take advantage of the painful and difficult position in which they have placed our leaders. To pretend that Mr. Mandela is able to talk to them to any significant effect without having normal access to his people and his organisation, is nothing short of political mischief. In Mr. Mandela`s own words, ‘prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Only free man can negotiate.’
This was seven months before his release, and five years after Botha made it known that he would release Mandela only if he renounced violence. On January 1, 1985, Botha told Parliament that he was considering releasing Mandela if he would renounce his affiliation to the armed struggle. On February 10, Mandela sternly refused to do so. Make of it what you will, but Botha ultimately renounced violence himself – no small feat for a man with so much blood on his hands. Madiba wouldn’t have gotten a hug and a handshake out of Hitler. Doubtless the late German Chancellor would have shot himself first. Like Mandela, Botha was not in the best of health and, after their meeting, he would soon be replaced by F.W. de Klerk.
Nelson Mandela had the first of three secret meetings with the new President, F.W. de Klerk, to discuss the future of South Africa. The meeting took place in de Klerk’s office in Cape Town. Mandela was released shortly afterwards on February 2, 1990.
Questions regarding the chief factors which led to Mandela’s freedom and the subsequent downfall of Apartheid will be a subject for debate for centuries. For supporters of civil disobedience and passive resistance, while this was the prime force behind US desegregation, the resistance to South African Apartheid likely wouldn’t have been successful on such tactics alone. Economic sanctions were needed. Global awareness was needed. International journalists, activists, and media played a vital role in exposing the horrible system of oppression in South Africa, which led to pressure from international governments. However, the most needed element was persistence – from that of the many Black South African freedom fighters like Mandela. Since persistence kept Apartheid alive for so long, only persistent opposition could bring its death. South African Blacks completely understood that, just as American Blacks from the 60s and 70s understood. Ultimately, it is difficult to ignore the effects of violent opposition to Apartheid. Consequently, it was the fear of more ANC/MK violence that seemed to sway Botha toward that fateful meeting with Mandela and his co-defendants.
Interestingly enough, despite the widely recognized evil of South African Apartheid and its eventual fall at the hands of Mandela and de Klerk, Mandela and some members of the ANC remained on the US ‘terror list’ until as late as 2008. Such a move would only suggest a hope on the part of the US government that black nationalists worldwide would do something that would validate their terror labeling. But Mandela was an unusual person to them – in that, he was unusually difficult to demonize. For centuries, institutional racism and its facilitators have relied on emotional responses from the ones it oppresses. However, Mandela had an uncanny ability to control his emotions, even from within the vilest of environments. Some may balk about his inability to make South Africa the utopia they dreamt it should be, but ending the legal segregation of his nation should not be viewed as an end that justified the means; it was and is just the beginning. The rest is our job, to end it everywhere. Black and white, brown or yellow. Madiba takes his rightful place among the ‘Ms club’ of Martin, Malcolm, Medgar, and Marshall, along with others who did their part to change the world and influence people.