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Nelson Mandela, the Embodiment of a Struggle by Damian Niolet

Throughout the last century, no leader of an opposition group, fighting against racial injustice, epitomized that struggle more than Nelson Mandela. On the annals of world history have been left the scars of countless racial struggles. At the forefront of the opposition groups, typically emerging from the oppressed, have resided larger-than-life figures, who have inspired generations by embodying the ideology of their particular movement to end racism. These dynamic figures have spanned the spectrum of moral justifications and corresponding tactics. While the upper tier of that spectrum was established by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, the lower tier may have been defined most by Malcolm X. But residing comfortably on in the middle of this moral metric has been Nelson Mandela. While Gandhi and Malcolm X are typically deified and demonized, respectively, for their particular approaches to combating racism, Mandela defies such classifications. He is neither deified nor demonized; rather, he is seen simply as human, capable of choosing to perform good or evil acts, and more important, he is able to choose his actions depending on the circumstances, whereas Gandhi and Malcolm X were unwavering in their stances. While Gandhi and Malcolm X became icons of ideologies (nonviolence vs. hate speeches promoting violence), Mandela became an icon of the core of the struggle itself – a human seeking humanity for all. The common man might, in the cases of Gandhi and Malcolm X, be able to identify with the cause, but they are less likely to identify with the man. Their statures are too lofty or too damning. Mandela represented true human nature in his struggle against an inhumane practice.

Nelson Mandela – The Embodiment of the Struggle Against Racism

Originally named Rolihlahla Mandela, Nelson Mandela as he is known today, belongs to a branch of the Thembu dynasty, which reigns in the Transkei region of South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province.1 Although by birth he is a descendant of a king, tribal ruling practices prevented his side of the family from succeeding to the throne; however, Mandela was afforded a comfortable upbringing, to include an education.2 While Mandela was born from a royal line, he was not one to take advantage of his ancestry and it certainly was not what defined him. Perhaps it was at the age of nine with the death of his father that he no longer felt a sense of connection with his heritage, which would result in a sudden and complete departure from the lifestyle later in life. It was when he learned of an arranged marriage that he fled his then royal “foster parent” and hid in the town of Johannesburg, where he would find employment first as a guard of a mine and then as an article clerk for a law firm. It was while working for this firm that he completed his B.A. degree via correspondence through the University of South Africa and then began law studies at the University of Witwatersrand. It was at Witwatersrand that Mandela first befriended future anti-apartheid political activists, such as Joe Slovo and Harry Schwarz, both of whom would later serve under Mandela during his presidency from ’94 to ’99.3 Mandela first became politically active with the 1948 election victory of the Afrikanerdominated National Party, which supported the apartheid policy of racial segregation. While working with fellow lawyer Oliver Tambo in their own firm, Mandela and Tambo, which provided free or low-cost legal counsel to many blacks who lacked attorney representation,
1 All Africa, “South Africa: Celebrating Mandela at 90,”, (accessed March 20, 2011).
2 Nelson Mandela, The Illustrated Long Walk to Freedom, ed. Paul Duncan (Boston: Little,

Brown and Company, 1996), 35.
3 Mandela, 47.


Mandela actively promoted the African National Congress (ANC). He held prominent roles in the ANC’s 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People, whose adoption of the Freedom Charter became the basis for the anti-apartheid cause.4 The undertone for much of the organization’s motives were borrowed from Mahatma Gandhi and his non-violent approach. However, after years of increasing repression and violence from the state, Mandela became convinced that nonviolent protest against apartheid could not achieve progress. Repressions came in the form of the National Party arresting or banning members of the ANC from participating in politics. State violence was unabashedly carried-out when 69 black protestors were gunned down during demonstrations in what would be deemed the Sharpeville Massacre.5 It is here that Mandela reached a breaking point and revealed that he was human, susceptible to the emotionally charged situation, and capable of choosing to strike back when struck – a truly human condition. Mandela called upon the ANC to form an armed wing, which he would lead. It would be named Umkhonto we Sizwe, which translates to “Spear of the Nation” and abbreviated MK. Within the MK, Mandela coordinated sabotage campaigns against military and government targets, even making plans for a guerrilla war if the sabotage failed to end apartheid. Within a two year span, under Mandela’s direction, 200 acts of sabotage were carried out by MK targeting power supplies, pass offices, and other government buildings.6 In 1963 Mandela was arrested and in 1964 he stood trail with the charges of sabotage and treason before him, which he readily admitted to. He explained before the court exactly why the ANC had chosen to resort to
4 South African History Online, “Formation of the South African Republic,” South African History

Online,, (accessed March 20, 2011).
5 Mandela, 126. 6 Mandela, 177.


sabotage saying in effect that doing otherwise would have been tantamount to unconditional surrender.7 Mandela would spend the next 28 years in prison where he would continue to represent the opposition group struggling against apartheid. His fame would continue to grow internationally as well. The MK would continue its sabotage campaign, becoming more prevalent in the 80’s, during which time many acts were carried out resulting in civilian deaths. Despite the UN declaring apartheid a “crime against humanity” in 1973, it would take another 17 years before South Africa would begin negotiations to end apartheid, at which point Mandela was also released from prison to great international acclaim. 3 years thereafter, the dismantling of the old Nationalist Party regime was accomplished and South Africa held its first multiracial election 1994, resulting in Mandela being elected as president.8

Just before being sentenced to life in prison in 1964 Mandela spoke these words before the court: During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.9
7 William Blum, "How the CIA sent Nelson Mandela to prison for 28 years," Third World Traveller,, (accessed March 20, 2011).
8 More or Less, “Nelson Mandela,”,, (accessed 20, March 2011).
9 Nelson Mandela, “I am Prepared to Die – Statement from the Dock at the Opening of the Defence Case

at the Rivnoia Trial,” Pretoria Supreme Court, 20 April 1964, African National Congress, ia.html, (accessed March 20, 2011). 4

Upon being released from prison in 1990 he spoke these words before a very captive world audience, “The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement would be created soon, so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle.”10 Mandela received the Noble Peace Prize in 1993 for “[his] work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and laying the foundations for a new, democratic South Africa.”11 It must have been controversial that Mandela was awarded the prize considering he condoned violence as a means to his desired end even upon his release from prison. Not even Mahatma Gandhi received a Nobel Peace Prize. But the choice makes sense when one considers that the committee awarded the prize to an individual who was fully capable of orchestrating violent acts, but did not. For this fact, the committee was congratulating Mandela for choosing peace over violence. A choice much of humanity struggles to make every day. The committee was seeking to highlight a person worth-the-while to emulate.

10 More or Less, “Nelson Mandela,”,, (accessed 20, March 2011).
11 More or Less, “Nelson Mandela,”,, (accessed 20, March 2011). 5