Nelson Mandela International Day: Speak truth to power, raise the voices of the voiceless and offer hope where there is despair

By Asma Darwish- Advocacy Officer at BCHR

Today, 18th of July, the global community rejoices the legacy of an iconic man who was an inspirational leader; Nelson Mandela. What did Mandela teach us about change? How did he accomplish change? Why change was necessary? Was change a cause worth fighting for? To be more enlightened on that, we need to first shed light on his life story and his struggle for justice and freedom.

Known by his birth name, Rolihlahla, the South African activist and former president Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) helped bring an end to apartheid and has been an international advocate for human rights. A member of the African National Congress (ANC) party beginning in the 1940s, he was a leader of both peaceful protests and armed resistance against the white minority’s oppressive regime in a racially divided South Africa. His activities landed him in prison for nearly three decades and made him the face of the antiapartheid movement both locally and internationally.

Released in 1990, he participated in the eradication of apartheid and in 1994 he became the first black president of South Africa, forming a multi-ethnic government to oversee the country’s transition. After retiring from politics in 1999, he remained a devoted champion for peace and social justice in his own nation and around the world until his death in 2013 at the age of 95.

Nelson Mandela’s commitment to politics and the African National Congress (ANC) grew stronger after the 1948 election victory of the Afrikaner-dominated National Party, which introduced a formal system of racial classification and segregation—apartheid—that restricted non-whites’ basic rights and barred them from government while maintaining white minority rule.

The following year, the ANC adopted a plan to achieve full citizenship for all South Africans through boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience and other nonviolent methods. Mandela helped lead the ANC’s 1952 Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws, traveling across the country to organize protests against discriminatory policies, and promoted the manifesto known as the Freedom Charter, ratified by the Congress of the People in 1955. Also, in 1952, Mandela with others opened South Africa’s first black law firm, which offered free or low-cost legal counsel to those affected by apartheid legislation.

On December 5, 1956, Mandela and 155 other activists were arrested and went on trial for “treason”. After nearly five years, all of the defendants were acquitted in 1961, but in the meantime tensions within the ANC escalated, with a militant faction splitting off in 1959 to form the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

The next year, police opened fire on peaceful black protesters in the township of Sharpeville, killing 69 people; as panic, anger and riots swept the country in the massacre’s aftermath, the apartheid government banned both the ANC and the PAC. Forced to go underground and wear disguises to evade detection, Mandela decided that the time had come for a more radical approach than passive resistance.

Several years later, during the trial that would put him behind bars for nearly three decades, he described the reasoning for this radical departure from his party’s original tenets: “[I]t would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.

Nelson Mandela spent the first 18 of his 27 years in jail at the vicious Robben Island Prison, a former leper colony off the coast of Cape Town, where he was confined to a small cell without a bed or sanitation and compelled to do hard labour in a mine. As a black political prisoner, he received less foods and fewer privileges than other inmates. He was only allowed to see his wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (1936-), who he had married in 1958 and was the mother of his two young daughters, once every six months. Mandela and his fellow prisoners were regularly subjected to cruel penalties for the slenderest of offenses; among other atrocities, there were reports of guards burying inmates in the ground up to their necks and urinating on them!

These restrictions and conditions notwithstanding, while in confinement Mandela earned a bachelor of law degree from the University of London and served as a mentor to his fellow prisoners, encouraging them to seek better treatment through nonviolent resistance. He also smuggled out political statements and a draft of his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” published five years after his release.

Mandela taught us if there is passion, then there is always fuel to fire change. Bringing about change is not easy, never was in fact. Change cause sacrifice, misfortune and sometimes even pain. If it was easy and didn’t require tremendous backbone, then everyone would be doing it, right? But just because you face difficulties and frustration doesn’t mean that what you are fighting for isn’t right.

Mandela’s charisma, self-deprecating sense of humour and lack of resentment over his harsh treatment, as well as his remarkable life story, somewhat enlighten his astonishing universal plea. He offered an example of global love when he said: “No child is born to discriminate. We learn to hate. And, if we learn to hate people based on their gender, political affiliation or the colour of their skin, we can also learn to love, even in the direst of circumstances”.

One more lesson we need to learn from Mandela is how to engage in a debate with your opposition, regardless who are they. Is this opposition residing in your very own house? With your kids or family members? Or its in school, amongst your classmates? In the establishment you work for? Is it in your country? the political parties? Or maybe the government itself? Is your motive in this debate with your opposition to become closer? To have both sides emerge stronger? Or, to only win the argument?

“You mustn’t compromise your principles, but you mustn’t humiliate the opposition,” Mandela said. “No one is more dangerous than one who is humiliated.” He understood that you can’t make peace with any opposition if you aren’t willing to work with them and treat them with dignity.

Imprisoned for 27 years and then vindicated, who could endure that kind of oppression and not feel some desire for revenge? Yet, Mandela reached across enemy lines and extended a hand because ending right was more important than being right. By inviting his captors to work with him to bring about positive change he demonstrated an incredible level of integrity for the cause and a remarkable capacity to forgive.

If there was a silver lining to his years of imprisonment, Mandela said it was to look in the mirror and create within himself that which he most wanted for South Africa: peace, reconciliation, equality, harmony and freedom. Perhaps his most profound impact and greatest legacy was to teach us, through vivid, living, personal example, to be human before anything else.

“That day when I stepped out of prison and looked at the people observing, a flush of anger hit me with the thought that they had robbed me of 27 years. Then the Spirit of Jesus said to me, ‘Nelson, while you were in prison you were free, now that you are free don’t become a prisoner’.”

What does constitute a life of meaning? What makes a life significant? How do we know that we have really lived for what will we be remembered? Aren’t these the questions we are all asking every now and then?

Happy Nelson Mandela International Day!