The Enormity of Mandela's Struggle

His achievements and moral authority gain their true stature when seen next to the history of apartheid.

Nelson Mandela is now waging what mere mortals would see as life’s greatest battle: the one to stay alive. But Mandela, a larger-than-life figure, would probably not see it that way; for him the battle was always about something that transcended his person.

And he joined it with supreme courage and dignity, in and out of the prisons to which he was confined for twenty-seven years, more than a quarter of his life, in three different locations: Robben Island, where he occupied a tiny cell for 18 years, and at the Poolsmoor and Victor Verster jails. When, defying the odds, and most likely his own expectations, he emerged a free man on February 11, 1990, his bearing was graceful; his visage bore no trace of bitterness. His autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, is unlike most politicians’ life narratives. Like the man himself, it is devoid of self-pity and grandiosity and brims with magnanimity and wisdom.

This is remarkable in itself, for Mandela had every right to be an angry man. But he isn’t an ordinary man. He walked out of prison and immediately reentered the public political arena (though even in captivity he was part of national and international politics), calling for reconciliation and engaging South Africa’s white-minority leadership with the aim of dismantling the system of apartheid. The ending of apartheid owed to Mandela’s moral authority. The magnitude of that achievement, and Mandela’s place in history more generally, cannot be appreciated without a basic understanding of what South Africa’s apartheid system amounted to; that apartheid is fading into the mists of time it makes it all the more necessary to take a detour to provide context.

A comprehensive system of racial segregation undergirded by a plethora of intricate laws, apartheid had been in place since 1948 national elections, with Hendrik Verwoerd, who served as Minister of Native Affairs and then as Prime Minister from 1958 until being stabbed to death in parliament in September 1966, serving as chief architect. Apartheid, which can loosely be translated as “apartness,” had many aspects, but the common denominator, and overall purpose, was the systematic separation of whites (sixty percent were Afrikaners, the descendants of seventeenth century Dutch settlers; the rest English) and nonwhites. It was mind-numbing in its precision. There were laws enforcing residential segregation (the “Group Areas Act”); prohibiting sexual intercourse between whites and nonwhites (the “Immorality Act”); mandating separate educational institutions and specifying the content of textbooks used in nonwhite schools; requiring separate restrooms, bus stops, and ambulances; and defining the guidelines for commercials featuring white and nonwhite actors. And that’s just a sample.

Blacks required authorization stamps on their internal passports, which they had to have on their person at all times, in order to be lawfully present in white areas. Black farm workers had to seek written permission from their employers before they could accept better-paying jobs in cities. Those who had urban jobs were, depending on their classification for employment purposes, confined to townships, single-sex dormitories, or “homelands.” In one form or the other, all blacks were deemed to be citizens for these “homelands,” which the South African authorities claimed were sovereign entities. Because whites constituted 15 percent of the population but controlled 85 percent of the land (and the best parts) this effectively made blacks foreigners in their own country. Other nonwhites (Asians and so-called coloreds, or people of mixed race) endured daily discrimination, but the oppression faced by the South African black was in a different league altogether.

As Joseph Lelyveld has recounted in his superb book, Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White, to its defenders (here it should be stressed that numerous courageous whites spoke out against and protested the system) apartheid was just because it rested on a multitude of laws. To defy it, therefore, was to engage in illegal conduct, or worse, sedition. It followed that to punish such acts was legitimate, an example of the rule of law in action. That the system was enforced not just by blatantly unfair laws but also through the systematic use of arbitrary imprisonment, torture and extrajudicial murder (the September 1977 slaying of the black nationalist Steve Biko while in police custody was perhaps the most notorious example) was omitted from this curious legalistic defense.

Most whites, as Lelyveld shows so adeptly, knew next to nothing about the daily lives of blacks (among the features of which were poverty, long commutes to work, police harassment and daily indignities, separation from families for those working in cities far from home) and yet opined freely on the black “character,” “psyche” and preferences. The result was that whites portrayed, to themselves and others, the way that blacks lived, worked, and were educated (to the extent that going far up the education ladder was realistic) as appropriate to their temperament. That temperament was, in turn, presented as childlike and unsuited to complex reasoning and tasks—a potted portrayal informed by racialism and essentialism. In other words, the system was benevolent, indeed in its victims’ best interest. Rebellion therefore amounted to what Karl Marx called false consciousness, or ingratitude; or worse (and this stereotype enabled so many whites to rationalize apartheid), blacks’ innate inclination to violence.