Mandela: From Prisoner to President

By Dr. Kwame Nantambu
December 10, 2013

Dr. Kwame NantambuNow that 95-year old Nelson Mandela has died, it is indeed a glorious sine qua non to trace/recount/relive his remarkable/heroic journey from prisoner/revolutionary to President of South Africa.

At the outset, it must be emphasized that the year 1994 was a pivotal, watershed turning-point as the white minority-ruled South Africa joined the civilized nations as a de jure actor on the international stage of democracy.

Since 1948, the violent, racist, fascist and vicious system of Apartheid had been the law of the land. It was the bedrock of the Constitution.

Indeed, the political principle/rationale on which Apartheid was founded was best expressed by Cecil Rhodes as follows: “I will lay down my policy on the native question, either you will receive them on an equal footing as citizens or call them a subject race. I have made up my mind that there must be class legislation. The native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt the system of despotism. These are my politics and these are the politics of South Africa.”

Truth Be Told: Nelson Mandela became leader of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1961 and was elected as the first Black President of South Africa in May 1994. He spent twenty-seven years (5 August 1962-11 February 1990) in prison not only to denounce Cecil Rhodes’ Euro-colonial, paternalistic mind-set and system of governance but also to prove that Apartheid was immoral, undemocratic and violent.

In 1993, more than 3,000 Black South Africans were killed to prove this same point in a government-sponsored and financed reign of terror characterised under the euphemism of “Black on Black crime.” In 1989, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and this geo-political phenomenon signalled the demise of the Cold War between the East and west. In April 1994, the Apartheid Wall also came tumbling down and thus signalled the demise of the long hot war between the violent minority white South Africans and the majority Black South Africans.

If all the citizens of South Africa wanted to coexist in perpetual peace and human harmony/dignity, then, majority rule was the only glue to make the different pieces or factions of this new genre of governance stick together as one.

The stark reality was that for this to have happened, the ANC under Nelson Mandela and the National Party under F.W. de Klerk had to stand united to thwart the divide and rule tactics of the Afrikaner Volksfront ( an unholy alliance of pro-Apartheid white groups) and the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party led by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

Those were the power-hungry people who were determined to disrupt the smooth transition to democracy and freedom and thus it was imperative for the international community and Africans in the Diaspora, in particular, to utilise any and all means necessary to ensure that the Apartheid system would eventually be relegated to the ash heap of geo-political history.

Moreover, it was a universally accepted truism that Nelson Mandela’s ANC represented the only viable/potent political vehicle to free the people of South Africa. The ANC had both national and international respect, support and accountability to lead the parade to national sovereignty and self-determination for South Africa.

The fact of the matter is that while the obdurate, conservative, pro-Apartheid white Afrikaners were not only arming themselves but also demanding a separate homeland, Nelson Mandela reached the zenith of his political savvy by publicly accusing State President F.W. de K, lerk of instigating some of the overt violence in the Black townships as an integral part of his government’s strategy to jeopardise the ANC’s chances to win the first multiracial elections in South Africa.

In April 1994, the ANC received 62.5 per cent of the votes.

Truth Be Told: As prisoner, Nelson Mandela stated in his defence at his Rivonia trial in a Johannesburg suburb on 20 April 1964: “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

As President in May 1994, Nelson Mandela presided over the first “democratic and free society” in South Africa’s history.

Indeed, 1994 was the year in which the freedom of South Africa represented the severing of the last bastion/umbilical cord of European colonialism-imperialism in Africa.

However, more significantly and poignantly, 1994 was also the year when Nelson Rolihlahla Madiba Tata Khulu Dalibhunga Mandela went from prisoner/revolutionary with inmate tag number 3514068123 on Robben Island to become the first Black President of South Africa.

As Madiba Mandela cautioned a massive crowd in Harlem, New York, United States on 21 June 1990:

“We continue to live in a country enslaved by apartheid. The vote, the land, economic wealth and power remain a monopoly of the white minority. The only monopoly blacks have is the monopoly of ghettoes, of deprived and suffering children, the monopoly of millions of unemployed, the monopoly of urban slums, rural starvation, low wages and the bullets and clubs of too trigger-happy police. But, my dear brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, I am here to report to you that due to the enormous sacrifices of our people and the solidarity and support of people like you and the international community, apartheid is nearing its end”.

In the final analysis, the life and times of Nelson Mandela as he pursued his “no easy walk to freedom” superbly represented/manifested our maximum twentieth century humanism— what manner of man was he!.

Shem Hotep (“I go in peace”).

Dr. Kwame Nantambu is Professor Emeritus Department of Pan African Studies, Kent State University, United States of America.

2 Responses to “Mandela: From Prisoner to President”


  • It was simple arithmetic that bought an end to arphateid 7 million whites versus 20 million blacks. If the ANC with symphatetic people and governments across the globe choose to fight, the blood bath would have been unconscionable, for both sides.
    Bringing an end to arphateid was indeed a delicate challenge, Mandela influenced by Gandhi choose the high ground of forgiveness and reconciliation. In addition to all of this the churches across Africa sensing the possibility of a bloodbath united their people in persistent prayer.
    The white population was armed to the teeth and more than likely with such horrible hatred had plans to use the ANC win as an excuse to engage in a conflict of that would have released every demon on the continent…
    What is interesting about arphateid was the amount of experiments conducted by white scientist to find something that could be placed in food that would only kill blacks. AIDS which has its roots in South Africa may have been one of their successful experiments (we’ll never know). Ask any black person in the US about the 1960s where black soldiers were injected with STDs and you get the picture.
    Mandela theme of national unity was indeed the best way forward. South Africa today still has inequality but freedom will allow a faster movement of people out of the ghettoes…

  • One of the world acclaimed surgeon was Christian Barnard; a South African who performed the first heart transplant in the 60s. Reading this article: http://www.factmonster.com/ipka/A0900570.html, he has been referred to as an anti-apartheid activist. There are also literature who referred to him as developing his ‘know-how’ by operating on black prisoners (guinea pigs) willingly and freely, many of whom died. To say the least some biased journalists who can be classified as skilled journalists have the knack of projecting the good and bad in all of us e.g., Nelson Mandela (sell out to blacks in the economy of South Africa through negotiations, Mahatma Gandhi who made some negative remarks of blacks during his early years in South Africa, Martin Luther King a liberator but had his religious robes tarnished with some adulterous moments just as his silver tongued compatriot Clinton who put the US economy back into the black but had his ‘intern’ moments.

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