A great deal has already been said and written about the death of Nelson Mandela on December 5. The reaction to his death around the world is testimony to the huge affection and respect we have for the extraordinary human being and inspirational leader that he was.
I was a student in 1964 and writing a dissertation about the South African Liberation movement at the time of the infamous Rivonia trial of Nelson Mandela and other members of the ANC. I myself had been involved in non-violent protests in the British Peace movement, and was interested in exploring in my dissertation the justification for the use of violence in the context of liberation struggles against regimes like the South African Apartheid regime.
Only four years earlier an event had taken place which shook world opinion and led, perhaps inevitably, to the South African Liberation movement turning to violence. On March 21, 1960, 69 men women and children were killed and at least 180 black Africans were injured when South African police opened fire on 300 unarmed demonstrators, who were protesting against the Pass laws, in the township of Sharpeville.
As Mandela’s involvement in the resistance movement grew, attempts by the South African State to imprison him intensified leading ultimately to him, along with nine other African national Congress defendants, being put on trial.
In Nelson Mandela’s now famous four hour speech from the dock in the Rivonia treason trial on April 20th 1964, with him and his colleagues facing the probable death sentence, Mandela spoke about both the hardships of poverty and lack of human dignity.
He said: “The Whites enjoy the highest standard of living in the world, whilst Africans live in poverty and misery. The complaint of Africans, however, is not only that they are poor and whites are rich, but that the laws which are made by the whites are designed to preserve this situation.”
Mandela was an African Nationalist, but he was also a democratic socialist, seeing the close relationship between the inherent racism of the Apartheid system and capitalism, private land ownership and the power of big money.
The British Anti-Apartheid movement which first came into being in the late 1950’s campaigned long and hard for boycotts and sanctions against South Africa and played a proud and significant part in raising awareness and mobilizing world opinion against the injustices of Apartheid.
From 1979, Margaret Thatcher’s role in relation to Apartheid is well known. She was bitterly against sanctions of any sort – “they were a crime against free trade.” She even went on denouncing them after Britain and the rest of the Commonwealth had imposed a ban on sporting contacts and imposed other sanctions.
For many of us on the political left in those days, the South African struggle was highly significant in inspiring many of us to become involved politically and to become drawn into other fights against injustice and oppression.
We all owe Nelson Mandela and his colleagues a huge debt of gratitude and remain to this day inspired by their vision and courage and resilience in defeating the evil of Apartheid.