Mandela: when biography and history intersect


Wednesday, December 18, 2013    

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Since the death of Nelson Mandela, much has been said of him by many who knew about him after his release from Robben Island prison in 1990. This article is a presentation of my thinking about Mandela in my first encounter with him — by way of reading — during the peak of the liberation struggles in southern Africa in the 1970s.

In this encounter I saw a man whose biography intersected with the history of the modern struggles against Apartheid; a man who was the architect of the guerilla warfare; a man whose voice — in his writings and two major court cases (1962 and 1964) "I am prepared to die" published in London in the 1970s and his book, No Easy Walk to Freedom (1965) — became the major narrative defining and describing the nature and characteristics of the Apartheid system.

As a young political activist of the 1970s I was keen in listening to the voice of Michael Manley, and his advocacy role in the African liberation struggles brought on increasing attention to Mandela the philosopher, the guerilla warfare strategist and teacher.

It is important to discuss Mandela within the context of the history of modern South Africa. Cecil Rhodes did not leave is name in South Africa, but he left a tradition that involved the taking away of rich mines, fertile agricultural lands and genocidal acts against defenceless Africans. Africans were herded from their tribal lands into reserves, like animal. These reserves became reservoirs of cheap labour for the mines and farms. Mandela's 1962 and 1964 trials resembled very much Castro's "history will absolve me" trial during the 1950s. He was well aware that there was no justice in the court, so he used the opportunity to present to the country and the world the nature of Apartheid and the role of the African National Congress (ANC) and its constitutional struggles and non-violent protests to the development of the armed wing of the ANC. It is important to note that the ANC was a direct outgrowth of the Ethiopianist movement that emerged in the form of a separate church movement that inspired protests against tax and land seizures.

In his defence at the famous Rivonia Trial of 1964, Mandela provided insight into his history with the ANC, and the transformation of the ANC with its military wing. He joined the ANC in 1944 and was most active in the youth wing. He noted that the ANC was formed in 1912, responding to South Africa Act, defending "the rights of African people that have been seriously curtailed". He told the court that the ANC defended the Africans against the Native Land Act and, for 37 years, to 1949, the ANC adhered to constitutional struggles; and that Chief Luthuli, president of the ANC received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.

After 1949, the ANC, according to Mandela, began peaceful protests and demonstrations against certain laws. He told the court: "Pursuant to this policy, the ANC launched the defiance, in which I was placed in charge of the volunteers." The protest was based on peaceful resistance, but 8,500 people were arrested. The Government, according to Mandela, was "unmoved" by the peaceful initiatives. "We learn it from every successive governments... to accept the fact that Africans, when they make their demands strongly and powerfully enough to have some change of success, they will be met by force and terror...We learned it from General Smuts at the time of two massacres of our people." Later, in his defence, he gave a history of massacres of defenceless protesting blacks from the 1920s to the turning point, Sharpsville massacre in 1961.This was the event that was a turning point in the struggles against Apartheid inside and outside of South Africa. it inspired the global cry against Apartheid and inspired Mandela to develop Umkhonto We Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC.

After the turning point brought on by the Sharpsville massacre of 1961, and "after a long and anxious assessment of South Africa", declared Mandela, "I and some colleagues came to the conclusion would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue speaking peace and non-violence. The Government left us with no other choice." Umkhonto We Sizwe was formed in November to fight rather than to submit, "to hit back" in defence of the Africans. It was Mandela that opened the door and established himself as the architect of guerilla warfare against the Apartheid regime. Against this background, Mandela left South Africa for Addis Abba -- without a passport, illegally — "as a delegate of the ANC" to attend the conference of Pan African Freedom Movement for Eastern Central and Southern Africa in early 1962, where he met a long list of decorated African leaders and leading nationalist and guerilla strategists of that period. The trip was a success; it had a "forceful impression" on Mandela who took the Apartheid to the world in which he received sympathy and support.

As a lawyer and member of the ANC Mandela was involved in constitutional struggles from 1944 to 1961. As the main force behind the emergence of the armed wing of the ANC he seized the opportunity while he was abroad to study "the art of war". He told the court that he "underwent military training and examined all authorities on the subject, from the East and West; going back to the classic work of Clausewitz, and covering such a variety as Mao Tse Tung and Che Guevara on one hand, and the writings of the Anglo Boer War on the other". He presented a political portrait of himself; a being influenced by Marxism as well as a history of western political ideas combined with "and ideas from the leader of the newly independent states such as Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah and Nasser".

After the 1964 trial and banishment to Robben Island, the youth, inspired by Mandela's vision of a free South Africa by way of warfare took on new dimension. His trip abroad brought support for him in prison and wider support to the liberation forces from international support, especially the Frontline States, including Mozambique, Tanzania and Angola.

For much of the 1970s, 80s and 90s South Africa was fighting against the rest of the world, except for the USA, Great Britain, France, and Israel. One of the most critical supports for the ANC in Africa was that of Cuba. The role of Fidel Castro and Cuba in defeating South Africa in Angola may have hastened Mandela's release from prison in 1990.

My second encounter with Mandela took place after his release; seeing and hearing him at a gigantic public meeting in Harlem, New York. He emerged from that wretched experience of incarceration on Robben Island, after more that two decades of imprisonment, as a man of reconciliation and peace. This is the Mandela many people speak about today. However, he opened a door to a new South Africa. The echoes of his pre-1964 narratives will inspire a new generation to take that struggle to another level to treat the unfinished business brought on by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee that directed the new politics of South Africa.





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