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Nelson Mandela: We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians

By Muhammad Sahimi

Nelson Mandela, the icon of freedom, champion of racial equality, and a great supporter of oppressed people everywhere, passed away on 5 December 2013, leaving a huge vacuum behind that will not be filled easily, if ever.

Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in the village of Mvezo in Cape Province of South Africa. He was given the forename Nelson Rolihlahla, with Rolihlahla meaning "troublemaker.” He was also known by his clan name, Madiba. Mandela belonged to a royal family. His patrilineal great-grandfather, Ngubengcuka, ruled the Thembu people in the Transkeian Territories, which is now in South Africa's Eastern Cape Province. A son of the king, named Mandela, was Nelson's grandfather, and gave his name as Nelson’s last name. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a local chief and councilor to the monarch.

Mandela began his undergraduate studies at the University of Fort Hare, which was an elite black institution in Alice, Eastern Cape. He wanted to become an interpreter or clerk in the Native Affairs Department. He also befriended Oliver Tambo (1917-1993), who would become a close friend and comrade for decades to come, and played a leading role in overthrowing the apartheid regime. He arrived in Johannesburg in 1941, and was introduced to Walter Sisulu (1912-2003), a major figure in African National Congress (ANC), who got him a job at a law firm. Mandela also met Gaur Redebe, a member of the ANC and Communist Party, as well as Nat Bregman, a Jewish communist who became his first white friend. Attending communist talks and parties, Mandela was impressed that people of all colors were mixing as equals. Although he stated that he never joined the Party because its atheism conflicted with his Christian faith, many have said that he was, in fact, a member, if at least unofficially. But, Mandela also believed that the black majority struggle was based on race, rather than class warfare, the way the communists viewed it. Mandela also signed up to a University of South Africa correspondence course, working on his bachelor's degree at night, eventually earning it in 1943. In 1944 he married Evelyn Mase, an ANC activist, with whom he had several children.

After the 1948 elections in which only whites were allowed to vote, the apartheid system became official. By then, Mandela was an influential member of the ANC, advocating resistance against the apartheid system. He ultimately received his law degree in 1949 (becoming a full-time attorney in 1953 after passing the Bar exams), becoming a member of the ANC’s National Executive Board in 1950. He also embraced Marxism. The ANC began a major defiance campaign in 1952 in which Mandela played a leading role, giving speeches to thousands of people at rallies around the nation. He also became a regional ANC chief in the same year. He, together with Sisulu and other comrades, was arrested in the same year, and received a suspended nine-month hard labor sentence for believing in communism. In December 1952 he was banned from public speeches and talking with more than one person at a time. In August 1953, Mandela and Tambo opened their own law office, Mandela and Tambo, in Johannesburg.

In 1955 Mandela recognized that the ANC had to take up arms, but China refused to provide the ANC the arms it needed, believing that it was not yet prepared. A Freedom Charter was put together and approved in a conference in June 1955, outlining the political framework of the nation in the post-apartheid era. In March 1956 he received his third ban, restricting him for 5 years to Johannesburg, but he defied it repeatedly, disguising himself as a chauffeur and driving around the country. In December 1956 he and other ANC Executive Board were arrested and charged with “high treason,” although it took several years before they were put on trial. He divorced Evelyn in 1958, and had a courtship with Winnie Madikizela whom he married in the same year.

The increasing harsh repression convinced Mandela that the ANC must form an armed group and convinced both ANC leader Albert Luthuli - who was morally opposed to violence - and allied activist groups of its necessity. He was inspired by Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement in Cuban, and in 1961 co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation", abbreviated MK) with Sisulu and the communist Joe Slovo. Mandela was elected the chairman of the armed group. He used guerilla warfare tactics that had been used by China’s by Mao zedong (1893-1976) and Latin American Revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928-1967). Officially separate from the ANC, in later years MK became the group's armed wing.

After evading arrest for years, Mandela was finally arrested on 5 August 1962, on a tip by the CIA. He turned the trial into a political proceeding against the apartheid regime, and received a five year sentence. He was rearrested on 11 July 1963, and after the police discovered the documents about the MK activities, he and his comrades were charged with trying to violently overthrow the regime. On 12 June 1964 Mandela and his comrades were given life sentences. They were jailed in the notorious Robben Island for 18 years. Mandela lived in an 8 ft by 7 ft cell, with a straw mat to sleep on. He worked during the day, and worked on a law degree from the University of London at night. He was allowed one visit and one letter every six months.

In April 1982 Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Tokai, Cape Town, along with senior ANC leaders Walter Sisulu, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada and Raymond Mhlaba. The goal was to isolate them and decrease their influence on younger activists. Conditions at Pollsmoor were better than at Robben Island. Mandela was allowed one letter per week, and a roof garden. As violence increased, South Africa’s President P.W. Botha offered to release Mandela in February 1985 on the condition that he renounces violence, but Mandela refused. In June 1985 Botha imposed a state of emergency and initiated a harsh crackdown on unrest. The ANC fought back, committing 466 attacks in 1986 and 1987. Mandela requested talks with Botha, but he rejected it. Mandela secretly met with Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee in 1987, and 11 more meetings over 3 years. In May 1988, the government agreed to the release all the political prisoners and to legalize the ANC, on the condition that they permanently renounce violence, break links with the Communist Party and not insist on majority rule. Mandela rejected the conditions, insisting that the ANC would end the armed struggle only when the government renounced violence as well. In December 1988 Mandela was transferred to Victor Verster Prison near Paarl.

