Induction into Politics in Johannesburg
Born on 18 July 1918 in the small village of Mvezo, in Transkei, Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela was orphaned after nine years, as his father then died in abject poverty. In 1941, whilst in Johannesburg, Mandela came across Walter Sisulu who impressed him. Recommended by Sisulu, he was recruited as a clerk/messenger in one of the city’s largest legal firms. Mandela shared an office with Gaur Radebe, the only other African employee, who was an active member of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), often attending political meetings where he even spoke. Mandela sometimes accompanied him. Attracted to the ANC, in August 1943 he participated, together with some 10,000 marchers led by Redebe, to boycott the bus in Alexandra, where he had been staying, in protest against the increase of the fare.
Further Studies and Political Pursuit
At the start of 1943, Mandela began reading for a law degree at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits), in Johannesburg where he had White class mates. In the faculty of law he was the only African student. He was uncomfortable, being shunned, if not humiliated, by some Whites, including the professors. In 1947, having completed his three years to become an articled clerk, Mandela became a full-time student for his LLB.
In April 1944, when the ANC’s Youth League was founded, Mandela sat on its managing committee. He gave all his support to the African Mine Workers Union (AMWU) in its one-week strike of 1946. In 1947 he was elected to the executive committee of the ANC of Transvaal, and in 1951 as the national president of the Youth League. For the launch of the Defiance Campaign on 26 June 1952, Mandela was entrusted, as chairman of the action committee and of the volunteer board, to ensure the entire scheme, coordinate with the regional branches and recruit the volunteers, besides raising funds. He was arrested for violating the Suppression of Communism Act, together with 20 others. In 1952, Mandela was among the banned national leaders, restricted for six months to the district of Johannesburg. By the end of 1952, already chairing the ANC provincial committee of Transvaal, he was appointed First Deputy President of the party at national level.
By August 1952, a fully-fledged attorney, he opened his own law office, continuing business with his friend Oliver Tambo, practising as Mandela and Tambo, then the sole African law firm. Whilst at Villiers, in the Orange Free State, where he had gone for a court case, he was served, under the Suppression of Communism Act, a banning order for two years, having to discontinue his tie with ANC, besides being restricted to Johannesburg and prohibited from attending meetings or gatherings. In April 1954, the Transvaal Law Society asked for Mandela not to practise as attorney for his involvement in the Defiance Campaign. The case was set aside. Mandela then received his third ban in March 1956, now for five years.
Very early on 5 December 1956, Mandela was arrested at home for Hoogverraad (High Treason). He was later joined in prison by 155 other associates for the same charge. In the early hours of 30 March 1959, he was arrested without warrant and taken to Newlands Police Station where he met some 40 of his equally victimised colleagues. They were all then jailed for 36 hours under the Emergency Regulations. They stayed at this place until the State of Emergency was lifted. After the closing down of the law firm’s office of Mandela and Tambo due to financial problems, Mandela continued his legal and political work from the flat of Ahmed Kathrada in Johannesburg.
Underground Activities and Heading Aggressive Campaign
Found not guilty, as his colleagues, at the Treason Trial on 29 March 1961, Mandela went underground, knowing that he would be arrested. He secretly travelled across the country, mostly at night, meeting people of all backgrounds. Based in Johannesburg, but without any fixed abode, he stayed with supporters. So as not to be identified by the police, he wore a chauffeur’s cap and overalls. He was hounded by the police.
Entrusted with all powers to head the MK, an aggressive movement against the tyrannical authorities, Mandela made it a point to study literature on armed, and specially guerilla, warfare. He thus assured his compatriots in his open letter to the newspapers from underground: “The struggle is my life. I will continue fighting until the end of my days.” Mandela alone occupied, at the beginning, the MK-owned Liliesleaf Farm, at Rivonia, near Johannesburg, pretending to work as a houseboy or caretaker for a White living in the front house, always wearing blue overalls. Banned, he was living there illegally.
Still in hiding, Mandela was abroad for the first time in 1961. He was the ANC’s delegate to the February 1962 Conference in Addis Abeba of the Pan-African Freedom Movement for East, Central and Southern Africa. At the end of their trip around Africa, Mandela and Oliver Tambo flew to London, with Senegalese President Leopold Senghor’s blessings. After spending ten days in the British capital, meeting useful personalities including Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell, Mandela flew to Addis Abeba to train in soldiering during eight weeks.
Return from Mission Abroad
Driving from Durban to Johannesburg, Mandela was arrested and taken to prison on 6 August 1962 for instigating the 1961 stay-at-home strike and recently leaving the country without a passport. In jail, he started his correspondence course to secure his LLB.
