We visited Robben Island today, whose prison was once home to former South African president Nelson Mandela and many other members of the African National Congress (ANC.) The island is now a United Nations World Heritage Site. Our trip to the island offered a glimpse into the apartheid era as we toured the prison with a former political prisoner as our guide.
We saw the cell where Mandela lived for 18 years, with nothing but a mat on the floor to sleep on. We saw the small yard where he could exercise and later he was permitted to plant the small garden at the back of the yard, which he used to hide pages of his manuscript that would become Long Walk to Freedom.
Many have compared South African Apartheid to southern American segregation, but South Africans argue that Apartheid was worse. In South Africa, the 18% white race minority population was dictating to the 82% majority of black African population while the divide in the U.S. was roughly the opposite. Apartheid was enshrined into the South African constitution, and Apartheid was advancing while the rest of the world was moving away from racial segregation.
Not to say that being black in America was or is easy, and Canadians have nothing to feel righteous about, considering the atrocities and the ongoing struggles of our Indigenous peoples.
1700-1800’s – Roots
In South Africa, informal segregation and slavery began almost as soon as the Dutch and British colonized the region. In 1833, when Britain passed the Slavery Abolution Act, South Africa took a different path.
The Canadian Indian Act, first passed in 1876, is a Canadian act of Parliament that concerns registered Indians, their bands, and the system of Indian reserves. Indians needed permission to leave reserves and the government had to approve it like a passport.
With industrialization in the 1800’s, racial policies and laws in South Africa became increasingly rigid. Cape legislation that discriminated specifically against black South Africans began appearing shortly before 1900.
Early 1900’s – Foundations
Into this setting, on July 18, 1918, Rolihlahla Mandela was born into the Madiba clan in the village of Mvezo, in the Eastern Cape. His chosen name, Rolihlahla, given him by his father is an isiXhosa name that means “pulling the branch of a tree”, but colloquially it means “troublemaker.” His father was Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, Chief and principal counsellor to the Monarch of the Thembu people, Jongintaba Dalindyebo. He was appointed to the position in 1915, after his predecessor was accused of corruption by a governing white magistrate.
In 1930, Mandela’s father died from tuberculosis when Mandela was just 9 years old. King Jongintaba Dalindyebo became Manela’s guardian. Mandela lived at the Jongintaba homestead from age 9 to 16 and was raised with Jongintaba’s children. It was his first school teacher who gave him the Christian name, Nelson. Hearing the elders’ stories of his ancestors’ valour during wars of resistance, he dreamed also of making his own contribution to the freedom struggle of his people.
By 1930, there were 80 residential schools in Canada. Indigenous children were torn from their parents and placed in Residential Schools where they were “assimilated” – stripped of their culture and language.
Mid-1900’s – Apartheid
“Education is the most powerful weapon
which you can use to change the world.”
– Nelson Mandela
Mandela studied for a B.A. at the University College of Fort Hare but did not complete the degree as he was expelled for joining in a student protest. On his return to the Great Place at Mqhekezweni, the King was furious. In 1941, Mandela and his cousin ran away to Johannesburg. Through acquaintances there, he did his articles through a firm of attorneys – Witkin, Eidelman and Sidelsky. He completed his B.A. through the University of South Africa and went back to Fort Hare for his graduation in 1943.
By this time, all of Africa, except Ethiopia, was colonized in a series of feudalized states in which white colonists controlled or owned most of the land and held all the power.
Mandela, increasingly politically involved from 1942, joined the African National Congress in 1944 when he helped to form the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). He quickly rose up through the ranks of the ANC.
At the end of World War II, all of the African nations were given independence and most colonists were repatriated to their home countries. It must have been a time of great optimism and hope for Africans.
But not so for South Africa. In 1948, just three years after the war ended, the (former Afrikaner) National Party was elected, and Apartheid was enshrined in federal legislation and the country’s constitution.
In 1950, the Population Registration Act classified all South Africans into one of four racial groups: “White,” “Black,” “Coloured” and “Indian.” Places of residence were determined by racial classification. From 1960–1983, 3.5 million Non-White South Africans were removed from their homes and forced into segregated neighbourhoods, in one of the largest mass evictions in modern history.
