CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA — Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela not only epitomizes the black struggle against apartheid in South Africa but also the yearnings of the unfree everywhere. Still, he has no vote in the country of his birth.
He was born 72 years ago into a royal household in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. If Mandela, like many others, had gone along with the apartheid order enforced by the white Nationalist government, he could have risen to high tribal office. But he chose, in his words, "no easy walk to freedom" when he renounced a role within the government's tribal structures, studied law and entered the black liberation struggle in 1944.
Mandela joined the African National Congress, the principal liberation movement in South Africa, and was soon--along with colleagues Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu--working hard at drawing militant young blacks into the organization established in 1912. When the government banned the ANC in 1960, Mandela was among those who planned a program of limited sabotage against government installations. But before any operations were carried out, he was arrested and tried for his role. In what become known as the Rivonia trial, Mandela was convicted, in 1962, of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Mandela's release from prison in February, 1990, coincided with dramatic new moves by President Frederik W. de Klerk to reform South African politics. There were high hopes that he and Mandela would usher in a new, non-racial order. But violence in the black townships and actions by the country's security forces have slowed progress.
Mandela, deputy president of the ANC, has recently faced growing criticism in government and related quarters for, among other things, not taming black violence in the townships and not persuading striking black children to return to school. And rank-and-file ANC members have been critical of his conduct in talks with the government.
In spite of these growing burdens, Mandela seemed self-assured, relaxed, lucid and optimistic while discussing the prospects for peace in South Africa.
Question: Since your release from prison, has there been one thing that really struck you?
Answer: I would find it difficult to identify any single issue . . . . Perhaps I can consider the matter from a combination of issues.
Firstly, on the day of my release I was struck, as I traveled to the city of Cape Town, by the large number of whites who seemed to be committed to the anti-apartheid struggle . . . . Of course, this was more evident when I reached the Grand Parade (where he addressed a huge crowd).
I also had the opportunity of coming into contact with the attitude and mood of the young people, students in particular, who were really the product of Bantu education (the system under apartheid designed to keep blacks subservient) but who have become the most militant opposition to the policy of apartheid. This struck me tremendously.
Above all, I was struck by the high level of political consciousness of blacks in the country. When I went to prison (27 years ago), although we had been brought up in a militant tradition, the level of political sophistication was far below what I found when I came out. This was reflected in the dominant role the African National Congress now occupies. It was interesting to observe that the government had tried, during the last 41 years or so, to suppress the ANC. Not only had the government failed, but the ANC has emerged to become the strongest political organization in the country inside and outside Parliament.
The enormous achievements of comrade Oliver Tambo--who led the organization, of course, within the framework of collective leadership--is what actually broke down his health.
These are the issues that tremendously impressed me. And, of course, the overwhelming support that we got from the international community. I found this to be a unique development where you are unable to draw a distinction between the countries of Europe and those of Africa, Asia and Latin America, where you find conservatives, liberals all fully behind the struggle against apartheid. And although we differed very radically on strategy, nevertheless their commitment to the anti-apartheid struggle was never in doubt.
Q: Have you been treated fairly since your release--by the government, by South Africans, by the press, by the world?
A: I was quite surprised at the reception I received when I came out of jail, both from our own people, black and white; I was even more surprised at the reception that we as an organization received from the press, as well as from the international community.