Nelson Mandela was a giant in the fight against racism—and the world’s most famous prisoner. He was a symbol of defiance against injustice that inspired a great movement of resistance and solidarity.
His life and the reality of South Africa today also raise real questions about how we win real change.
Mandela’s courageous opposition to South Africa’s vile apartheid regime in the 1950s and 1960s brought him to prominence and a leading position in the African National Congress (ANC). This made him the target for brutal state repression.
Eventually, in 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. He stayed incarcerated in apartheid jails until that electric day, 11 February 1990, when he walked out of Victor-Verster prison in Paarl, near Cape Town, as millions watched on television.
For the first 18 years in jail he was condemned to hard labour in a lime quarry. He was allowed to write and receive one letter every six months and a visitor once a year—for 30 minutes.
His family suffered too. His wife Winnie faced constant banning orders, which severely restricted where she could live and work. She could not speak to more than one person at a time, and was eventually subjected to house arrest. She constantly faced the brutality and terror tactics of the police.
Nelson Mandela became the pre-eminent symbol of the fight against apartheid. Across the world the slogan “Free Nelson Mandela” was a campaigning demand involving millions.
People who might otherwise know little of international politics became very clear on apartheid. They understood that black people were the vast majority of the population in South Africa. And they knew apartheid was a system of racial discrimination that had stripped black people of all their rights and denied them the vote.
Mandela fought it and was imprisoned for fighting it. And that’s why we wanted him out.
Not everyone saw it like that. The Federation of Conservative Students wore “Hang Nelson Mandela” badges. And Margaret Thatcher described the ANC as a “typical terrorist organisation”.
The US, whose CIA probably provided the information to enable Mandela’s arrest, kept him on a terrorist list, banning his from travel to the US—until 2008.
These rulers gave comfort and backing to the highly profitable apartheid governments. The suffering of black people counted not a feather’s weight in the balance. When you read the tributes from newspapers and “world leaders” to Mandela, remember that they or their political forebears once wanted him crushed.
Mandela’s life reflected the fortunes of the ANC. He was born in 1918 at a time when white rule, based on British colonialism and Dutch settlement, was becoming increasingly established. Non-whites were no longer allowed to sit in parliament. And black people could own land in just ten percent of the country.
The ANC was a weak and conservative lobbying organisation, begging colonialists for concessions.
Mandela was one of a small layer of black people who had the chance of an education. He did well enough to enter university—although of course it was greatly inferior to the ones that white students attended.
Here he was part of a new layer of young people who were radicalising the ANC in a limited but real way.
Many black people had fought fascism in the Second World War, supposedly in the name of freedom. So they were not happy to return to a South Africa that was preparing to implement the apartheid system of much stricter racial segregation.
This would provide labour for the mines and factories by taking away any means of survival except wage labour. It would also create “homelands” where black workers could be produced and maintained at no cost to capital and the state.
Apartheid was about profit. But it also created a black working class which one day, long in the future, would destroy it.
The 1946 miners’ strike was a lesson for young people like Mandela. There was a new mood building, and the ANC had to do more than petition.
He took part in a series of mass campaigns of defiance in the 1950s that propelled him to national status in the ANC.
Then came the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. Police shot into a group of black protesters, killing 69. Black people rose in protest and the state responded by detaining 18,000 people and banning the ANC.
Mandela agreed, reluctantly, that the path of peaceful struggle was blocked. He accepted the task of organising armed actions that would destroy state offices and key industrial installations.
He was soon arrested. As he served five years for a lesser charge he was named in a much bigger trial where he was convicted of sabotage.
He narrowly avoided the hangman’s noose but was sentenced to life imprisonment.
As he entered Robben Island prison, the ANC was being virtually annihilated in many parts of South Africa and forced into neighbouring countries. Throughout the 1960s, as Mandela worked in the searing heat and blinding light of the lime quarry, the apartheid system delivered huge returns for its domestic and international backers.
No boss or government was interested that the money was based on blood and torture. Inside South Africa there was hardly any visible opposition.
Then came the 1970s. Black workers, who were the irreducible necessity for all that apartheid success, began to organise into militant unions.
From 1973 they stated to strike, sometimes won, and established stable organisation.
Then in 1976 the heroic school students of Soweto rose in revolt against the apartheid education system that spent 17 times more on a white child than a black one. Blacks were taught only basic mathematics. They were needed only for brute labour.
