How Apartheid Fell Through Mandela’s Lens

Contrary to the complicated nature of the apartheid system imposed by the white minority South African government, the underlying principles that guided Nelson Mandela in his quest for freedom were actually quite simple. From a relatively early age, Mandela recognized the importance of language and how it contributed to his unconscious succumbing to the white government. In other words, Mandela and the black majority South African population were not born with the belief that blacks are inferior to whites, but rather they were taught to accept this as a mere fact of life in their early days of schooling, if even afforded this opportunity, and general observance of the culture around them. Thus, it is language that can suppress and it is language that can liberate, and Mandela’s appreciation of this understanding allowed for him to be such an influential figure.

Whether it be hotly debating the merits of switching from a stratagem of nonviolence to one of sabotage during an internal ANC meeting or merely dispelling a warder’s misunderstanding of the tenets of the ANC and its Freedom Charter, Mandela relies upon creating a dialogue to both make his case and amend his own views if they so need to be amended. If, following a debate, his opinion was struck down amongst allies who shared the same goals as him, Mandela would concede to the view of the majority and put the wishes of ANC or MK above his own. In the rare instances when he made the calculation that he would have to go it alone for the interests of all for which he fought, such as when he began to hold private talks with the government while still in prison, he would certainly not make this decision lightly but did so when he deemed he must.

He would listen to and respect his enemies to both better understand them to win the grand chess match, but also because he realized that he who does not show respect will not be respected in turn, and neither will the struggle for which he stands. Alas, it was Mandela’s willingness to listen as much as it was to opine that made him both a beloved figure and, from a tactical standpoint, a political mastermind. The journey was long, and all the moving parts acting to discourage the anti-apartheid movement that will be detailed created an excruciatingly difficult landscape in which to make progress, but Nelson Mandela’s exceptional perseverance, gamesmanship, and longing to understand human nature equipped him with the means to be the leader of the fall of apartheid.

As one would expect, civil society under the apartheid regime was divided by large divisions in wealth, access to land, and civil liberties. As Mandela recalls, his education had a British bias and with that it glorified European culture at the expense of indigenous African culture. In one respect, this can be argued to be the education system serving as the mouthpiece for as to why those of European descent subjugate the black majority in South Africa, but, for Mandela at least, his detection of bias helped instill an intense pride in being a Xhosa. In conjunction with his observance of black poverty and his own spells of living with little money, it is unsurprising that Mandela was receptive to political philosophy that spoke to the liberation of the dominated underclass. In the context of South Africa, Mandela meshes what he has observed with what he has read to adopt an African nationalist political identity, and much of his memoir discusses how his own ideology relates to similar but different doctrines of Marxism, communism, or a more militant brand of nationalism.

Nevertheless, South Africa is divided between the races of Black, White, Indian, and Coloured, and further yet there are divisions within the divisions. A core message of the ANC is that blacks should claim what is theirs, ultimately access to the same privileges as the white minority, but the black community was divided into various ethnic groups that participated in a wide range of alliances and rivalries. Getting these ethnic groups to unify proved to be extremely difficult, and Mandela recounts instances where tribal leaders would unite with the South African government (presumably, the government bribed leaders with access to more land or wealth than they were afforded at present) or when the likes of the government or the PAC would exploit ethnic group resentment to resort to violence so as to tarnish the efforts of the ANC and the anti-apartheid movement at large. Although given less time in the memoir, similar divisions existed in the Indian and Coloured communities as well who constantly worried whether the true allegiance of the ANC was to a nonracial society or merely to black society. And, especially in its early days and in accord with Mandela’s own thinking at the time, the ANC was reluctant to let non-black leftists join the ANC and rise to a position of leadership out of fear of them exploiting the organization for their own political gain.

Mutual distrust amongst the races may have been perhaps the greatest obstacle to the anti-apartheid movement, and much of the work that Mandela and the ANC do is to assure doubters that the ANC is a nonracial movement in support of the betterment of all South Africans. For long spells the message did not appease everyone, and the argument can be had that the ANC’s relative moderation prompted an oft-stubborn and unhelpful PAC to recruit those sympathetic to a more devoutly nationalist message, but given the entrenched system of apartheid in South Africa Mandela and the ANC steered the course of moderation in the face of constant scapegoating that actually seemed to push a white electorate further and further to the right during the anti-apartheid struggle. Given the white population in South Africa and its government officials were susceptible to NP propaganda, when the reality suggested that the ANC sat on its hands time and time again in the face of one-sided oppression, it is worth now examining how Mandela used education to combat social division.

