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Mainstream, VOL LII No 1, December 28, 2013 - ANNUAL 2013

Nelson Mandela: His Life, his Thoughts

Sunday 29 December 2013



by Vivek Kumar Srivastava

Nelson Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990, a day of liberation of humanity. He had spent a long time in Robben Island. His life was full of struggles. At the age of only twentynine years in 1940, he participated in a strike with Oliver Tombo and helped to organise the ANC Youth League in 1944. His participation in the ‘M Plan’, development of underground cells from the ANC branches, was an important event as it gave a new dimension to the struggle for racial equality. The years after 1960 were very important years as these scripted a life of struggle which aimed to save humanity from suppression. He was arrested in 1961 but went on to establish the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) the same year.

The emergence of a great man starts there-after. ”in 1962 Mandela left the country for military training in Algeria and to arrange training for other MK members. On his return he was arrested for leaving the country illegally and for incitement to strike. He conducted his own defence. He was convicted and jailed for five years in November 1962. While serving his sentence, he was charged, in the Rivonia Trial, with sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment.”1 He rejected offers of release and continued in prison to symbolise the struggle against apartheid. His life was impregnated with many great thoughts, his philosophy of life began with the learning of tribal folklores which he had received since his birth on July 18, 1918 in Qunu. His interaction with so many such things in childhood helped to make him a boy of conviction. As he grew up he evolved and analysed certain concepts, that racial discrimination was linked to imperialism, the Gandhian way of fight was essential but according to the needs certain changes could be made, cohesion of people from all walks and ideological backgrounds was mandatory for over-throwing the discriminatory social system. These found reflection in his activism in later years.

Mandela had viewed the whole system of apartheid as an exhibition of imperialism, hence his fight was not only against racial discrimination but it was against the whole system of imperialism which was full of “intrigue and deception”.2 The Gandhian methods, “involving civil disobedience, strikes, protest marches, boycotts and demonstrations of all kinds (and) stressed the importance of discipline, peaceful and non-violent struggle”3, were answers to it.

The adoption of the Gandhian method of non-violence was not an easy task. People many a time were quite dissatisfied with this approach as it yielded nothing substantial to them. At this time the faith of Mandela on these methods succeeded in clearing the air of doubt. He accepted that “our problem was not whether to fight, but was how to continue the fight. We of the ANC had always stood for a non-racial democracy, and we shrank from any action which might drive the races further apart than they already were. But the hard facts were that fifty years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights. It may not be easy for this Court (Rivonia trial, Pretoria Supreme Court) to understand, but it is a fact that for a long time the people had been talking of violence-of the day when they would fight the White man and win back their country-and we, the leaders of the ANC, had nevertheless always prevailed upon them to avoid violence and to pursue peaceful methods.”4

Like moderates of the Indian National Congress, the ANC (established in 1912) in due course adopted the methods of its protest with the imprint of Gandhian action .”Even after 1949, the ANC remained determined to avoid violence. At this time, however, there was a change from the strictly constitutional means of protest (and) launched the Defiance Campaign, (this) campaign was based on the principles of passive resistance.”5

These were days of great suppression and violence was unleashed by the White regime. At many instances violence erupted: by way of illustration, on the issue of the order to carry passes for women of Zeerust (1957); enforcement of cattle culling in Sekhukhuniland (1958); protest of the people of Cato Manor against pass raids (1959); imposition of Bantu Authorities in Pondoland (1960); Warmbaths riots (1961) were living examples of violent behaviour of a suppressive government.

In fact the history of killing innocent people and protestors was a common phenomenon in South Africa. Death of eighteen Africans in police firing (1950), death of sixtynine unarmed people in Sharpeville (March 21, 1960) had taken place. Before the killing of twentyfour people in Port Elizabeth for the release of Masabala (1920), death of more than one hundred people in the Bulhoek affair (1921). killing of more than two hundred people after imposition of dog tax (1924) were also orchestrated by the regime. Mandela was instrumental in redefining the psyche of the people. Establishment of the Umkhonto and learning of guerrilla warfare techniques were mechanisms to deal with the violent tradition of the White regime but the non-violent tradition of the ANC was never given up.

He carried on incessant struggle for the people as their liberty was paramount to him. He knew that its attainment must be the ultimate goal of his political life. He defined the real basis of the state power and emphasised “that the will of the people is the basis of the authority of government, is a principle universally acknowledged as sacred throughout the civilised world, and constitutes the basic foundations of freedom and justice”.6 He was convinced that people’s power is the ultimate basis on which any political structure can be established. He took lessons from history and contrasted the democratic and authoritarian way of political life. His vision was clear as he knew that “no power on earth can stop an oppressed people determined to win their freedom. History punishes those who resort to force and fraud to suppress the claims and legitimate aspirations of the majority of the country’s citizens.”7

Mandela recognised the role of other organisations in achieving the great aims. He assigned an important role to the Communists. He had deduced that Communists were their partners in the struggle against apartheid as they had always opposed the imperialist powers. His understanding of the communist movement was quite comprehensive.

