Author: Nassir hassan, Kingston University London
What will one call a person who spent 27 years in prison, not for a murder or an act of genocide he or she might committed but for standing up his or her political beliefs and for fighting for the rights of his or her own people, a hero or a villain? This essay is going to look whether Nelson Mandela is considered a hero or a villain and by whom. This essay will also “historically” position his actions which led him being called a hero by some and villain by others, and whether he was safeguarding human rights or breaking them.
“Where history is made and myths are forged Mandela is a hero” (TIME, 1990). Nelson Mandela is undoubtedly a hero to millions of people around the world and in particularly the black people of South Africa. For them he is more than a hero. He is the man credited with the demise of the apartheid system; He helped end it through peaceful and none peaceful means. Mandela is exceptional among heroes because he is a living icon of black liberation (TIME, 1990). He is a man whose integrity is regarded highly even by the whites. In South Africa a statement of Eddie Daniels who was a member of then disbanded South African Liberal Party clearly reveals this: this is what he said about him “Mr Mandela is a good man, he can walk with kings and he can walk with beggars” Mr. Daniels continue to say “I want to tell P. W. Botha (then president of South Africa) if he speaks to Nelson Mandela he speaks to a reasonable man not a violent man… peace loving man…” (Benson, 1994.1986, p.13). A report commissioned by the prison authorities in 1981 described Mandela as self discipline, “racially embittered” individual, who never doubted his cause and certain about his ultimate triumph (Lodge, 2007, p.150)
On the other hand the authorities regarded and portrayed Nelson Mandela as terrorist and Villain, as he was accused of plotting to overthrow the white government through violence activities carried out by the armed wing of the ANC thus, the than minister of justice François Erasmus describe Mandela and ANC’s actions as “reign of terror” (Meredith, 1997. p.176) thus Mandela is a hero for some mainly blacks and was a villain for the whites and the authorities.
During the apartheid black people were subjected to the worst form of discrimination by the white minority that invaded their land. Blacks were restricted and force to live in townships, whereas whites were allowed to enjoy unlimited freedom blacks as the natives of the land were not even seen as equal citizens (O’Byrne, 2003). Mandela reacted this inhumane social condition imposed to them unwillingly, he was committed and determined to restore the basic human rights for his oppressed people for which as result he went to prison. At this point the international community did not show any interest about the plight of the black people of South Africa, as O’Byrne, ( 2003) stated: “ The response of the international community… was muted… the United Nations only discussed apartheid in respect of discrimination against Asians” , (O’Byrne 2003, p.245). Thus for the Black South Africans Nelson Mandela was therefore their hero because whereas international community failed to speak for them on their behalf Mandela and ANC did they all together sacrificed their lives and wealth for their people thus, Mandela is a hero for the black people of South Africa.
Mandela and the ANC fought for and advocated for freedom, democracy and equal rights for all. The white populations and the regime knew this concept of equality is a threat to what they possessed and therefore, as Mandela put it “equal political rights for all means black majority will win any election thus, the white man was reluctant to accept this” (ANC, 2009) therefore, the whites regarded the ANC in general and Mandela in particular as a villains because Mandela stood up against white domination as admitted by a South African government minister who stated that “the aim of Mandela and ANC is to topple the white government which stands for white supremacy” (Meredith, 1997, p.176). Thus whereas the black people viewed Mandela as a hero, the whites viewed him as villain.
Mandela begun to resist peacefully against these apartheid laws, he helped organise series of strikes and defiance campaigns against the state as result in 1953 Mandela was arrested and was given nine months suspended sentence. This was followed by the treason trials when Mandela and 156 mostly ANC activist were arrested and charged with high treason (Mandela, 1956). Unlike the white regime which restricted the rights and entitlement to the whites only, Mandela believed in equal rights for all as demonstrated in freedom charter “All shall be equal before the law” (ANC, 2009).
What distinguishes Mandela from other black advocates is that, whereas other actives such as Steve Biko campaigned for the rights of the blacks, Mandela clearly campaigned for the rights of the blacks as well as none blacks, as Mandela believed that the whites are also legitimate citizen of the South Africa. He further believed that South Africa belongs to all South Africans irrespective of their race and belief (Mandela, 1978)
Despite government crackdown, Mandela continued advocating none violence resistance in the form of strikes and disobedience however, this form of resistance did not give the result he wanted and therefore Mandela resorted to violence methods as Mandela explained in his trail “It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms” (ANC, 2009). Mandela further justified his acts violence for the lack of government response to his demands of equal rights for all.
Mandela clearly wanted finding solutions for the problems faced by the blacks through peaceful means. But this did not materialized it even became worst as clearly demonstrated in the massacre of Sharpeville in March 1960 when a large crowd of black protestors gathered in front of a police station in defiance of the pass laws, were shot by police, killing 69 of them (Benson, 1994,1986).
After the killings of those black South Africans by the police and successive ban of the ANC and other African movements, Mandela and his comrade Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu as well as other ANC leaders decided to change the struggle against the apartheid to more radical form of resistance. The first step was the creation in 1961 of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) the military wing of the ANC, which begun to carry out act of sabotage against the authority planting bombs and other illegal activities (Meredith, 1997).
Fighting against the apartheid regime by violence means and the imprisonment of Mandela as well as pressure from the international community in the form of embargo and sanctions and the subsequent negotiations between Mandela and the authority that followed which resulted the release of Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC and other political parties made his actions possible. But crucial event that made Mandela actions possible was, the bold steps taken by the South African president De Klerk which resulted a peaceful settlement that changed South Africa for ever (Meredith, 1997).