At the initial hearing in Pretoria on 15 October 1962, Mandela defended himself. Set up earlier, the Free Mandela Committee was active with the slogan ‘Free Mandela.’ A huge rally was demonstrating around the court. When the case resumed a week later, Mandela was cross examined by Mr Barnard, the Prime Minister’s private secretary, about the letter he had addressed to the head of the government for authorisation to convene a countrywide convention to draft a non-racial Constitution. A lawyer, he was aware that the case against him was well-founded. Thus, he did not bother to call for witnesses. In his plea for mitigation, he made a rather political appeal, explaining how and why he had perpetrated such deeds, pointing out the persecution he endured in his family life, career and political work, stressing that he would again do so for the sake of his country deprived of human rights and civil liberties. Mandela was sentenced to three years for inciting workers to strike and two for leaving the country without official documents. Gathered in large number to hear the judgment, the crowd spontaneously sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa), which would be South Africa’s national anthem.
Mandela was the Accused No. 1 in the Rivonia Trials; although he had been away from South Africa and in jail during most of the period. He excelled as the main witness, having meticulously drafted during a fortnight, mostly in prison in evenings, a superb testimony centred on the freedom fighters’ politics. It took him four hours to read out from the dock. All the accused were sentenced to life-imprisonment. During the period preceding the resumption of the court proceedings on 11 June 1964 for the verdict, Mandela successfully sat for his LLB final external examinations (University of London).
On Robben Island 1963-1982
At the end of May 1963, Mandela had been taken chained, together with three other political prisoners, to Robben Island. In mid-June 1964, following the conviction after the Rivonia Trials, Mandela was again imprisoned after having already served two years’ imprisonment, along with his co-accused, on Robben Island. He was first put in the isolation cell for three days, being caught reading a newspaper left behind by a warder. With the improvement of prison life conditions, including those relating to studies, Mandela too participated, together with Sisulu, in teaching, being responsible for Political Economy, whilst Kathrada was in charge of the History of the Indian Struggle. Mandela also performed legal work for the benefit of co-detainees even outside his group, irrespective of their political inclinations. In 1979, Mandela received the Jawaharlal Nehru Human Rights Award, for which Oliver Tambo represented him.
At Pollsmoor 1982-1988: Interviews & Negotiations
Unlike on Robben Island, Mandela’s cell at Pollsmoor was adjoining a larger one used as a study. During the debate in Parliament on 31 January 1985, President P.W. Botha declared that Mandela and his comrades would be set free, if they “unconditionally rejected violence as a political instrument.” But such a conditional offer to Mandela, the sixth in the past ten years, did not satisfy him. In the latter part of 1986, Minister Coetsee received Mandela. During the three-hour conversation, suspension of the armed struggle and constitutional guarantee for the minorities were addressed among other issues.
Victor Vester Cottage Prison 1988-1990
Mandela was transferred on 10 December 1988 to Victor Vester, a posh one-storey cottage-prison in a Dutch town of Cape Town. He was told that it was to be his last stop before becoming free. On 5 July 1989, Mandela was received for half an hour by President Botha. Meeting him on the following day, he also told him that “the best way to move forward was to unban the ANC and all other political organisations, to lift the state of emergency, to release political prisoners and to allow the exiles to return.”
Not in Prison, but in Campaign
President de Klerk personally announced to Mandela on 9 February 1990 that he would be set free on the very next day. After his address to the huge crowd gathered at the Grand Parade in Cape Town, Mandela spent his first night as a free man at the place of Nobel Prize Winner (1984) and anti-Apartheid promoter Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In the very afternoon of the day of his release, Mandela gave a press conference, his first not held clandestinely, with television cameras, about which he had up to now no idea, and covered by journalists also from other countries. Back home in Johannesburg, he harangued, at the First National Bank Stadium of Soweto, a crowd of some 120,000.
Present at ANC’s national executive committee meeting held in Lusaka, Zimbabwe, on 27 February 1990, Mandela was elected deputy president. Then touring Africa, he was given a heroic welcome in each country he visited. Thereafter, he flew to Sweden to see his old friend and former law partner Tambo who did his best to convince him to take over from him ANC’s chairmanship; but he refused. In April 1990, he attended a concert organised in his honour at Wembley, London. He spoke live for the television covering the event for viewers worldwide. During his tour of Europe and North America in June 1990, Mandela endeavoured to enlist the support of the Western countries to continue imposing economic sanctions against South Africa, as they intended to suspend them thinking that the regime had become really lenient.
At the July 1991 ANC annual conference, the first held in the country after 30 years, attended by 2244 accredited delegates, Mandela was unanimously elected president. In 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in conjunction with President de Klerk. Upon receiving this coveted distinction, he was grateful to the governments of Norway and Sweden for their spontaneous support to ANC’s cause in the 1950s-1960s.
End of Apartheid and Birth of Democratic Republic 1994
After the violence that erupted in some parts of the country during the campaign, the first democratic elections took place peacefully from 27 to 29 April 1994. Countless South Africans including Mandela voted for the first time. Winning 62.65% of the votes cast, less than the 66.7% required for rewriting the Constitution, the ANC bagged 252 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly. It won in all the provinces, except two. After five years of presidency, Mandela retired, allowing his first deputy Thabo Mbeki (ANC) to become President, in which capacity the latter served from 1999 to 2008.