He was therefore correct to understand their role in the fight against imperialist forces as “Communists have always played an active role in the fight by the people of colonial countries for their freedom, because the short-term objects of communism would always correspond with the long-term objects of freedom movements. Thus Communists have played an important role in the freedom struggles fought in countries such as Malaya, Algeria, and Indonesia, yet none of these states today are communist countries. Similarly in the underground resistance movements which sprung up in Europe during the last World War, Communists played an important role. Even General Chiang Kai-Shek, today one of the bitterest enemies of communism, fought together with the Communists against the ruling class in the struggle which led to his assumption of power in China in the 1930s”8 and “this pattern of co-operation between Communists and non-Communists has been repeated in the National Liberation Movement of South Africa. Prior to the banning of the Communist Party, joint campaigns involving the Communist Party and the Congress movements were the accepted practice.”9

His efforts since the start were therefore to forge the unity among different sections of the people who were thinking in similar terms for the establishment of a democratic system, but were not properly coordinated. “There was coordination neither among these groups nor with those White progressives who fought for equality.”10 His realisation that there was a greater need of forging the “bonds of unity among all those who fight for consistent democracy”11 helped the ANC to reach its goal.

His love for the democratic system was comprehensive in the sense that he attempted to make it inclusive as much it could be possible. After long years, when he was out of the prison, he echoed the same sentiments for which he had stood for his whole life. He was therefore a leader from whom how to attain, establish and continue the democratic fabric in the social system can be learnt as he elaborates the concept of democracy with its basis in the cohesiveness of the people. “We cannot accept an undemocratic constitution in order to address the fears of a minority party about its own future at the cost of democracy itself (and that) all South Africans, Black and White together, need to join hands for democracy, peace and justice.”12

He understood that a broad base will be needed to fight the struggle against the government and “the workers are the principal force upon which the democratic movement should rely, but to repel the savage onslaughts of the Nationalist government and to develop the fight for democratic rights, it is necessary that the other classes and groupings be joined”.13

His struggle was pragmatic in nature—attainment of democracy by ethical means along-with support of people from different back-grounds being the hallmark of his working style. He working philosophy was not against any particular individual, race or group as he clearly believed that “we are not in opposition to any government or class of people. We are opposing a system which has for years kept a vast section of the non-European people in bondage.”14

He further expanded on it after the end of racial discrimination and elucidated that “the country`s emerging political leaders are challenged to build a nation in which all people—irrespective of race, colour, creed, religion or sex—can assert fully their human worth; after apartheid, our people deserve nothing less than the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.”15

Nelson Mandela lived a life of substance and his struggle is a book of learning. He belongs to that category of human beings whose views scintillate in the years after their departure. The succeeding generations may someday think that a life like his must be lived as this is the only and right aim of every human life.

In this respect his remarks are relevant for all times: “I have done my duty to my people and to South Africa. I have no doubt that posterity will pronounce that I was innocent.”16 His innocence is the truth of our age and of the ever improving civilisation and world.


1. Biography, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, African National Congress.

2. Address by Nelson Mandela to the Conference of the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa, January 12, 1962, Addis Ababa.

3. Ibid.

4. Nelson Mandela‘s statement from the dock at the opening of the defence case in the Rivonia Trial, Pretoria Supreme Court, April 20, 1964.

5. Ibid.

6. Black man in a White court—Nelson Mandela’s First Court Statement, 1962, October 28, 1962.

7. Ibid.

8. Nelson Mandela‘s statement from the dock at the opening of the defence case in the Rivonia Trial Pretoria Supreme Court, April 20, 1964.

9. Ibid.

10. Nelson Mandela,Towards Democratic Unity, Liberation, Johannesburg, November 1953.

11. Ibid.

12. Nelson Mandela, Democracy—The only solution, July 1, 1992.

13. Freedom in our Lifetime, June 30, 1956.

14. We defy—10,000 volunteers protest against unjust laws, 30 August 1952.

15. Nelson Mandela, The Future of South Africa, March 1, 1994, The Asian Age.

16. Nelson Mandela’s First Court Statement, Black man in a White court, 1962.

Dr Vivek Kumar Srivastava is the Vice-Chairman of the CSSP, Kanpur. He can be contacted at

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