Nearly 50 years ago, in 1964, Nelson Mandela ― along with many other comrades in the struggle for the liberation of South Africa from racist white domination under apartheid ― was sentenced to life in prison.
His statement to the court, made when he was facing the real threat of execution, remains a historic demonstration of defiance and resistance.
Mandela’s sentence was “reduced” to life imprisonment. He would spend 27 years caged by the brutal racist regime in South Africa, before the resistance movement there and a worldwide solidarity campaign helped to force his release.
Many times, the apartheid government dangled a pardon in front of Mandela ― if he would agree to publicly renounce the armed struggle. Contrary to liberal, depoliticised histories of the life of Mandela, he was in fact a political leader who believed in achieving liberation by any means necessary.
Indeed, in 1961 he helped to found Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”) an armed struggle wing of the liberation movement. Earlier that same year, Mandela gave his first-ever television interview. In it, he alluded to the sense of futility of fighting against a violent apartheid regime with only non-violent means.
On non-violence and the use of political violence, Mandela wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom: “Nonviolent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do. But if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end.
“For me, nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.
“In the end, we had no alternative to armed and violent resistance. Over and over again, we had used all the nonviolent weapons in our arsenal ― speeches, deputations, threats, marches, strikes, stay-aways, voluntary imprisonment ― all to no avail, for whatever we did was met by an iron hand.
“A freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor.”
Mandela spent nearly three decades in prison for his defence of principles and for his role in the struggle ― alongside hundreds and thousands of other political prisoners. During those years, many others were felled by the apartheid regime: for instance, the hundreds massacred in Soweto in 1976, and Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, who was beaten and tortured before dying in police custody in 1977.
On February 11, 1990, Mandela finally walked free. On that day, he gave a speech to a joyous mass of humanity gathered to hear him on the steps of Cape Town’s City Hall: “I greet you all in the name of freedom and democracy for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people ... I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”
International solidarity with South Africa took many forms. One under-analysed factor in understanding the defeat of apartheid and the release of Mandela was the military support given by Cuba to Angolan forces battling South African invasion in the late 1970s and 1980s.
This came along with Cuban support for Namibian independence and the liberation of other “frontline” states neighbouring apartheid South Africa.
In the documentary film, Fidel Castro: The Untold Story, actor and activist Harry Belafonte reflected on the importance of Cuba to the freedom of South Africa: “Had it not been for the Cuban presence in Africa, and in particular in Angola, the history of Africa would have never been what it is now.
“One of the greatest friends that Cuba has is Nelson Mandela, and his appreciation for what the Cuban people did … If you don’t understand that history, then you’ll never really understand the enormous success and importance of the Cuban Revolution.”
In 1991, Cuba was one of the first countries Mandela visited―in order to thank the Cuban people for their contributions.
Mandela was also an outspoken proponent of the liberation movement in Palestine, drawing analogies between these two struggles against racism and apartheid: “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” Mandela said.
In 2001, Mandela was honoured by Canadian parliament with honourary Canadian citizenship. One member of parliament, Rob Anders ― who now sits as a Conservative MP ― objected, shouting “No!” during the vote in the House, and referred to Mandela as a “communist and terrorist”.
Mandela’s stature in history is now unarguable, and the just nature of the struggle against apartheid is denied only by outright racists and bigots. The likes of Anders today sound like extremists, but in the 1980s it was standard practice for right-wing politicians around the world to disparage Mandela and the ANC as “terrorists”. (The United States listed Mandela as a terrorist, only removing him from its official terrorist list in 2008.)
In 1987, for instance, then-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher (whose government provided material support to the Apartheid regime, as did the Reagan administration in the US) said: “The ANC is a typical terrorist organization … Anyone who thinks it’s going to run a government is living in cloud-cuckoo land.”
Mandela and the ANC did indeed run the government of South Africa; Mandela was democratically elected to the presidency in 1994. And while his, and the ANC’s, record in government was contradictory and is contested because of its failure to reject neoliberal economic measures and eliminate poverty, the democratic struggle he came to personify put the lie to racists and right-wingers like Thatcher.
Mandela made fewer public statements after stepping down from his role in government. But he did speak out strongly at times on urgent issues. For instance, in 2003 he condemned the invasion of Iraq in unequivocal terms.
A voice for justice has gone silent. But the words and example of Mandela will live as long as people struggle against injustice and oppression.
[This article was originally written for the Media Mornings show on Vancouver Co-op Radio. Derrick O’Keefe is a writer, editor, and activist based in Vancouver. Jahanzeb Hussain is a political science student at Simon Fraser University.]