What made Mandela Human rights hero is that he spent most of his life fighting for the basic human rights of his people which was denied by the ruling white minority. Mandela dedicated his entire life to the struggle against white supremacy as well as black domination and thus, advocated equal rights for all (ANC, 2009). He sacrificed his entire life for the sake of his people and as result spent 27 years in prison. When Mandela was finally released he did what only few people could do, he for gave his former enemies and oppressors, through this bold decision he led his country to move from the despair of apartheid system to a multicultural rainbow nation (Robarts, 2008). Upon his release from prison in 1990 Mandela led a multi party election held in1994 which gave him what he was fighting for, a suffrage for all.
Both ANC and the white regime violated human rights but human rights violation committed by the white regime was far greater than that of the ANC. The white government did not openly uphold human rights whereas on the other hand the ANC’s freedom charter has met with worldwide praise as a wonderful human rights document (Benson, 1994,1986). Above all Mandela helped the establishment of multiracial, multi-party democracy firmly based on a Constitution that defends fundamental human rights (Annan, 2003) Therefore Mandela was upholding human rights.
In conclusion Nelson Mandela is undoubtedly a hero to his people; his integrity is highly regarded by his followers and enemies respectively. Whereas some regarded him as a hero and a freedom fighter, others described him as villain and terrorist. He sacrificed his entire life not only fighting against white supremacy but also against black domination, this is what distinguishes him from other human rights actives in his country. Today, due to the heroism led by Nelson Mandela, Apartheid has been dismantled. All South Africans now enjoy equal opportunity to vote and to live wherever they want to live without restrictions. Undoubtedly Nelson Mandela is one of the world’s true heroes his life and personal achievement will be remembered for ever.
1. ANC, (2009). ANC. [Online] Available at: http://www.anc.org.za/people/mandela.html [Accessed 30 October 2009].
This website contains huge information about ANC and its leaders past and present, and this of course includes Mandela, there is a large section that is dedicated to Mandela, but it’s not easily accessible, as one expected this website is not a critical to the actions of Mandela it rather condones his violent actions, it concentrates his good actions, and therefore regards him as a human rights hero and a freedom fighter.
2. Annan, K. ( 2003). independent.co.uk. [Online] Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/mandela-at-85-he-had-the-strength-to-be-a-free-man-even-behind-bars-587241.html [Accessed 23 December 2009].
In this article available at the above website, Kofi Annan the former head of United Nations is describes Nelson Mandela as a man who made huge differences to the struggle against human rights violations in South Africa. Mr Annan remind the reader Mandela’s steadfastness and acknowledges Mandela’s refusal to compromise his political beliefs even when at some stage was offered to be release from prison in return for him to renounce his beliefs. The article further tells the reader how Mandela forgave his oppressors despite being jailed for such a long time, and above all, his contribution to a constitution that upholds basic human rights of his people. Finally, Mr Annan suggests that the only way to one can express his gratitude for Mandela’s achievement is one to follow his example.
3. Benson, M. (1994,1986). Nelson Mandela, the Man, and the Movement. New York-London: W.W.NORTON.
In this book by Mary Benson, a white South African activist draws a moving account of Nelson Mandela describing mainly on accounts by his family, statements from his colleagues and comrades, other interviews and above all Mandela’s moving court testimony in which he clearly articulates his political beliefs, and his pursuit for freedom, respect for human rights and same equal rights for all, irrespective of one’s skin colour, this book does not in any way portray Mandela as villain, or a terrorist as regarded by some and therefore this book is not impartial about the account of Mandela life and his actions.
4. Lodge, T. (2007). Mandela, a critical life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
This books seems to be different from other books I have read so far about Mandela, although not perfect the author seems to be less unbiased about the life and actions of Mandela in comparison to other books that have been written about Mandela. This books is not for readers with no or little knowledge about South Africa or Mandela, it’s for readers who have prior knowledge of Mandela and South Africa. This books also talks about the private life of the man, the author examines the conditions that led to Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s divorce, a subject that other books rarely mention. The author looks this issue carefully without damaging Mandela’s integrity.
5. Mandela, N. (1978). The struggle is my life. London: International Defence and Aid Fund.
The book reveals the personality and tolerance of Nelson Mandela it also reveals how he sacrificed his life and that of his family for the sake of his people. This book contains speeches and other documents prepared by Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters during the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa; the book also contains the freedom Charter that became the core document of the ANC. The book is so moving because it gives you a picture of Mandela’s stages from student leader 1940, to the leader of ANC, and the president of South Africa.
The speeches and document in the book highlights the conduct of the apartheid regime, the inequalities and discrimination that existed in South Africa during the apartheid , it also gives accounts of how black people were treated in all aspect of life, how their lives was affected by the law and special acts adopted solely to dehumanise them.
6. Meredith, M. (1997). Nelson Mandela A biography. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books Ltd.
All though I have not read the entire book, due to its size, I felt Martin Meredith’s books is well written and well presented, it covers Mandela’s life accounts from his early days as student in a mission school to him becoming the president of South Africa. I also felt the author was at same stages critical of Mandela’s actions therefore to some degree distinguishing himself from other authors of the same subject
7. O’Byrne, D.J. ( 2003). Human Rights. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited. P,249
8. Roberts, A. (2008). The Guardian. [Online] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk [Accessed 17 November 2009].
9. TIME, (1990). TIME. [Online] Available at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,970495,00.html [Accessed 16 November 2009].