From 1948 to 1991 South Africa was ruled under the Apartheid law that segregated the population between white and non-white.
Nelson Mandela is probably one of the most prominent figures of the second half of the twentieth century. In his Long Walk to Freedom, as he named his autobiography, he reflects all the injustice and racism he had to endure, but also his resilience and will to fight for his people's rights. His life has been an open book, but the horrors of what many South Africans, including him, endured has not been entirely exposed. He was a leading character in the anti-apartheid fight, a struggle not only to end the legal segregation system that imprisoned black South Africans for nearly fifty years but to get the freedom they once enjoyed centuries before the arrival of the first European colonizers. But how did Mandela become a symbol of liberation?
To start with, we must first talk about the colonizing process of the country. It all started during the seventeenth century, when two Dutch sailors shipwrecked in the territory. Helped by the Natives they managed to survive and soon realized that it was an extremely fertile land with a great range of essential elements that could be exported. Naturally, they reported this back to Holland and the idea of expanding their territory began to take form. Soon, several Dutch people started to emigrate to this new land to settle and start a new profitable business the exportation of goods and slaves as well. That was the moment when South Africans learned about this European trend of dehumanizing others for their benefit.
As it happens in history, this land wasn’t going to remain entirely Dutch, and other world powers looked at this as a huge commercial opportunity. By the eighteenth century, the British arrived in Cape Town and occupied a part of the territory, and a war between both powers began. First, they divided the land into four sectors, two belonging to the Dutch and the remaining two to the British, but the latter wanted it all for themselves, and in the nineteenth century the decisive conflict to win the entire territory began: the Boer Wars. This wasn’t only a matter between the two European armies, but people from South Africa got involved as well. Just to mention how they got used in a war for power, when the Second Boer War started, the British had learned about a new method used in Cuba by the Spaniards to dominate and concentrate an entire population: concentration camps. The Dutch colonizers were not the only to be imprisoned and murdered at these camps. Of course, natives belonging to these sectors were affected as well. Long story short, the British won the war and South Africa became part of the Commonwealth countries, of course respecting the natural racial hierarchies that had been established centuries ago.
Now, all this is relevant to understand how after enduring centuries of repression, discrimination, and abuse, the native population decided to raise themselves and fight for their rights. When the British got possession of all the territory, they started implementing laws to control all their territories. Among them, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 forbid selling and buying slaves throughout the empire, but this wasn’t as liberating as it sounds. In fact, accompanied with this act came a couple of laws that limited the economic growth of the different tribes in the region, as well as laws that deprived natives from the power to decide over the government and even restrictions to regulate the relationships between races. All in all, this was nothing compared to what was coming for them.
Now, let’s go back to Mandela. Born in 1918, he was the son of a local chief and council of the monarch of his tribe. Just when he was a little boy, his father was sacked from the government, but years later Mandela was taken by the Thembu regent, who raised him as a son. He was sent to university, where he studied law and became an educated counselor of the tribe, but his rebellious sense for justice appeared at a very young age, so he was expelled after organizing a student movement to protest against the food that they were served and the treatment some students received. Not wanting to go back to his town, he moved to Johannesburg, where he started taking small jobs to make a living until he got acquainted with a white lawyer who hired him as his assistant. Lazar Sidelsky was a liberal Jew who supported the African National Congress (ANC), a party fighting for black people’s rights to vote. In that moment, he became completely attached to politics and the fight.
Now, if this party already existed and was already fighting, how did Mandela become one of the main faces of the movement? He got actively involved in every meeting and every single movement they did. But what the movement lacked was unity among the people, and Mandela became the glue that stuck all the pieces. If you think about it, he was an educated man who knew first hand the problems and the mistreatment black South Africans suffered, and had royal blood, so he had all the elements to become the perfect leader.
We’ve talked about the racial differences and Nelson Mandela’s fight, but what moved them to act and why was the country in such a terrible condition? In 1948 an election was held, of course denying non-white people to vote despite the ANC's fight. The winner of the election was Daniel Francois Malan and his Herenigde Nasionale Party. He was an Afrikaner (the name given to the Dutch settlers of South Africa). With a very nationalistic discourse, he promoted a campaign so that Afrikaners could regain the power that was historically taken from them. Moreover, once in power, he promoted the legal system known as Apartheid, meaning separateness. Among the many acts that his new segregation politics included, the first ones were the "Prohibition of Mixed Marriages" and the "Immorality Act" (forbidding sexual relationships between races).
Following these laws came the Population Registration Act consisting of classifying the population by races and making them register for an identity document they all had to carry with them to be able to move throughout the country. As you can imagine, according to your race you had more or less social benefits and limitations. But these weren't the only measures the new government took to reinforce the racial differences between whites and non-whites, as they referred to them. They started literally moving black people to determined areas of the cities and towns in an attempt to “clean” or have them as far as possible.
As you can see, this was the last straw. Together with the increasing popularity of the ANC movement and the horrible politics that the government encouraged, the people had enough. But this was only the beginning of nearly half a century of a fight that would take Mandela and many collaborators to prison for 27 years. Finally, after a long fight, in 1991 the Apartheid was abolished, and in 1994 for the first time in the history of the country, all citizens were allowed to vote, making Nelson Mandela the first president of South Africa.
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