In African culture, the
sons and daughters of one’s aunts or uncles are considered brothers and
sisters, not cousins. We do not make the same distinctions among relations
practiced by whites. We have no half brothers or half sisters. My mother’s
sister is my mother; my uncle’s son is my brother; my brother’s child is my
son, my daughter.
That day, Miss Mdingane
told me that my new name was Nelson. Why she bestowed this particular name upon
me I have no idea. Perhaps it had something to do with the great British sea
captain Lord Nelson, but that would be only a guess.
meetings would continue
until some kind of consensus was reached. They ended in unanimity or not at
all. Unanimity, however, might be an agreement to disagree, to wait for a more
propitious time to propose a solution. Democracy meant all men were to be
heard, and a decision was taken together as a people. Majority rule was a
foreign notion. A minority was not to be crushed by a majority.
“Founder of the Bunga,” the traditional ruling body of the Transkei. To Xhosa
traditionalists, this name is more acceptable than either of my two previous
given names, Rolihlahla or Nelson, and I was proud to hear my new name
She was an
extraordinarily clever and gifted person, whose potential was limited because
of her family’s meager resources. This was an all too typical South African
story. It was not lack of ability that limited my people, but lack of
Fort Hare, like
Clarkebury and Healdtown, was a missionary college. We were exhorted to obey
God, respect the political authorities, and be grateful for the educational
opportunities afforded to us by the church and the government. These schools
have often been criticized for being colonialist in their attitudes and practices.
Yet, even with such attitudes, I believe their benefits outweighed their
Many people will appear
to befriend you when you are wealthy, but precious few will do the same when
you are poor. If wealth is a magnet, poverty is a kind of repellent. Yet,
poverty often brings out the true generosity in others.
Without language, one
cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and
aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savor their
songs. I again realized that we were not different people with separate
languages; we were one people, with different tongues.
I had no epiphany, no
singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a
thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments,
produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that
imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, From henceforth
I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found
myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.
We cited the crippling,
anti-African legislation of the past forty years, beginning with the 1913 Land
Act, which ultimately deprived blacks of 87 percent of the territory in the
land of their birth; the Urban Areas Act of 1923, which created teeming African
slums, politely called “native locations,” in order to supply cheap labor to
white industry; the Color Bar Act of 1926, which banned Africans from
practicing skilled trades; the Native Administration Act of 1927, which made
the British Crown, rather than the paramount chiefs, the supreme chief over all
African areas; and finally, in 1936, the Representation of Natives Act, which
removed Africans from the Common Voters’ Roll in the Cape, thereby
Representation of Voters Act eventually robbed the Coloureds of their
representation in Parliament. The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act was
introduced in 1949 and was followed in rapid succession by the Immorality Act,
making sexual relations between white and nonwhite illegal.
The SeparateRepresentation of Voters
Act aimed to transfer Coloureds to a separate voters’ roll in the Cape, thereby
diluting the franchise rights that they had enjoyed for more than a century.
The Bantu Authorities Act abolished the Natives Representative Council, the one
indirect forum of national representation for Africans, and replaced it with a
hierarchical system of tribal chiefs appointed by the government.
Over the next five
months, 8,500 people took part in the campaign. Doctors, factory workers,
lawyers, teachers, students, ministers, defied and went to jail. They sang,
“Hey, Malan! Open the jail doors. We want to enter.
The minister of justice
announced that he would soon pass legislation to deal with our defiance, a
threat he implemented during the 1953 parliamentary session with the passage of
the Public Safety Act, which empowered the government to declare martial law and
to detain people without trial, and the Criminal Laws Amendment Act, which
authorized corporal punishment for defiers.
Despite the poverty,
Sophiatown had a special character; for Africans, it was the Left Bank in
Paris, Greenwich Village in New York, the home of writers, artists, doctors,
and lawyers. It was both bohemian and conventional, lively and sedate.
A freedom fighter learns
the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle,
and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror
those of the oppressor. At a certain point, one can only fight fire with fire.
We, the people of South
Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know:— That South Africa
belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can
justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people; That our
people have been robbed of their birthright to land, liberty and peace by a
form of government founded on injustice and inequality; That our country will
never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying
equal rights and opportunities; That only a democratic state, based on the will
of the people, can secure to all their birthright without distinction of
colour, race, sex or belief;
It is said that no one
truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not
be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones—and South
Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.
In that moment, something
stirred deep inside all of us, something strong and intimate, that bound us to
one another. In that moment we felt the hand of the great past that made us
what we were and the power of the great cause that linked us all together.
