Known as Madiba to his admirers around the world, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in July 18, 1918 in Mvezo on the banks of the Mbashe River in South Africa. As a child he attended a Methodist missionary school then the University College of Hare and the University of Witwatersrand. He said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
In 1943 he joined the African National Congress. When the white supremacist National Party won the 1948 election, they began the implementation of Apartheid, the system of segregation, inferior services for non-whites, and the forced relocation of over 3 million black South Africans. He spent the next several years as a revolutionary protesting the injustices of Apartheid and speaking out against oppressive government policies.
In 1962 he was arrested for anti-government activity and imprisoned on Robben Island, then Pollsmoor Prison and finally Victor Verster Prison. He was known as prisoner #46664. After 27 years, the government of South Africa finally gave in to internal and worldwide pressure. Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990.
During his stay in prison the struggle against Apartheid continued on the ground with huge protests and strikes by the trade unions and student movements. Huge sacrifices were made by the people of South Africa. On an International level solidarity came ultimately from working class people who were prepared to take a stand against inequality.
The Dunnes Stores strike in Dublin was indicative of this. The strike which lasted two and a half years played a huge role in building international solidarity and awareness about the issue of Apartheid. But we should be careful to not rewrite a romanticized version of our history. The Dunnes Stores strike was not supported by everyone; in fact the strikers took much abuse from their employer and members of the public in the first year of the strike. They were spat at and called names, harassed and visited by the special branch. Support took a long time to grow and only came after the strikers made huge personal sacrifices.
Likewise many of those rushing to gush praise on Mandela did not always support him or his cause. As a man who advocated the use of force and direct action to remove a political system he was condemned by many including the British Tory party leader Margaret Thatcher who described Mandela as a terrorist. The establishment in the west in the most sycophantic way has claimed a sanitized version of Mandela as their own. They are rushing on to the bandwagon as if they always supported him and the struggle against racism and Apartheid.
The reality is they did not support the struggle against Apartheid, in fact they continue to support the economic system that leads to poverty, inequality and racism. They praise Mandela for the global media while supporting a system of Apartheid in Israel.
The rise of right wing parties in Europe is an indication that racism is still an big issue. Recent behavior in Ireland towards the Roma community shamefully indicates an undercurrent of racialism which needs to be rejected by all. It’s a bit hypocritical to say the least for political leaders in Ireland to jump on the public bandwagon while they did not condemn the racial profiling that led to an over the top intervention into a Roma family in their own country.
In the days of the anti-Apartheid protests, Nelson Mandela would shout out “Amandla!” and the crowds would answer back “Awethu!” completing the slogan “power to the people.” The struggle for freedom and equality continues today in South Africa, a country which is still plagued with massive inequality and high levels of poverty. In fact economic inequality in South Africa is greater now than it was at the end of apartheid. The neo liberal policies that were followed in South Africa are far from the ideals once held by Mandela and the ANC.
The level of praise and admiration, while expected and deserved, is also coloured by a level hypocrisy as so many right wing world leaders rush towards the camera to offer their glowing words; perhaps an indication of how in more recent times Mandela had ceased to be a threat to their power.