Most of these targeted removals were intended to restrict the black population to ten designated “tribal homelands”, also known as bantustans. The government announced that relocated persons would lose their South African citizenship as they were absorbed into the bantustans.
Mandela continued to work his way up in the ANC through activism. In 1952, he was chosen as the National Volunteer-in-Chief of the Defiance Campaign. He and 19 others were charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for their part in the campaign and sentenced to nine months of hard labour, suspended for two years. He used this time to complete a 2-year law diploma which allowed him to practice law.
In 1955, the Strijdom government stacked the courts and the Senate, adding new positions and appointing pro-Nationalists. In 1956, a joint sitting passed legislation that paved the way for what would ultimately leave whites as the sole group enfranchised with the right to vote.
On December 5, 1956, Mandela was arrested in a countrywide police swoop, which led to the 1956 “Treason Trial.” Men and women of all races found themselves in the dock in the marathon trial that only ended when the last 28 accused, including Mandela, were acquitted on 29 March 1961.
“To be free is not merely
to cast off one’s chains,
but to live in a way that
respects and enhances
the freedom of others.”
– Nelson Mandela
1960’s and 1970’s – Fighting Back, and Detention
Sharpeville was the first major event to attract international attention. On March 21, 1960, police killed 69 unarmed people in a protest in Sharpeville against the pass laws. This led to the country’s first state of emergency and the banning of the ANC. Mandela and his colleagues in the Treason Trial were among thousands detained during the state of emergency. After a day of demonstrations against pass laws, a crowd of about 5,000 to 7,000 protesters went to the police station.
The South African Police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people and injuring 180 others. There were 249 casualties in total, including 29 children. Many were shot in the back as they fled. Photographer Ian Berry, who made this photo, initially thought the police were firing blanks.
In April 1960, the UN’s conservative stance on apartheid changed following the Sharpeville massacre, and the Security Council for the first time agreed on concerted action against the apartheid regime, demanding an end to racial separation and discrimination. On August 7, 1963, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 181, calling for a voluntary arms embargo against South Africa. From 1964 onwards, the US and the UK discontinued their arms trade with South Africa.
Apartheid policy was championed by the country’s prime minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, who was born and raised in Amsterdam. He was responsible for the tightening of the laws and enforcement. On April 9, 1960, a deranged white farmer shot Verwoerd in an assassination attempt that failed. Six years later Verwoerd was stabbed to death in the parliamentary chamber by Demetrio Tsafendas, a Mozambique immigrant of mixed descent who said that the assassination was motivated by the great resentment he felt toward apartheid.
In May 1961, before the declaration of South Africa as a republic, an assembly representing the banned ANC called for negotiations between the members of the different ethnic groupings, threatening demonstrations and strikes during the inauguration of the republic if their calls were ignored. When the government overlooked them, the strikers (among the main organisers was a 42-year-old, Nelson Mandela) carried out their threats.
The government countered swiftly by giving police the authority to arrest people for up to twelve days and detaining many strike leaders amid numerous cases of police brutality. Defeated, the protesters called off their strike. The ANC then chose to launch an armed struggle through a newly formed military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), which would perform acts of sabotage on tactical state structures. Its first sabotage plans were carried out on December 16, 1961, the anniversary of the Battle of Blood River.
In the face of massive mobilization of state security a massive national strike against Apartheid was called off early.
In June 1961, Mandela was asked to lead the armed struggle and helped to establish Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), which launched on December 16, 1961 with a series of explosions.
On January 11, 1962, using the adopted name David Motsamayi, Mandela secretly left South Africa. He travelled around Africa and visited England to gain support for the armed struggle. He received military training in Morocco and Ethiopia and returned to South Africa in July 1962.
On August 5, he was arrested in a police roadblock outside Howick while returning from KwaZulu-Natal, where he had briefed ANC President Chief Albert Luthuli about his trip.
