Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was not imprisoned for his opposition to apartheid!

This has been repeatedly mentioned on television news programs during Mr. Mandela’s current stay in the hospital.

If people were imprisoned for opposing apartheid, millions of South Africans of all races would have spent decades in prison.  Apartheid institutionalized “separate development” (or segregation), which separated the various races of South Africa under white rule from 1948-1994.

A significant percentage of white voters were against apartheid.  While the ruling National Party had enough seats in the all-white parliament to enforce apartheid, they were opposed by the United Party, led by Sir de Villiers Graaff.  From 1977 the more liberal Progressive Federal Party was a constant thorn in the flesh for the government.   Helen Suzman of the PFP was the most vocal critic of apartheid in parliament.   Throughout the apartheid years, the freedom to speak out against the system, without the fear of imprisonment, was a constant.  The English language press was against apartheid during this time.

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for committing terrorist acts that killed people during a period when he felt that the only way forward was through violence.  Wikipedia says this of Mandela:

“Although initially committed to non-violent protest, in association with the South African Communist Party he co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1961, leading a bombing campaign against government targets.  In 1962 he was arrested, convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government, and sentenced to life imprisonment.”  In other African countries, he would have received the death penalty.”

Mr. Mandela was to spend 27 years in prison.  While people in the West are appalled at this, people across Africa marvel that anybody could walk out of an African prison alive after such a long time.  It’s almost certain it would not have happened elsewhere on the continent.

Having set the record straight, it should be noted that Mandela is a great man and South Africans of all races are thankful that he was the first post-apartheid president and remains a major influence in the country.  All races will mourn his loss when the time comes.

The reason for this is the widely held belief that, without Mandela, there would have been no peaceful transition from apartheid (white rule) to African majority rule.  The country could have easily gone through a civil war, leaving nobody as the clear victor.

And that remains the constant fear – a bloodbath, which might be triggered off by Mandela’s death.  Nelson Mandela is still seen as a restraining influence.

Although it has been almost twenty years since the end of apartheid, the average black South African is no better off now than he was under white rule.  Those high up in government have done extremely well, as evidenced by the high number of Mercedes Benz vehicles being driven around the country and the many newly built mansions in gated communities.

The whites are still seen as the wealthiest members of society, although there are many whites begging at intersections and on street corners in cities across the country.

White farmers are fearful of another Rhodesia/Zimbabwe taking place after Mandela’s death.  Rhodesian farmers had their land taken off them two decades after independence, an executive act that devastated the economy.  Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) was able to import food from South Africa.  What will South Africans do if the whites lose their farms?  The white farmers are commercial farmers like their British and American cousins – Africans are subsistence farmers, only growing what they need for the coming months.  Forcibly taking land off the white farmers would cause famine and a collapse of the economy.

Certainly, South Africa has a burgeoning black middle class that has a vested interest in maintaining the financial status quo.  The country remains the most developed and best run nation in Africa.  But, like many other nations, it has a major problem to address – the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

How South Africa manages this problem will determine its future more than anything else.

Nelson Mandela certainly helped in the transition from white domination to African rule but his successors must deliver on the promises made to voters two decades ago – they have waited long enough to see improvements in their lives and are now increasingly impatient.


  1. Thanks for setting the record straight. I was interested to see a young black student articulately express his disappointment with the lack of real change in his neighbourhood in the years since white rule. “Nothing has changed” he said.

  2. One problem with Mandela’s government and the ANC was that they legalized abortion. The problem with Apartheid was fixed, but then they created another human rights problems arguably at least as bad.

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