There, he lived in the comfort of a warder's house with a personal cook. He used the time to complete his law degree, had many visitors, and organized secret communications with exiled ANC leader Oliver Tambo. In 1989, Botha suffered a stroke, but retained the state presidency. He invited Mandela to a meeting over tea in July 1989, which Mandela accepted. Botha was replaced as state president by F. W. de Klerk, who believed that apartheid system was unsustainable. He released unconditionally all the ANC prisoners, except Mandela. The fall of Berlin Wall in November 1989 prompted de Klerk to meet with Mandela in December 1989 to discuss the situation, a meeting both men considered friendly. Mandela was released unconditionally and all the formerly banned political parties were legalized on 2 February 1990. The first photographs of Mandela were allowed to be published in South Africa for 20 years.

In a speech on 11 February 1990 at Cape Town's City Hall through crowds, Mandela declared his commitment to peace and reconciliation with the white minority, but made it clear that the ANC's armed struggle was not over, and would continue as "a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid,” but also insisting that his main focus was to bring peace to the black majority and give them the right to vote in national and local elections. In a speech he said,

Friends, Comrades and fellow South Africans. I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands

He stayed at the home of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, met with friends, activists, and press, and gave a speech to 100,000 people at Johannesburg's Soccer City.

The state of emergency was lifted in May 1990, after preliminary negotiations between Mandela and his team with the government. He divorced his wife, Winnie, after she was convicted of kidnapping and assault. In 1993, Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. After further violence and intense negotiations, general elections were held on 27 April 1994. Mandela was elected President, with ANC receiving 62 percent of the votes for the parliament, winning 252 seats out of a possible 400.

In his inauguration ceremony, he said,

Never, never again will this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another

He also paid tribute to de Klerk, his Second Deputy President, saying, “He has made for himself a niche in history. He has turned out to be one of the greatest reformers, one of the greatest sons of South Africa.” Watch his speech here.

As president, Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate human rights violations under apartheid. Anyone that had committed a politically-motivated crime was given immunity, provided that he/she confess to the crime and explained the circumstances of the crime. He also helped introducing many initiatives designed to improve the living standards of South Africa's black population. In 1996, he presided over the enactment of a new South African constitution. Mandela retired from politics in June 1999 at the age of 80. Mandela’s retirement was due to another of his great attributes. He was adored by the world and his people, and could have stayed as the president for as long as he wished. But, he was not interested in power; he had set his nation on the path to development and democracy, and considered his mission as accomplished.

A great characteristic of Mandela was that he never forgot those who helped him and the ANC during their struggles. In his inauguration as President he invited Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro, Muammar Gaddafi, and representatives of Iran. They were not followers of his model of governance, but they helped him and the ANC during their long struggle. In his visit to Iran in 1992, Mandela said, “We are here to thank the Iranian government and nation for their support in black people's struggle against apartheid.” View some of the pictures of his visit to Iran here. When he was criticized for a trip to Libya in 1998, he responded that those who criticize his ties to Cuba and Libya should "go and throw themselves into a pool," adding, “We should not abandon those who helped us in the darkest hour of the history of this country. They gave us the resources for us to conduct the struggle [against apartheid] and to win.” He also told an American TV audience that, “One of the mistakes the Western world makes is to think that their enemies should be our enemies. We have our own struggle”

But, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his remarks about the Holocaust, the same Mandela cancelled his trip to Iran. He was a man of principles.

Books can be written on the wise words by Mandela. In a radio interview in 1961, he said, “Only free men can negotiate; prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.” Some of his wise words that are particularly applicable to our era, and will remain forever, are:

A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favor. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.

If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don't care for human beings.

It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.

If the United States of America or Britain is having elections, they don't ask for observers from Africa or from Asia. But when we have elections, they want observers.

It's a tragedy what is happening, what Bush is doing. All Bush wants is Iraqi oil. There is no doubt that the U.S. is behaving badly. Why are they not seeking to confiscate weapons of mass destruction from their ally Israel? This is just an excuse to get Iraq’s oil.

Bush is now undermining the United Nations. He is acting outside it, notwithstanding the fact that the United Nations was the idea of President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Both Bush, as well as Tony Blair, are undermining an idea which was sponsored by their predecessors. They do not care. Is it because the secretary-general of the United Nations [Ghanaian Kofi Annan] is now a black man? They never did that when secretary-generals were white.

What I am condemning is that one power, with a president [George W. Bush] who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust.

The current world financial crisis also starkly reminds us that many of the concepts that guided our sense of how the world and its affairs are best ordered, have suddenly been shown to be wanting.


We consider ourselves to be comrades in arms to the Palestinian Arabs in their struggle for the liberation of Palestine. There is not a single citizen in South Africa who is not ready to stand by his Palestinian brothers in their legitimate fight against the Zionist racists.

(Some have disputed attribution of the last quote to Mandela.) For his defense of the Palestinian people, Mandela was consistently attacked by pro-Israel organizations and publications in the United States; Read more of his wise words here.

Thank you Mr. Mandela for setting a great model for humanity; rest in peace.

About the author: Iran analyst Muhammad Sahimi, a Professor at the University of Southern California, is the editor of the website Iran News & Middle East Reports.


Related Articles:

Nelson Mandela (18 July 1918 - 5 December 2013): A Giant Leaves The Stage

- Former South African President Nelson Mandela died on Thursday at the age of 95 after months of struggling with illness. President Jacob Zuma made the announcement that the anti-apartheid icon had died in a televised address. He said that Mandela died "peacefully", surrounded by family, at around 8.50 p.m., AP reported. 12/7/13

Mandela's Way: Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage - In Mandela's Way, Stengel recounts the moments in which "the grandfather of South Africa" was tested and shares the wisdom he learned: why courage is more than the absence of fear, why we should keep our rivals close, why the answer is not always either/or but often "both," how important it is for each of us to find something away from the world that gives us pleasure and satisfaction-our own garden. 12/6/13


... Payvand News - 12/09/13 ... --

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