With the death of Nelson Mandela, an era has come to an end. The struggle against apartheid was a defining moment of the 20th century: the college divestment movement; the campaign to expel South Africa from the UN; the demand for comprehensive sanctions and most of all the cry “Free Nelson Mandela” shaped an entire generation.
Students sat in; longshore workers refused to unload South African cargo; workers went on strike; thousands were arrested in protests at South African embassies; poets, actors and musicians all lent their talent, labor, and bodies to an unprecedented campaign to bring to an end the atrocity of apartheid.
With the 1976 Soweto uprising the racist regime’s days were numbered. For nearly 20 years after, South Africa’s mass democratic movement, in ever escalating assaults on the Pretoria government, succeeded in rendering the country ungovernable.
It was a movement launched in the 1940s and 1950s by Africans and eventually encompassing the entire South African people, a movement led by patriots under the alliance of the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party, and the country’s trade unions (COSATU).
It was a movement at every step banned, imprisoned, tortured, exiled, harassed, harried, poisoned and bombed, a movement that despite all remained unbent and unbowed. And through it all there stood a beacon, the Robben Island prisoners led by Mandela’s lonely frame.
But finally the walls of apartheid came tumbling down.
Nelson Mandela‘s work had in some ways just begun. Healing, governing, nation building became the order of the day. And the “old man” as he was fondly called, already in his 70s, set himself to the Herculean task of founding a new democratic state.
It was, he insisted, a collective effort in which all were invited to take part, including former enemies. Efforts to split, isolate and tame the revolutionary character of the South African movement were firmly rebuffed. The communists, revolutionary democrats, and nationalist architects remained united with Mandela himself in every instance upholding its unity. Standing side by side with him were Alliance leaders Oliver Tambo, president of the ANC, and Govan Mbeki, Albertina and Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Ruth First and Joe Slovo of the SACP and COSATU.
This South African patriot, in the best of working-class revolutionary tradition, brought the nation together in “Truth and Reconciliation” giving the country hope for a new start and in so doing inspiring the world.
It was an accomplishment that endures. Notwithstanding ongoing problems of deep poverty, inequality and class strife, the ANC and its Alliance partners continue on the path of building a civilized modern state, setting a 21st century example of revolutionary transition.
The South African revolution has helped change the United States and the world. Even the election of a President Obama, who spoke movingly at Mandela’s memorial, would not have been possible but for the Free South Africa movement’s enormous moral influence.
Indeed, the South African and U.S. freedom movements are bound together by a thousand threads first woven by W.E.B. Du Bois and ANC leaders in the early Pan African Congresses.
New solidarity patterns were set by in the post World War II anti-colonial struggles by the likes of Paul Robeson and William Patterson and in the 1960s by U.S. Communist Party chairman Henry Winston, who was among the first to heed the ANC’s call for comprehensive mandatory sanctions.
Mandela is gone. In remembering him perhaps his lifelong friend, ANC leader Walter Sisulu, said it best: “For the greater part of his life he was a beacon of the struggle. In his later years he became the symbol of hope. In death he stands confirmed as the embodiment of humanity’s hope for the future.”
Hail President Nelson Mandela! Hail and farewell!!
People’s World will be republishing some of its tremendous coverage of the anti-apartheid struggles. Stay tuned.
Photo: A portrait of Nelson Mandela is seen through a sea of umbrellas during the Dec. 10 memorial service for the former South African president at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg, South Africa. (Themba Hadebe/AP)