On December 5th, 2013, Nelson Mandela passed away. I, like many others in the world, was deeply saddened by this news. Nelson Mandela was a source of great inspiration for me both in my studies and later in life. I am writing this letter in this peacemaker blog series not only because Nelson Mandela is without a doubt a rightful member of this group but because of the frustration I felt while following the coverage of his death and later his funeral.
The story of Nelson Mandela that I was told in school and often saw in the media puts emphasis on the wrong parts of his life story. This, combined with funeral “selfies” of famous presidents, is where my frustration lies. The “selfie” included the Prime Minster of the UK as well as the Prime Minister of Denmark.
The mainstream media often focuses on Mandela’s triumphs, specifically the end to apartheid in South Africa, depicting a man wrongfully put in prison who 27 years later emerged as the president of the very country that incarcerated him. Though these things happened, the story is much more human than some think and especially these mortal elements are what makes Mandela’s life so amazing and so valuable to the current generation of non-violent advocates.
There was a time when the world did not embrace Nelson Mandela. In 1944 Mandela co-founded the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), which was the youth affiliate of the ANC. In 1959 a faction of the ANCYL formed the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), while other key members of the organisation, including Mandela, had joined the mainstream ANC. In 1960 the PAC called for a national protest against the pass laws, which restricted the movements of blacks requiring them to carry pass books, comparable to internal passports. On the 21st of March between 5 and 10 thousand people gathered outside a police station in Sharpeville to protest. The non-violent protest escalated when the South African police opened fire on the protesters. Many were shot in the back as they ran for safety. After 69 people died at the Sharpeville massacre the ANC took up arms and decided it could no longer limit itself to non-violence. This lead to the creation of a military wing, titled ”Umkhonto we Sizwe” (translated: “Spear of the Nation”).
In 1962 Nelson Mandela was arrested and at the famous Rivonia trial , taking place in Johannesburg from October 1963 to June 1964. He was charged with sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government led by the National Party. In 1989 Nelson Mandela was released from prison and embarked on a world tour, meeting with the leaders of the world to gather support for his cause. In August of 1990 Mandela offered a ceasefire between the ANC and South African Government. In 1994 Mandela’s wish came true and apartheid ended with the organisation of general elections in which South African citizens of all races could participate. Apartheid did not end on the edge of violence but after a ceasefire and at a time of peace.
The story of Nelson Mandela and his cause shows us that it is possible to retreat from violence without retreating from your cause and continuing to fight through non-violent means. Just because Nelson Mandela succeeded does not mean that the world is free of racial segregation. It just means that many of our governments and us choose to ignore racial segregation. Nelson Mandela himself said, “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
So let’s not mourn the death of a great man, let’s thank him, let’s learn from him and let us continue the ‘good fight’, fighting for those who dream of freedom through non-violent means.
Thank you Nelson Mandela, you changed a country and inspired a world. I hope we do not let you down.
Justin Stuart is an economic geographer turned software developer and a designer living and working in Boston, USA. His research interests include income inequality, human rights and, more recently, non-violent movements for social and political change.
Written by Justin Stuart and published on 31-January-2014