She was pregnant again
and later that year, gave birth to Makaziwe, named after the daughter we had
lost six years before. In our culture, to give a new child the name of a
deceased child is considered a way of honoring the earlier child’s memory and
retaining a mystical attachment to the child who left too soon.
The women were
courageous, persistent, enthusiastic, indefatigable, and their protest against
passes set a standard for antigovernment protest that was never equaled. As
Chief Luthuli said, “When the women begin to take an active part in the
struggle, no power on earth can stop us from achieving freedom in our lifetime.
Within minutes, they were
surrounded by dozens of armed police, who arrested all of them, packed them
into vans, and drove them to Marshall Square police station. The women were
cheerful throughout; as they were being driven away, some called out to
reporters, “Tell our madams we won’t be at work tomorrow!
the deceptively named
Extension of University Education Act, another leg of grand apartheid, which
barred nonwhites from racially “open” universities. In introducing the Bantu
Self Government Act, De Wet Nel, the minister of Bantu Administration and
Development, said that the welfare of every individual and population group
could best be developed within its own national community. Africans,
After one has been in
prison, it is the small things that one appreciates: being able to take a walk
whenever one wants, going into a shop and buying a newspaper, speaking or
choosing to remain silent. The simple act of being able to control one’s person.
We named our new daughter
Zindziswa, after the daughter of the poet laureate of the Xhosa people, Samuel
Mqhayi, who had inspired me so many years before at Healdtown. The poet
returned home after a very long trip to find that his wife had given birth to a
daughter. He had not known that she was pregnant and assumed that the child had
been fathered by another man. In our culture, when a woman gives birth, the
husband does not enter the house where she is confined for ten days. In this
case, the poet was too enraged to observe this custom, and he stormed into the
house with an assegai, ready to stab both mother and daughter. But when he
looked at the baby girl and saw that she was the image of himself, he stepped
back, and said, “u zindzile,” which means, “You are well established.” He named
her Zindziswa, the feminine version of what he had said.
In some ways, this is not
much of an adaptation for a black man in South Africa. Under apartheid, a black
man lived a shadowy life between legality and illegality, between openness and
concealment. To be a black man in South Africa meant not to trust anything,
which was not unlike living underground for one’s entire life.
instituted all over the country, but the police repeatedly came up
empty-handed. I was dubbed the Black Pimpernel, a somewhat derogatory
adaptation of Baroness Orczy’s fictional character the Scarlet Pimpernel, who
daringly evaded capture during the French Revolution.
I, WHO HAD NEVER been a
soldier, who had never fought in battle, who had never fired a gun at an enemy,
had been given the task of starting an army. It would be a daunting task for a
veteran general much less a military novice. The name of this new organization
was Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation)—or MK for short. The symbol of
the spear was chosen because with this simple weapon Africans had resisted the
incursions of whites for centuries.
and hardship than sitting
in gaol. I have had to separate myself from my dear wife and children, from my
mother and sisters to live as an outlaw in my own land. I have had to close my
business, to abandon my profession, and live in poverty, as many of my people
are doing…. I shall fight the Government side by side with you, inch by inch,
and mile by mile, until victory is won. What are you going to do? Will you come
along with us, or are you going to co-operate with the Government in its
efforts to suppress the claims and
aspirations of your own people? Are you going to remain silent and neutral in a
matter of life and death to my people, to our people? For my own part I have
made my choice. I will not leave South Africa, nor will I surrender. Only
through hardship, sacrifice and militant action can freedom be won. The
struggle is my life. I will continue fighting for freedom until the end of my
Once again I was struck
by the great power of nationalism and ethnicity. We reacted instantly, for we
felt as though we were seeing a brother African. Later, our hosts informed us
that Sudani had been a legendary soldier, and had even reputedly captured an
entire French unit single-handedly. But we were cheering him because of his
color, not his exploits.
am prepared to pay the
penalty even though I know how bitter and desperate is the situation of an
African in the prisons of this country. I have been in these prisons and I know
how gross is the discrimination, even behind the prison wall, against
Africans…. Nevertheless these considerations do not sway me from the path that
I have taken nor will they sway others like me. For to men, freedom in their
own land is the pinnacle of their ambitions, from which nothing can turn men of
conviction aside. More powerful than my fear of the dreadful conditions to
which I might be subjected in prison is my hatred for the dreadful conditions
to which my people are subjected outside prison throughout this country
The island takes its name
from the Dutch word for seal, hundreds of which once cavorted in the icy
Benguela currents that wash the shores. Later the island was turned into a
leper colony, a lunatic asylum, and a naval base. The government had only
recently turned the island back into a prison.
