Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first legitimate, democratically-elected President on May 10, 1994, after more than three centuries of White minority misrule.
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 the small village of Mvezo in the district of Mthatha, which was the capital of the former Transkei (one of the several “homelands” established by the White supremacist settler society) and now part of the Eastern Cape Province.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, published in 1994, 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 and 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. Reading the history of the covetousness and bold face thievery of the White men and women who left Europe to “settle” on African land is fascinating in a horrified “I cannot believe they did that!” manner.
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 really used this tried and true European colonizer method to divide and conquer the Africans. There were many hold-outs including Mandela’s father. In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela described his father’s strong belief in his traditional African faith: “My father remained aloof from Christianity and instead reserved his own faith for the great spirit of the Xhosas, Qamata, the God of his fathers.”
The education system the Europeans forced on the Africans was also a means to ensure that “educated” Africans learned that they and their culture were inferior and the culture of their colonizers was superior. Writing on this perception of education, Mandela states: “The education I received was a British education, in which British ideas, British culture, British institutions, were automatically assumed to be superior. There was no such thing as African culture.”
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 would eventually become 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 Every Step of the Way: The Journey to Freedom in South Africa, Cape Town, commissioned by the South African Ministry of Education, published in 2004, an excerpt from the notes Dutch colonizer, Jan Van Riebeeck, made during the series of meetings April 5 and 6, 1660 between the Dutch and the Khoisan leaders is reproduced:
“They (the Khoekhoe leaders) strongly insisted that we had been appropriating more and more of their land which had been theirs all these centuries… They asked if they would be allowed to do such a thing supposing they went to Holland, and they added: ‘It would be of little consequence if you people stayed at the fort, but you come right into the interior and select the best land for yourselves, without even asking whether we mind or whether it will cause us any inconvenience.’ At first we argued against this saying that there was not enough grass for their cattle as well as ours, to which they replied: ‘Have we then no reason to prevent you from getting cattle, since if you have a large number, you will take up all our grazing grounds with them? As for your claim that the land is not big enough for us both, who should rather in justice give way, the rightful owner or the foreign intruder?’”
Van Riebeeck very shortly disabused the Khoisan leaders of the idea that the Dutch who had stolen their land had any intention of sharing with the rightful owners. The Africans had been trying to dialogue/negotiate with people who they thought might be reasonable but they unfortunately had no idea who they were dealing with. These were not reasonable people, these were covetous thieving parasites who were bent on destroying the host on which they fed.
By the time Mandela was born in 1918, the pattern of White repression of Africans, as the author of Every Step of the Way describes, (“The repression was a raw, daily experience, and there was no mistaking it for less than systematic brutality”) was well established. Africans were forced to live on “reservations” while the White interlopers commandeered the best land of the Africans for their exclusive use.
Describing his childhood in Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes of one of the methods that were employed by Africans to keep their history alive and combat/resist White domination.
Storytelling by elders to combat the pervasive miseducation of their children was one such method: “Chief Joyi railed against the White man, who he believed had deliberately sundered the Xhosa tribe, dividing brother from brother. The White man had told the Thembus that their true chief was the great White queen across the oceans and that they were her subjects. But the White queen brought nothing but misery and perfidy to the Black people, and if she was a chief she was an evil chief. Once, he said, the Thembu, the Mpondo, the Xhosa and the Zulu were all children of one father, and lived as brothers. The White man shattered the ‘abantu’, the fellowship of the various tribes. The White man was hungry and greedy for land, and the Black man shared the land with him as they shared the air and water; land was not for man to possess. But the White man took the land as you might seize another man’s horse.”
The young Mandela, listening to Chief Joyi’s stories felt “angry and cheated, as though I had already been robbed of my own birthright”. It is little wonder that the child listening to his elders recount this history understood his role of defender, freedom fighter and eventually leader of his people.
On Tuesday, May 10, 1994 (30 years after being sentenced to life imprisonment), when Mandela was sworn in as President of South Africa, he had suffered 27 years of imprisonment and had been refused the right to attend the funerals of his mother and his eldest son in 1968.
His life story is told in several books including: I am Prepared to Die, 1979; Long Walk to Freedom, 1994; The Struggle Is My Life, 1990; A Prisoner In The Garden, 2006 and Conversations with Myself, 2010.