Mandela was charged with leaving the country without a permit and inciting workers to strike. He was convicted and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and, for the first time, spent time at Robben Island.
Within a month, police raided Liliesleaf, a secret hideout in Rivonia, Johannesburg, used by ANC and Communist Party activists, and several of his comrades were arrested.
On October 9, 1963, Mandela joined 10 others on trial for sabotage.
On April 20, 1964, while facing the death penalty, Mandela made a statement from the prisoner’s dock that inspired and motivated, and must have struck fear in some:
“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.“
On June 11, 1964 Mandela and seven other accused, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni, were convicted and the next day were sentenced to life imprisonment. Goldberg was sent to Pretoria Prison because he was white, while the others went to Robben Island, where Mandela would spend the next 27 years of his life.
“A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.”
– Nelson Mandela
I wondered what Mandela did in those 27 years and how it came to be that on his release he immediately became the key figure negotiating for an end to Apartheid with the South African government. I think it is important to note that he was imprisoned with many of his ANC compatriots, and I imagine they found ways of meeting and continuing their work. I found this article very illuminating about this difficult period:
In 1976, secondary students in Soweto took to the streets in the Soweto uprising to protest against the imposition of Afrikaans as the only language of instruction. On June 16, police opened fire on students protesting peacefully. According to official reports 23 people were killed, but the number of people who died is usually given as 176, with estimates of up to 700. In the following years several student organizations were formed to protest against apartheid, and these organisations were central to urban school boycotts in 1980 and 1983 and rural boycotts in 1985 and 1986.
The UN Security Council also condemned the Soweto massacre in Resolution 392. In 1977, the voluntary UN arms embargo became mandatory with the passing of Resolution 418.
1980’s – Progress
On March 31, 1982, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town with Sisulu, Mhlaba and Mlangeni. Kathrada joined them in October. When he returned to the prison in November 1985 after prostate surgery, Mandela was held alone. Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee visited him in hospital. Later, Mandela initiated talks about an ultimate meeting between the apartheid government and the ANC.
In the early-1980s, Prime Minister Botha’s National Party government started to recognise the inevitability of the need to reform the apartheid system. Early reforms were driven by a combination of internal violence, international condemnation, changes within the National Party’s constituency, and changing demographics – whites constituted only 16% of the total population, in comparison to 20% fifty years earlier.
The drive for change must have come out of a prevailing sense of dread in the white South African population. Underlying Apartheid was always Africa’s geography itself, (so ironic considering the Dutch East Indies Company’s original success as mariner): the white minority population living off the tip of Africa was terrified that the majority black population might rise up and run them all into the sea.
Concerned over the popularity of Mandela, Botha denounced him as an arch-Marxist committed to violent revolution, but to appease black opinion and nurture Mandela as a benevolent leader, the government transferred him from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison just outside Cape Town where prison life was more comfortable for him. The government allowed Mandela more visitors, including visits and interviews by foreigners, to let the world know that he was being treated well.
In January 1985, Botha stated that the government was willing to release Mandela on condition that Mandela pledge opposition to acts of violence to further political objectives. Mandela’s reply was read in public by his daughter Zinzi – his first words distributed publicly since his sentence to prison twenty-one years before. Mandela described violence as the responsibility of the apartheid regime and said that with democracy there would be no need for violence.
In 1986, the South African government began making its first serious overtures, and Mandela was secretly driven from the prison to the home of Kobie Coetsee, the justice minister, who would meet often with Mandela in the years that followed.
After much debate, by the late-1980s, the U.S., the U.K. and 23 other nations had passed laws placing trade sanctions on South Africa. A disinvestment from South Africa forbidding corporations from doing business with South African firms was also imposed. The sports world also shunned South Africa and its athletes.
Between 1987 and 1993, the National Party entered into bilateral negotiations with the ANC for ending segregation and introducing majority rule.
On August 12, 1988, Nelson was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. After more than three months he was transferred to a house at Victor Verster Prison near Paarl where he spent his last 14 months of imprisonment. He was released from its gates nine days after the unbanning of the ANC. Throughout his imprisonment he had rejected at least three conditional offers of release.
