As we celebrate 100 years of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, it is important that we reflect on what he stood for, what he was prepared to die for, including the significant role he played in building a strong and united ANC when he was released, having served 27 years in apartheid jails, particularly his incarceration on Robben Island.
One lesson Mandela left us with, and that is still etched in my mind, is that though we are free, the true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning. For, 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.
Mandela, it will be recalled, was the first democratically elected president who negotiated and presided over a well-researched and highly acclaimed constitution of our country. It would therefore be difficult to separate Mandela from the struggle against the brutal oppressive system of apartheid.
Our freedom struggle started in 1652 when the two Khoi people, the Khoi Khoi and Khoi San resisted the establishment of a refreshment base at the Table Bay by the Dutch East Indian Company.
However, through laws of divide and rule and brute force, the colonialists were able to enslave the indigenous populace. Even then, the African people did not surrender, and instead continued their fight, employing other forms of struggle.
It was at the turn of the century that the Africans succeeded in reorganizing themselves. This culminated in the formation of the ANC 1912, when the people united in a bid to resist the oppressive laws and land dispossession by the settlers.
However, when the Nationalist Party won the elections in 1948 and introduced its policy of racial segregation known as apartheid, the ANC was forced to change its strategy and mobilized intensively in their fight against the most repressive laws of the racist regime.
Mandela reflects on how, in 1949 as young and militant revolutionaries, they changed the character and form of the ANC and its leadership by electing a more militant leader who was prepared to lead mass demonstrations and go to jail if need be:
“We wanted somebody of status, we could not find one in the ANC. And then we went to a rival organization, which was also having its conference here in Bloemfontein and got Dr Moroka, who was the Treasurer General of the All
African Convention, a rival of the ANC; we asked him further, whether he would be prepared to stand as the President of the ANC and whether he would be prepared to launch mass action in this country and go to jail if necessary. He said yes. Then we wrote out and gave him a ticket, a membership card…. And this is how he was elected President General of the ANC…That conference was one of conflict and tension”, said Mandela in his closing address at the ANC’s 49th Conference.
That conference produced the Programme of Action which led to the 1952 Campaign for the defiance of Unjust Laws. The stage had been set for mass struggles that engulfed the whole country.
Mass mobilization and resistance against the repressive apartheid laws culminated in the Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960 where 69 people were killed callously and many were injured when they were protesting against the innocuous apartheid pass laws.
The apartheid government banned all political organization and in response the ANC went underground and formed Umkhonto We Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC.
The apartheid government, brutal as ever, arrested many leaders. Those who were not incarcerated went into exile.
Internal mobilization, mass action by the civil society, armed struggle and international pressure and economic sanctions led to Mandela’s release in 1990 and the unbanning of all political organisations.
Having spent 27 years in prison, Mandela came out without any malaise. He led the organization diligently, with dignity and integrity. He oversaw the return of ANC members from exile and led the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) negotiations. During the negotiations, Mandela had to convince the militant black majority that it was necessary and important to negotiate and share power.
It was on 10 May 1994 that Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the first democratically elected president of the Republic of South Africa.
In his cabinet Mandela brought in bright, principled and ethical leaders who he felt would implement policies of the ANC and the country. He believed in collective leadership and held members of his executive accountable.
On a more personal and lighter note, when I turned 50 years of age and my son was celebrating his 21st birthday, I invited the old sage to bless our celebration with his presence and rejoice with my family. Madiba duly accepted and with no
fanfare, quietly arrived at my house, spending the afternoon with my family and invited comrades.
As the ANC Veterans, we shall always remember the selfless contribution that Mandela made in our struggle for liberation, and the tenacity he displayed in building our strong constitutional democracy. We shall strive to unite and bring back the values and traditions of our glorious movement. Nay, we will hold our leadership accountable, ensuring that corruption, gate keeping, killings for leadership positions in the ANC is dealt with decisively.
We shall not fail our people. Like Madiba, we are always ready and willing to serve society.
President of the ANC Veterans League