So Mandela and the ANC are looking upon a system that deliberately divides people into sections and subsections of people. The message to latch onto is quite clearly that there is more that unites them than divides them, and in actuality if they were to unify then they can get behind government programs and freedoms that can produce a richer life for everyone. In accord, Mandela is a tireless educator. He takes the time to educate prisoners who may have had PAC allegiances on the outside, he talks to warders, prison officials, and government elites on the views of the ANC—and he comes to realize over and over that many people simply did not understand the ANC’s message. It would seem that by nature people are skeptical of change until the case is made to them in a way that makes sense, and Mandela never relinquishes his belief that there is goodness in people if you give them a means to release it. One of the most telling lines in the memoir is when Mandela explains the ANC to a guard and he says something along the lines of, “Mandela you make a hell of a lot more sense than the NP.” It is a microcosmic moment that suggests that people can be educated if you engage in a discourse with them.

Thus, the onus befalls upon the ANC to reveal the truth of government offenses and release government sympathizers from years of indoctrination—certainly no small feat. But the fruits of education and, in one instance, poetic justice can speak for themselves. Mandela speaks of the angry young revolutionaries that the Bantu system creates—young men that were far fierier than he at a young age. In this case, the very tactics of the government served as the education—the oppression was not in a history book but before their very eyes. As such, elites may have overplayed their hand in adopting such an austere mode of governance, and the young men they created would be no longer willing to accept apartheid as a tolerable state of affairs.

Indeed, the anti-apartheid movement makes strides while Mandela is in prison that even he is shocked to see, and he comes to realize that if he uses the factors that have contributed to the precipice to his advantage then the struggle can emerge victorious. Of course, elites play a major role, and much of the conclusion of the memoir details de Klerk’s role as a pragmatic, albeit at times flawed, character. His unwillingness to condemn the violence carried out by government and Zulu forces on ANC sympathizers, and at worst his probable knowledge of the government’s planned providing of arms for these massacres, coupled with his attempts to verbally sabotage the ANC before a microphone make it so that he cannot be completely exonerated, but certainly, when taking into account historical context, the concessions he made for the good of South Africa deviated well-beyond his party’s traditional platform, and it is a fact that Mandela bears repeating on more than one occasion during the transition and in the memoir.

Mandela even has generally kind words for the likes of Margaret Thatcher and George H.W. Bush—a sympathetic portrayal of elites that one may not have anticipated given the literature that sculpted the man. Once again, this attests to his belief in the goodness of human nature, and on a more direct level may just suggest that he understood elites often find themselves in difficult situations where decisions are more complex than a straightforward moral choice in the context of the international community. And so it follows, if he did not mind a Bush or Thatcher, who did nothing to help his cause, on a personal level, that he spoke very kindly of the likes of Kobie Coetsee, the minister of defense who was knowledgeable of the struggle. For Mandela, someone like Coetsee may have reminded him of his good friend Christo Brand—a man who had the weight of the Afrikaner elite community on his shoulders to oppose the anti-apartheid movement and thereby not betray his own, only to of course embrace the struggle wholeheartedly. Mandela mentioned on an occasion or two that he held these people—those who stood to gain from the apartheid system and still opposed it—in the highest regard.

And lastly, we must visit the economic factors and international context that led to the fall of apartheid. For although I have been compelled to write much of this piece in relation to the role of Mandela exclusively, the fact of the matter is also that the South African government was facing an internal situation that was deteriorating before their eyes. In spite of boasting a strong economy for whites throughout the bulk of the apartheid era, international sanctions, workers strikes from within, and the rise of violence due to increased tensions were beginning to create a system that was not tenable in the long-term. Even once released, Mandela recognizes this fact and urges international supporters to continue to impose sanctions and domestic supporters to continue to strike and protest peacefully. The release signaled apartheid was most assuredly a ticking time bomb, but Mandela knew de Klerk would hold out for as long as he felt he could, and history is probably fortunate it was de Klerk at the helm and not a different NP official who would have held out far longer.

The realization on the part of Mandela and the ANC was that elites consist of rational actors, and rational actors have to respond to economic and international downturn eventually. International public opinion condemned the apartheid state, trade unions and student activist groups had been showing solidarity from abroad, and a number of regimes on and off the continent, most notably in Scandinavia, were willing to publicly embrace the struggle. With the government’s credibility tarnished and with limited options before them, they adopted a “power-sharing” resolution that was charitable to their circumstances. Overall, the anti-apartheids movement’s ability to stay meticulously organized and read the ever-changing situation adeptly led to a point in which the landscape for apartheid to exist could not carry on any longer.

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