1990’s – Freedom!
After 26 years in captivity, Nelson Mandela did not want to be set free straight away. Two days before his release, the world’s most famous political prisoner was taken to see President F.W. de Klerk in his Cape Town office. President de Klerk got a surprise. “I told him he would be flown to Johannesburg and released there on February 11, 1990. Mr Mandela’s reaction was not at all as I had expected,” said De Klerk. “He said: ‘No, it is too soon, we need more time for preparation.’ That is when I realised that long hours of negotiation lay ahead with this man.”
Just after 4pm, Mandela, then 71, walked free from Victor Verster prison, in Paarl, near Cape Town. Mandela held up his fist in an ANC salute. In an instant he switched from being a symbol of the oppressed to the global symbol of courage and freedom that he remains today.
“The cameras started clicking like a great herd of metallic beasts. I raised my right fist and there was a roar. I had not been able to do that for 27 years and it gave me a surge of strength and joy.”
Four hours after leaving prison, Mandela arrived in Cape Town to address thousands of people gathered outside city hall. The impatient crowd had clashed with police and bullets had been fired. But Mandela did not bring a message of appeasement. “The factors which necessitated armed struggle still exist today,” he told the cheering onlookers.
Mandela immersed himself in official talks to end white minority rule and in 1991 was elected ANC President to replace his ailing friend, Oliver Tambo.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
– Nelson Mandela
Apartheid was dismantled in a series of negotiations from 1990–91, culminating in a transitional period which resulted in the country’s 1994 general election, the first in South Africa held with universal suffrage.
In 1993 Mandela and President F.W. de Klerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize and on April 27, 1994, Mandela voted for the first time in his life.
On May 10, 1994, Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected President.
Established in 1996, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a court-like restorative justice body assembled in South Africa after the end of apartheid. Witnesses who were identified as victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences, and some were selected for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. The TRC, was seen by many as a crucial component of the transition to full and free democracy in South Africa.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was active in Canada from 2008 to 2015, organized by the parties of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The purpose was documenting the history and lasting impacts of the Canadian Indian residential school system on Indigenous students and their families. The Commission concluded in December 2015 with the publication of a multi-volume report that concluded the school system amounted to cultural genocide.
In 2005, Nelson Mandela spoke at the Live 8 concert in Johannesburg:
“Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great.
You be that great generation. Let your greatness
blossom. Of course the task will not be easy.
But not to do this would be a crime against
humanity, against which I ask all humanity
now to rise up.“
In April 2007 his grandson, Mandla Mandela, was installed as head of the Mvezo Traditional Council at a ceremony at the Mvezo Great Place.
On June 11, 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons to offer, on behalf of the Government of Canada, an apology to Aboriginal peoples in Canada for the abuse, suffering, and generational and cultural dislocation that resulted from assimilative, government-sanctioned residential schools.
Conditions on most of the Canadian northern reserves remain poor, without access to clean drinking water and access to education mostly requiring children still to be separated from their parents to travel south. The suicide rate is triple the rate of non-Indigenous. The restorative justice work continues.
Today in South Africa, problems remain, with a massive divide between wealthy whites and extreme poverty of most blacks. At the end of Apartheid, land wasn’t transferred; blacks still don’t own land. Some public housing projects have happened, but the homes were constructed within the Townships, those former bantustans and the land isn’t owned. Most still live in shacks.
The 2008 financial crisis led to massive job loss in the country’s biggest employment sector – mining. Moody’s has South Africa’s credit rating at Baa3, the lowest investment-grade level, and has just slashed the country’s 2019 economic growth forecast for the second time. If the agency downgrades South Africa again, it will kill foreign investment. Tourism and other sectors are growing and there is a slowly growing black middle class, but there is still much economic work to do.
On December 5, 2013, Rolihlahla “Nelson” Mandela, the first President of South Africa to be elected in a fully representative democratic election, as well as the country’s first black head of state, died at the age of 95 after a prolonged respiratory infection. As he slipped off into sleep, I think he must have been satisfied that it was a life well-lived.