Black HIStory: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (b. July 18th, 1918- )

In honor of the 20th anniversary of his release from prison, today’s feature is on former South African president and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela. Mandela was a political prison who was convicted on charges of sabotage, “as well as other crimes committed while he led the movement against apartheid.”

The 1993 Nobel Peace Prize winner served 27 years in prison, following his release from prison on 11 February 1990, Mandela supported reconciliation and negotiation, and helped lead the transition towards multi-racial democracy in South Africa.

Mandela’s given name Rolihlahla means “to pull a branch of a tree”, or more colloquially, “troublemaker”. Rolihlahla Mandela became the first member of his family to attend a school, where his teacher Miss Mdingane gave him the English name “Nelson”.

“After the 1948 election victory of the Afrikaner-dominated National Party, which supported the apartheid policy of racial segregation, Mandela began actively participating in politics.”

“Initially committed to nonviolent resistance, Mandela and 150 others were arrested on 5 December 1956 and charged with treason. The marathon Treason Trial of 1956–1961 followed, with all defendants receiving acquittals.

Mandela decided to further radicalize his method by implementing the use of firearms. He described the move to armed struggle “as a last resort; years of increasing repression and violence from the state convinced him that many years of non-violent protest against apartheid had not and could not achieve any progress.”

On August 5th, 1962 Mandela was arrested after living on the run for seventeen months, and was imprisoned in the Johannesburg Fort. The arrest was made possible because the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) tipped off the security police as to Mandela’s whereabouts and disguise.

Three days later, the charges of leading workers to strike in 1961 and leaving the country illegally were read to him during a court appearance. On October 25th 1962, Mandela was sentenced to five years in prison. Two years later on 11 June 1964, a verdict had been reached concerning his previous engagement in the African National Congress (ANC).

While Mandela was imprisoned, police arrested prominent ANC leaders on 11 July 1963, at Liliesleaf Farm, Rivonia, north of Johannesburg. Mandela was brought in, and at the Rivonia Trial they were charged by the chief prosecutor Dr. Percy Yutar with the capital crimes of sabotage (which Mandela admitted) and crimes which were equivalent to treason, but easier for the government to prove.

In his statement from the dock at the opening of the defence case in the trial on 20 April 1964 at Pretoria Supreme Court, Mandela laid out the reasoning in the ANC’s choice to use violence as a tactic. His statement described how the ANC had used peaceful means to resist apartheid for years until the Sharpeville Massacre.

He closed his statement with these words:

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island where he remained for the next eighteen of his twenty-seven years in prison.

On 2 February 1990, State President F.W. de Klerk reversed the ban on the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations, and announced that Mandela would shortly be released from prison. Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison in Paarl on February 11th, 1990. The event was broadcast live all over the world.

On the day of his release, Mandela made a speech to the nation. He declared his commitment to peace and reconciliation with the country’s white minority, but made it clear that the ANC’s armed struggle was not yet over:

“Our resort to the armed struggle in 1960 with the formation of the military wing of the ANC (Umkhonto we Sizwe) was a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid. The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement would be created soon, so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle.”

Up until July 2008, Mandela and ANC party members were barred from entering the United States — except the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan — without a special waiver from the US Secretary of State, because of their South African apartheid regime era designation as terrorists.

Here is a BBC News clip of Mandela being realeased from prison.

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