The strikes, Soweto and the defeat of the South African army in Angola, gave a huge boost to the movement against apartheid.
The ANC had not led any of it. Most of the young people involved were influenced by Black Consciousness ideas, and the strikers by militant trade unionism.
But in the aftermath of the national rebellion that followed Soweto, the ANC was well placed through its international contacts and its broad appeal to direct the movement. As it grew, attention centred on its brave leader in prison—Mandela.
After 1976 the apartheid state never fully regained control. Wave after wave of strikes and uprisings broke out. And sections of capital became worried that this system was no longer the best way to make money.
In 1982, 100,000 workers joined the first ever openly political strike under apartheid, over the death in custody of a union organiser.
In the same year Mandela was taken from Robben Island to Pollsmoor prison. The state began to put out feelers about talks, and in 1985 an apartheid minister met Mandela in prison.
The government now said Mandela could walk to freedom if he would renounce violence. He refused until the ban was lifted on the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations, giving a clear path to votes for all.
It would take five more years of mass strikes and urban uprisings, thousands of deaths and the continued bitter suffering of black people until the government cracked.
Unable to stop resistance, and fearing revolution, the apartheid state under new president De Klerk made a bold move while it still had overwhelming military advantage.
It unbanned the ANC, released Mandela and accepted that there would now be fundamental political change. But it hoped to place severe limits on the power of a new black government.
As Mandela walked free, much of the world cheered, laughed and cried with joy. The anti-racists had won—but it was just a beginning.
Talks about dismantling apartheid dragged on as the white regime tried to win at the negotiating table what it had lost in the streets and workplaces.
Mandela, from the ANC’s perspective, walked the tightrope brilliantly, insisting on the need for full black political rights and no white veto but also soothing big business with promises that they would be welcome, and profitable, in the new South Africa.
In April 1993 a member of the white extreme right gunned down Chris Hani, a Communist and one of the ANC’s most popular leaders. South Africa exploded. Only Mandela could calm the storm.
He insisted apartheid must go completely but also headed off a process that could have led to much deeper change.
Big business threw itself behind him. It gambled that he meant his promises about defending profit—and anyway it was much better than revolution.
In 1994 the ANC won the elections and Mandela became president. Standing at the polling stations in a township near Johannesburg in the early morning of election day, I saw the vast queues gather to vote for change, for an end to the filth of apartheid, and for Mandela.
Mandela was not simply admired or respected. He was loved by millions of black people for his warmth, his wisdom, his humanity and his indomitable will.
Once the ANC was in power, people expected swift change. They were to be disappointed. Of course there were some houses built, electricity installed and new schools and clinics.
Above all black people now had political rights and formal equality. There was change—but not nearly enough.
Mandela accepted an International Monetary Fund plan that involved all the usual neoliberal demands.
A tiny minority of black people became fantastically wealthy, the rich whites retained all their economic power—and the vast majority stayed poor.
The Marikana strikes and massacre last August showed workers’ resistance and the continuing brutality of South Africa.
Mandela was never a socialist. Before he was jailed he made clear his vision for South Africa. It was to be a much freer and equal place, but economically it would “open up fresh fields for the development of a prosperous non-European bourgeois class”.
He remained true to that vision. His heroic battle against apartheid did not include a struggle to eliminate the capitalism that spawned apartheid. And it is capitalism that keeps South Africa’s black people poor.
When Mandela stepped down from office in 1999 disillusion had already set in at the lack of change. Mandela was too popular a figure to be blamed by many, but the ANC certainly was.
Mandela spoke out strongly against the Iraq war, against George Bush and Tony Blair’s imperialism and demanded action over Aids.
But today South Africa is the second most unequal country in the world. Two thirds of people live below the poverty line.
Unemployment is officially at 25 percent, but is probably really almost double that. And the strikes and township risings have returned.
In September 1993 Mandela made a remarkable speech to trade unionists. He declared, “How many times has the liberation movement worked together with workers and then at the moment of victory betrayed the workers? There are many examples of that in the world.
“It is only if the workers strengthen their organisation before and after liberation that you can win. If you relax your vigilance you will find that your sacrifices have been in vain.
“You just support the African National Congress only so far as it delivers the goods. If the ANC government does not deliver the goods, you must do to it what you have done to the apartheid regime.”
Once more Mandela had courageously told the truth.
We mourn his passing. We remember his great sacrifice. The struggle goes on.