By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“In a way I had never quite comprehended before, I realized the role I could play in court and the possibilities before me as a defendant. I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonoured those virtues. I realized then and there that I could carry on the fight even in the fortress of the enemy.”
From The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, published in 1995.
On May 2, 1994, following a three day election (April 26-28), the results of South Africa’s first legitimate, democratic election were declared and Nelson Mandela was acknowledged the new leader of South Africa even though his inauguration was eight days later on May 10, 1994.
Born Nkosi Rolihlala Dalibhunga Mandela on July 18, 1918, he was assigned the European name “Nelson” on his first day of school when he was seven-years-old. Renaming racialized people is a common practice of European colonizer culture.
Mandela was born a member of the royal family of the Thembu in Mvezo, a village in the district of Mthatha, which was the capital of the former Transkei (one of the several “homelands” established by a White supremacist settler society) and now part of the Eastern Cape Province.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela gives a history of the Thembu and his life, including his place in the royal household. A dispute with a White official stripped Mandela’s father of his title, status and ability to maintain a reasonably comfortable standard of living. Part of the family was forced to relocate to a larger village, Qunu, where Mandela lived for much of his childhood.
That was an early lesson on the power the Whites had seized from the Africans on African land. The Whites, who meandered onto African land after they fled the tribalism (White men in Europe were constantly at each other’s throats fighting like cats and dogs over disputed territory) of Europe beginning in the 17th century in short order stole African land, savagely murdering those Africans who resisted.
The history of the covetousness and bold-faced thievery of the White men and women who left Europe to “settle” on African land is well-documented. Although this bunch of refugees/opportunists sometimes included “religious” personnel who made a show of being concerned about the “immortal souls” of Africans and wanting to convert them to a European version of Christianity, somehow that concern never seemed to include the “immortal souls” of their thieving and murdering White kin.
Those Africans who converted were afforded some degree of privilege by the Whites, who used this tried and true European colonizer method to divide and conquer the Africans.
For 300 years White people in the country they seized from Africans and named South Africa (the British wrested control of the country from the Dutch in 1902 and named it the Union of South Africa in 1910) employed a method of violent repression to control the Africans. Mandela, who became the first democratically elected president of the nation, was one of millions of Africans who struggled (some spent their entire lives in the struggle) to untie the stranglehold of European domination and repression of the rightful owners of the land.
Africans resisted White domination in South Africa from the moment they realized that this was not just a group of interesting visitors to their land but instead a group intent on disinheriting Africans and stealing their land. African people consistently resisted their dispossession by the White interlopers.
In 1994, that struggle bore fruit when for three days, every adult citizen in the South African country had the opportunity to vote to elect their government. After more than three centuries of White minority misrule, Africans in this country had the right to choose their government.
The right to vote after not having that right for their whole adult life encouraged Africans to go to the polls in unprecedented numbers. At that time, South Africa had a reported population of five million White people and 30 million Africans, yet no African had been “privileged” to vote in a general election before 1994.
It is little wonder that on April 26, Africans began lining up at polling stations in the pre-dawn hours for the opportunity of a lifetime that citizens of most other countries took for granted; the right to vote. Elderly Africans, even those suffering from ill health, lined up for hours to cast their ballot. They arrived at polling stations in wheelchairs, some with the aid of crutches or canes and some carried in the arms of relatives. The children’s book, The Day Gogo Went to Vote: South Africa, 1994, by Elinor Batezat Sisulu, published in 1996 tells the story of a 100-year-old great-grandmother who went to vote accompanied by her family, including her six-year-old great-granddaughter, Thembi.
The book was inspired by Sisulu’s experience working at a polling station during the 1994 election. The 100-year-old African great-grandmother in the story is considered too frail to leave the yard, which she had not done in many years. Her relatives, fearing that she would not survive the trip to the polling station try to discourage her and her question: “You want me to die not having voted?” speaks to the determination of many elderly Africans to go out to vote, maybe for the first and last time in their lives.
Africans patiently lined up for hours from “dawn till dusk” to cast their ballots for the first time. There was even a feel-good story published on April 24 in the South African newspaper, Sunday Times, which included a photograph of Walter Sisulu and a 19-year-old White woman, both preparing for the election with the caption: “The octogenarian and the teenager: Walter Sisulu and Kim Schultz get ready to cast their votes – both for the first time.”
The irony of the then almost 82-year-old African freedom fighter and senior African National Congress (ANC) member allowed to vote for the first time as was a 19-year-old White woman seemed to have escaped the newspaper editor.
It was not all smooth sailing for Africans determined to exercise their right to vote. Groups of Whites tried to derail the process. Intimidation tactics by the White minority included bombings, but the Africans were not cowed and continued lining up to vote. On Friday night, April 22, 1994, a bomb destroyed the Department of Home Affairs offices in Potgietersrus in the Northern Transvaal and an oil pipeline running from the Sasol complex in the northern Orange Free State was damaged by another powerful bomb the same night.
A 90-kilogram car bomb killed nine people and injured 92 in central Johannesburg on Sunday, April 24. On Wednesday, April 27, a car bomb exploded at the Johannesburg Airport, injuring 16 people and causing massive structural damage.
On the last day of the election, Thursday, April 28, police arrested 31 White supremacists in connection with the spate of bombings which killed 21 people and injured 176 in the week leading up to the election. ANC offices, polling stations, taxi ranks and civilian high traffic areas suffered 80 bomb attacks during the four months (January-April 1994) leading up to the elections.
In the 2005 book, Every Step Of The Way: The Journey To Freedom In South Africa, author Michael Morris writes:
“Serpentine queues, some stretching for kilometres, showed that, despite the bombs of the past few days, the country’s democratic resolve was in good shape. There was plenty of patience and spirits were high. By the time they voted, many had waited for hours. Most had waited a lifetime.”
Nineteen years, two elections and two presidents later, although he only served as president for one term, Mandela is still considered elder statesman and South Africa’s leader. He is revered internationally and has received honours from governments, universities and organizations.
Mandela, who spent 27 years incarcerated by the White supremacist apartheid regime and is one of the more famous political prisoners, proved that he could “carry on the fight even in the fortress of the enemy”.
Although he was hidden from the public, his name alone galvanized international protests against the White supremacist apartheid regime (helped in no small part by his ex-wife, Winnie Mandela).
Today at 94, he is carrying on another fight and those who admire the man for various reasons watch anxiously as he goes in and out of hospital for reasons that seem to be connected to his advanced age.
What a journey! From his birth in a small village in South Africa under a viciously restrictive regime to a feted world leader! Who can foretell what any child can achieve when they are born?
That is why it is important to value all of our children, regardless of where or how they were born.