Domesticating Mandela

Rodney Tiffen, The University of Sydney

All day, after I heard the news, I felt sad, as if a family member or good friend had died. I am sure that throughout the world millions shared my feelings, even though we had never met Mandela, even though we all knew his death was coming. From that moment on, the pre-prepared filmed capsule biographies rolled on television and the political tributes flowed. The compliments came from all shades of the political spectrum, as politicians and commentators competed for the most impressive sound bite or pithiest phrase. There was barely a critical word among them, although a sturdy few, such as Andrew Bolt, managed to deplore Mandela’s earlier endorsement of violence. I do not think that the praise was insincere or wrong or needs to be qualified. Rather it is that it tended to reduce his life to a couple of stereotyped themes. The comments omitted most of Mandela’s life, gave little context to explain his actions and attitudes, and failed to capture the flavour of the society he confronted and changed.

The first common omission is of Mandela’s life before he began his continuous period in custody in 1963. He had been in Johannesburg for 22 years, having fled his Eastern Cape tribal area when he was to be forced into an arranged marriage. He had been involved in political activity almost as long.

Mandela and his colleagues were part of the blacks’ increasing mobilisation and resistance.

The key to understanding Mandela’s development during this long period is how the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) every attempt to achieve reform was thwarted, and how, instead, the South African state moved towards ever greater oppression. Through a gerrymandered electoral system, the Afrikaans-dominated National Party won power in 1948 for the first time. In addition to the discriminatory laws that already existed, it started constructing the institutional apparatus of the apartheid state. It banned inter-racial marriage, and introduced pass laws limiting the movement of blacks. Black neighbourhoods could be demolished in the interests of white urban development, as the Johannesburg township of Sophiatown was bulldozed to become the suburb of Triomf in the 1950s. Blacks frequently found themselves powerless against the petty tyranny of train conductors, police officers and mine foremen.

Mandela and his colleagues were part of the blacks’ increasing mobilisation and resistance. In 1955, a variety of progressive groups came together to proclaim the Freedom Charter, which declared the need for equal political rights and the abolition of discriminatory legislation. The long document included a clause calling for the nationalisation of the mines and banks, but not of other areas. This was sufficient for the government to denounce it as communist. Special Branch raided over 1,000 people, and arrested 156, including Mandela, for high treason with a potential death penalty hanging over them.

The trial continued for around four years. The demands and pressures of the trial destroyed the livelihoods of many of the defendants, and had a very damaging effect on Mandela’s fledgling legal practice. Eventually, in 1961, the case collapsed, but a year before this, the single most infamous incident of violent suppression occurred, at Sharpeville. On 21 March 1960, as part of a protest against the pass laws, at least 5,000 blacks were gathered near a police station with perhaps 200 officers inside. The crowd was not armed, although there are disputed claims that there was stone throwing. At some stage some police panicked; 67 blacks were killed, and 186 were wounded, most shot in the back as they tried to flee. Perversely the international and domestic political pressures which the massacre induced led the government to be even more repressive. The ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned. In the next few months, more than 18,000 people were arrested. (Meredith 1997, p. 177). When the treason trial finished, the ANC decided that Mandela should go underground, and he was dubbed the Black Pimpernel as the authorities tried to catch him. As all peaceful political protest was progressively denied to them, and as they were met with suppression and arrests, Mandela and a large section of the ANC decided that only violent struggle would bring about meaningful change.

Mandela went into prison aged 44 and emerged when he was 71.

Their efforts in this direction were largely amateurish and counter-productive—mass protest was always the movement’s most effective tactic—but it allowed the government to brand the ANC as communist and terrorist. The much greater violence—a fact somehow omitted by Bolt and conservatives who have criticised Mandela over this—was committed by the apartheid state. By 1989, more than 4,000 people had been killed and 50,000 detained without trial (Sparks 1995, p. 48).

Mandela was captured in 1963, and stood trial. His closing address was the strongest and most eloquent denunciation of the government ever uttered in a South African courtroom. He was sentenced to five years, but then a second and more serious conspiracy trial began. Again Mandela gave an impressive closing address. He concluded that he ‘cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die’ (Meredith 1997, p. 268). Mandela and his co-defendants were expecting the death penalty, but instead they received life imprisonment.

The phrase ‘27 years in prison’ was used in nearly all news reports after Mandela’s death, but the human meaning was rarely conveyed. Mandela went into prison aged 44 and emerged when he was 71. When Mandela and some other prisoners were first disembarking on Robben Island, sadistic warders yelled that they would die on the island. The prisoners were ordered to jog in pairs to the compound, as guards yelled ‘Haak! Haak!’, a term for herding cattle. Mandela and another, in the lead, defiantly slowed the pace to a walk. Despite shouting and threats he survived the initial confrontation. Perhaps the saddest night during Mandela’s imprisonment was in 1969 when a guard advised that his son Thembi had been killed in a car accident. Mandela was devastated, and returned to his cell staring out of the barred window. He was joined by his closest friend, Walter Sisulu, the two of them standing silently, holding hands. He was denied permission to attend the funeral, as he had been the previous year to attend his mother’s.

Mandela was only willing to be released after the rest of the ANC leadership
had been.

From the mid-1980s, there was increasing, although secret, movement towards a negotiated settlement. But this period was also misrepresented in the brief accounts that followed Mandela’s death. While Mandela’s willingness to negotiate was widely lauded, equally important and rarely noted were the times and issues on which he refused to compromise. The difficulties of the anti-apartheid movements in the 1980s should be remembered. The ANC had been banned since the early 1960s. Some other movements had arisen and also been outlawed. Many activists were in prison, some together, others not. Others were in exile. Most were poor. Their capacity to communicate with each other was very limited. Some barely knew each other.

Some were suspicious that Mandela would cut a deal for himself with the National Party Government, and there is little doubt that many in the government were hoping this would happen. Many were hoping he would settle for token reforms that would stave off more substantial demands. Mandela would have none of this. He was only willing to be released after the rest of the ANC leadership had been. After De Klerk made the organisations legal again in 1990, and released the prisoners, Mandela did show great flexibility about transitional arrangements, but never wavered on the final outcome. Moreover he was dedicated to carrying the ANC with him. He was always respectful of internal processes, always, as he constantly said, a ‘disciplined member of the ANC’.

The period between 1990 and 1994 was much messier and bloodier than is generally remembered, but at the end of it a historical transition was achieved. Mandela’s influence throughout this was fruitful, and his authority and demeanour helped reduce conflicts. South Africa, and indeed the world, was lucky to have Nelson Mandela. He rightly has a stature that no other political leader of our time comes close to matching. His incorruptibility, his willingness to work with those who had persecuted him, his determination to move from a violent and divided past to a peaceful and united future, are inspirational. But none of this should obscure the fire in his belly and the steel in his soul.


Meredith, M. 1997, Nelson Mandela: A Biography, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Sparks, A. 1995, Tomorrow is Another Country: The Inside Story of South Africa’s Negotiated Revolution, Heinemann, London.

Rodney Tiffen is Emeritus Professor in Government and International Relations at The University of Sydney. His book Rupert Murdoch: A Reassessment will be published in February 2014. In the lead-up to South Africa’s 1994 election, he worked with the Media Monitoring Project, now Media Monitoring Africa, with whom he has kept in close contact.