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Mandela - South Africa's founding father
10:43am Saturday 7th December 2013 in News
ALLISON Drew is professor of politics at the University of York. She is an expert in the South African political scene. Here, she talks about Nelson Mandela - South Africa's founding father.
NELSON Mandela will be deeply mourned in South Africa and across the world.
For decades he has loomed large in South African and international consciousness – for some, a liberation struggle icon; for others, a champion of non-violent negotiated settlements; for still others, during the apartheid era, a terrorist.
But he won the world’s heart on February 11, 1990, when, without a trace of bitterness, he emerged from twenty-seven years imprisonment and called for national reconciliation.
Born 1918 in rural Eastern Cape, the young Mandela was drawn to politics. Expelled from the University of Fort Hare after a student protest, he later obtained a law degree at the University of the Witwatersrand.
A dashing lawyer in 1950s Johannesburg and initially committed to non-violent civil disobedience, he became convinced that its failure to effect change necessitated a turn to armed struggle.
Dubbed the ‘black pimpernel’ while on the run from the police, he organised Unkhonto we Sizwe [Spear of the Nation] or MK, which included African nationalists and Communists committed to armed struggle.
On December 16, 1961 MK launched sabotage attacks against installations connected with the apartheid regime.
Captured and initially sentenced to five years, Mandela was later sentenced to life at Robben Island prison for his role in MK. There, he and other prisoners fought and won battles to humanize their conditions.
In 1990, the charismatic Mandela became a unifying symbol for a fractured nation seeking an end to apartheid.
In 1991, he was elected president of the African National Congress, the country’s and the continent’s oldest liberation movement.
In 1993, he and South African president F. W. de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work towards a peaceful end to apartheid.
In 1994, Mandela became South Africa’s first black president in the country’s first democratic elections.
Initially a proponent of nationalisation – but not a socialist or Communist – soon after Mandela’s release from prison he accepted the ANC’s new neo-liberalist agenda.
His government addressed pressing social concerns with mixed results. It built much new housing, but the twin problems of housing and homelessness remain to this day. It stressed basic health care and opened many new clinics, but failed to act decisively on the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Later, he highlighted the HIV/AIDS crisis by criticising his successor Thabo Mbeki for the failure to provide antiretroviral treatment in a timely manner and − in an attempt to demystify the illness – by revealing that his son Makgatho Mandela had died of AIDS.
Perhaps his greatest political contributions were to stand down as ANC president in 1997 and as the country’s president in 1999 − underlining the democratic need for rotation of office.
These were eloquent choices in a continent marred by leaders who refuse to leave office.
His retirement from public life in 2004 likewise signaled his belief that South African politics should not be dominated by personalities.
The ANC, badly tarnished due to corruption scandals, loses its paramount symbol of unity.
Mandela leaves a stable state and an impressively democratic constitution, but a country plagued by joblessness – a legacy of both apartheid and neoliberal economics − where the poor and marginalised still struggle to make their rights real.
Above all, his life personified a people’s long march to freedom.
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