Mandela's South Africa

He fought for unity and liberation. Today, his country is healing the wounds of racism and apartheid.

June 04, 2000|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,Perspective Editor

WHEN NELSON MANDELA walked out of prison on Feb. 11, 1990 South Africa's future walked with him. If Mandela had raised a clenched fist and said, "We must purge this land with blood," an uprising would have surely ensued, and South Africa would have disappeared into the sea of anarchy that has engulfed so many other African nations.

A lesser man would have felt justified in calling for a violent upheaval to bring down the white supremacist government. Anger is a powerful emotion and Mandela had reason to call for revenge. He had spent 27 years in prison, 18 of them on Robben Island, an inhospitable chunk of rock sitting in the cold Atlantic, off the coast of Cape Town.

Day after monotonous day, Mandela performed menial jobs such as pounding rocks into gravel or working in the island's limestone quarry. Day after day, he endured the indignities heaped on him by the white guards who ran the prison. And day after day, he longed for friends, family and freedom as the best years of his life wasted away while he sat in a dank cell.

In his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," Mandela reflected on his years in prison: "It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away somone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their own humanity.

"When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both...."

Mandela's words underscore the complexities of the man. For example, he is not a communist, but he embraces the communists who fought alongside him in South Africa's liberation struggle. He hated the apartheid government, but he does not hate white South Africans. He is a man of peace, but he headed a guerrilla group that waged a campaign of violence.

Despite Mandela's complexities, one thing remains constant. Since his earliest days in the African National Congress, he has described his vision for South Africa, a vision that includes South Africans of all races living in harmony.

Last month, I visited South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana with 10 other members of the National Conference of Editorial Writers. The highlight of our visit to South Africa was a meeting with Mandela.

Soon after we arrived in Johannesburg, it became obvious that the United States does not have a Nelson Mandela. There is simply no figure in our society who enjoys the same degree of respect and adoration that South Africans, of all races, have bestowed upon him.

Our visit came while squatters were taking over farms in neighboring Zimbabwe and the medical community and AIDS activists had turned their attention to South African President Thabo Mbeki, who stirred up a controversy by questioning the safety of the drug AZT and whether HIV causes AIDS.

Meanwhile, in Pretoria, a trial was under way that served as a grim reminder of the horrors of apartheid. The defendant, Wouter Basson, is the alleged mastermind of South Africa's secret program to develop chemical and biological weapons. Under Basson's guidance, the program is alleged to have developed vaccines to make black women infertile, plans to contaminate water supplies with cholera and yellow fever, and a plot to poison Mandela while he was in prison.

We met with Mandela in his home in an affluent area of Johannesburg. Tall and proud, at age 82 he still has a commanding presence. His face was drawn, and he looked tired, but his voice conveyed the strength of a man whom not even Robben Island could break. I shook his hand and gave him an Orioles cap. He politely thanked me, and placed the cap on the table in front of him.

During the 1950s Mandela played a key role in the ANC's nonviolent campaign to undermine apartheid, South Africa's system of racial segregation, through strikes, civil disobedience, and demonstrations. The government labeled him a communist - a name given to anyone who called for social and economic change - and issued a banning order which restricted his movements and prohibited him from attending public gatherings.

Mandela continued to work with the ANC, but he abandoned nonviolence in March 1960 after 69 unarmed protesters were shot to death in Sharpeville, a town near Johannesburg. The demonstration was held to protest the "pass" law that required black South Africans to carry identification documents.

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