The thousands of anti-apartheid protestors who tried to march on Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Prison hoped to deliver a solidarity message to a man who has become a legend in his own time: Nelson Mandela.
The son of a chief, Mandela, aged 67, has spent the last 23 years in prison, longer than many of his young admirers in South Africa’s dusty black and coloured townships have been alive. A charismatic and enterprising leader, he was nicknamed the “black pimpernel” for his ability to evade arrest for nearly 18 months in 1961-62.
But Mandela the prisoner is as much a problem to the authorities as Mandela the activist at large. His continued incarceration has made him the focus of increasing agitation, both at home and abroad. The dilemma of the South African government is how to release him in a manner calculated to diminish rather than compound its problems. But so far it has failed to find a formula for doing so.
Mandela has spurned offers to release him into the care of his nephew, Kaiser Matanzima, president of Transkei, one of South Africa’s reputedly independent states, as well offers to free him on condition that he renounce violence. Mandela was first sentenced to jail for five years in November 1962 for inciting blacks to strike and for leaving the country illegally.
Later, in July 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of sabotage in a separate trial. He has been the centre of a major controversy over the past week because of his reported unqualified rejection of a national convention of South African leaders to draw up a new constitution for South Africa.
“There is no alternative to taking up arms,” he is reported to have told two American journalists, John Lofton and Cal Thomas, who were given special permission to interview him by President PW Botha. “There is no room for peaceful struggle.”
But, as Mandela made clear in February when he spelled out his reasons for rejecting Botha’s offer to release him on condition that he renounce violence, it is apartheid, not his supposed love of violence per se, which has left no room for peaceful struggle.
Recalling that the now-outlawed African National Congress had called on successive South African prime ministers to discuss peaceful resolution of South Africa’s conflict, he said: “It was only when all other forms of resistance were no longer open to us that we turned to armed struggle.”
The ANC’s decision to embark on “armed straggle” in June 1961 only came after it was banned in April 1960 and after an attempt by Mandela to organise a national strike in support of a national convention was met with massive force from the state and the arrest of thousands of suspected ANC sympathisers.
As Mandela said in his February statement, which was widely published in South Africa but conveniently forgotten in some quarters” “Let Botha show that he is different to Malan, Strijdom and Verwoerd (three of Botha’s predecessors). Let him renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle violence. Let him unban.. the ANC. Let him free all who have been imprisoned, banished or exiled for their opposition to apartheid.”
Mandela’s reluctant shift from non-violent to violent resistance is highlighted by his role as volunteer-in-chief of the defiance of “unjust laws” campaign of 1952, a campaign which was based on Gandhi’s philosophy of passive resistance. Mandela was sentenced to jail for nine months under the Suppression of Communism Act for his role. His sentence was suspended.
But soon afterwards he was banned by decree from attending gatherings or leaving the Johannesburg area. Mandela has been portrayed as a communist by South Africa’s governors. At his policy speech in Durban on August 15, Botha quoted from a document “in Mandela’s handwriting” which, he said, was produced during Mandela’s trial in 1964.
In the document, Botha recalled, Mandela said: “We Communist Party members are the most advanced revolutionaries in modern history …” Botha did not add that — although indeed written by Mandela — the document was not an expression of his own views, but, as defence counsel pointed out in the trial , a summary of a communist declaration. The defence explanation of the document was accepted by the court, according to Tom Lodge of the University of the Witwatersrand.
Mandela did, however, define his attitude to communism in a statement from the dock. His position moved over the years from that of a strongly anti-communist black nationalist in the early 1940s to that of a pragmatic nationalist prepared to co-operate with communists in the pursuit of common goals, in much the same way, to paraphase Mandela, as the United States and Britain co-operated with the Soviet Union in the war against Hitler.
After denying that he was a communist, Mandela said: “I have always regarded myself, in the first place, as an African patriot.” He conceded, however, that he — in common with many African leaders — had been influenced by Marxist thought.
He then added: “From my reading of Marxist literature and from conversations with Marxists, I have gained the impression that communists regard the parliamentary system of the West as undemocratic and reactionary. But, on the contrary, I am an admirer of such a system.”
Mandela ended his statement with a final declaration of faith: “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society … It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
When Mandela made that statement his life was literally at stake. Sabotage was a capital offence. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. In jail, however, he has continued to cast a huge shadow over South Africa’s political life.