We were driven to the
Palace of Justice in Pretoria, where the Supreme Court sits, for the opening of
The State versus the National High Command and others, what later became known
as The State versus Nelson Mandela and others, and is still better known as the
am fundamentally an
optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of
being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet
moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was
sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That
way lay defeat and death.
He very softly said to me
that the authorities had made a change. That day was the beginning of what were
known as “contact” visits. He then went outside to see my wife and daughter and
asked to speak to Winnie privately. Winnie actually got a fright when Gregory
took her aside, thinking that I was perhaps ill. But Gregory escorted her
around the door and before either of us knew it, we were in the same room and
in each other’s arms. I kissed and held my wife for the first time in all these
many years. It was a moment I had dreamed about a thousand times. It was as if
I were still dreaming. I held her to me for what seemed like an eternity. We
were still and silent except for the sound of our hearts. I did not want to let
go of her at all, but I broke free and embraced my daughter and then took her
child into my lap. It had been twenty-one years since I had even touched my
Only free men can
negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts…. I cannot and will not give
any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your
freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.
There are times when a
leader must move out ahead of the flock, go off in a new direction, confident
that he is leading his people the right way. Finally, my isolation furnished my
organization with an excuse in case matters went awry: the old man was alone
and completely cut off, and his actions were taken by him as an individual, not
a representative of the ANC.
The other main area of
discussion was the issue of majority rule. They felt that if there was majority
rule, the rights of minorities would be trampled. How would the ANC protect the
rights of the white minority? they wanted to know. I said that there was no
organization in the history of South Africa to compare with the ANC in terms of
trying to unite all the people and races of South Africa. I referred them to
the preamble of the Freedom Charter: “South Africa belongs to all who live in
it, black and white.” I told them that whites were Africans as well, and that
in any future dispensation the majority would need the minority. We do not want
to drive you into the sea, I said.
ON DECEMBER 20, 1991,
after more than a year and a half of talks about talks, the real talks began:
CODESA—the Convention for a Democratic South Africa—represented the first
formal negotiations forum between the government, the ANC, and other South
African parties. All of our previous bilateral discussions had been laying the
groundwork for these talks, which took place at the World Trade Centre, a
modern exhibition center near Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg. CODESA
comprised eighteen delegations covering the gamut of South African politics,
plus observers from the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the European
Community, and the Organization of African Unity. It was the widest cross
section of political groups ever gathered in one place in South Africa.
“We watched our children
growing without our guidance,” I said at the wedding, “and when we did come out
[of prison], my children said, ‘We thought we had a father and one day he’d
come back. But to our dismay, our father came back and he left us alone because
he has now become the father of the nation.’” To be the father of a nation is a
great honor, but to be the father of a family is a greater joy. But it was a
joy I had far too little of.
ALTHOUGH FEW PEOPLE will
remember June 3, 1993, it was a landmark in South African history. On that day,
after months of negotiations at the World Trade Centre, the multiparty forum
voted to set a date for the country’s first national, nonracial,
one-person-one-vote election: April 27, 1994.
As I stood over his
grave, on a rise above the small school below, I thought not of the present but
of the past. When I walked to the voting station, my mind dwelt on the heroes
who had fallen so that I might be where I was that day, the men and women who
had made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause that was now finally succeeding. I
thought of Oliver Tambo, and Chris Hani, and Chief Luthuli, and Bram Fischer. I
thought of our great African heroes, who had sacrificed so that millions of
South Africans could be voting on that very day; I thought of Josiah Gumede, G.
M. Naicker, Dr. Abdullah Abdurahman, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Yusuf Dadoo,
Moses Kotane. I did not go into that
This is one of the most
important moments in the life of our country. I stand here before you filled
with deep pride and joy—pride in the ordinary, humble people of this country.
You have shown such a calm, patient determination to reclaim this country as your
own, and now the joy that we can loudly proclaim from the rooftops—Free at
last! Free at last! I stand before you humbled by your courage, with a heart
full of love for all of you. I regard it as the highest honor to lead the ANC
at this moment in our history. I am your servant…. It is not the individuals
that matter, but the collective…. This is a time to heal the old wounds and
build a new South Africa.
I never lost hope that
this great transformation would occur. Not only because of the great heroes I
have already cited, but because of the courage of the ordinary men and women of
my country. I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy
and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of
his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if
they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more
naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
knew as well as I knew
anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.
A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is
locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free
if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free
when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are
robbed of their humanity.