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Nelson Mandela Speaks, and His Optimism Shines Through


By Andre C. Namphy

Nelson Mandela Speaks to All of Us

edited by Steve Clark

Pathfinder Press, $18.95

When Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years in South African prisons, the entire world celebrated. We paid tribute to a man who had refused to compromise his principles despite torture and deprivation. We marveled that at 71 he still had the energy, the spirit and the will to lead his organization, the African National Congress (ANC), in the struggle to restructure his country.

As South Africa nears the scheduled election date of April 27, 1994, deepening poverty, right-wing terrorism and government sponsored violence against anti-apartheid political parties are emerging as serious threats to a peaceful transfer of power. At this important moment, editor Steve Clark and Pathfinder Press have done us a great service, collecting public addresses made over the past four years by South Africa's most prominent statesman in Nelson Mandela Speaks: Forging a Democratic, Nonracial South Africa. In the 31 separate appearances before student groups, trade unions, community organizations, branches of the ANC and audiences in the United States and Cuba, Mandela develops his vision for a geographically united, politically stable and economically viable democracy.

In August 1962, when Mandela began serving his prison term, it was difficult for any political analyst to feel optimistic about the prospects for freedom in south Africa. The apartheid regime of the National Party, in power since 1948, responded to decades of nonviolent resistance with intransigence. After the 1960 massacre at Sharpeville, the ANC decided to resort to a limited campaign of sabotage directed at government installations. For his part in organizing Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, Mandela--already a practicing lawyer, a veteran of the ANC Youth League and an activist in the 1952 Defiance Campaign--was sentenced to life in prison. In his statement to the court, Mandela articulated his political philosophy and refused to renounce what he saw as a moral obligation to resist white supremacy by the most effective means available. The statement became his creed, and in the first speech after his release in 1990 (and the first in the collection), he concluded by quoting his own by then well-known remarks:

"During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all person 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."

The ANC remains the most important opposition party in South Africa and continues to grow as the election date nears; it is, however, only one of many forces that have brought about the current negotiations. In a number of his speeches, Mandela honors the contribution of locally-based activism, particularly the youth involvement in the Soweto uprising of 1976-77 and in the United Democratic Front agitation of the 1980s. In an address to his party, Mandela emphasizes that "the ANC must stand out as an unchallenged example of a real people's movement, in touch with the masses, responsive to their needs. . . and enjoying their genuine allegiance and voluntary support."

But observers have noted that within the country, students and community organizations are becoming disillusioned with a process in which the interests of the vast majority of urban and rural poor are being compromised by the negotiation process. It is widely believed that the regime will continue to oppose real democracy through the tactic of delay and its complicity in political assassinations and terrorist violence. South Africans would do well to remember African-American struggles in the period after the 1965 Voting Rights Act and to understand the ways in which barriers to economic change remained even after access to the political kingdom had been obtained. The extension of the franchise must not obscure the intolerable poverty in which the vast majority of South Africans continue to live. Sadly, this could be the outcome of negotiations with an enemy that continues to wield a critical mass of economic and military power.

Mandela and the ANC recognize their predicament and have repeatedly condemned the methods by which the government is manipulating the democratization process by fomenting violence in the Black townships. But these obstacles have not been able to weaken Mandela's optimism, an attitude that shines through in most of the speeches collected here. He pays tribute to the struggles of all the progressive forces in bringing about the current phase of negotiations, including the youth, students, women's groups, civic organizations, churches, and the trade unions. In a speech to the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), he remarked:

"You know what it is to work in the heat deep in the bowels of the earth. You know the fear of being buried alive underground. You know the humiliation of body searches and being treated like worthless cattle. You know the loneliness of hostel life, the control of your every move. You know the painful death that comes from inhaling the dust that destroys your lungs, that kills your children when they play in dumps of blue asbestos waste. It is your sweat and blood that has created the vast wealth that white South Africa enjoys."

Throughout the book, Mandela urges his listeners to participate in the tradition epitomized by the bottom-up, shop-floor democracy of NUM and the larger Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) to ensure that the liberation struggle never becomes merely a middle-class movement with working-class and grassroots rhetoric. He constructively criticizes his own organization for its sexism, affirming that "South African society is profoundly patriarchal....Can we seriously claim to be democrats when in our practices we continue to treat women as underlings?" He calls for the South African government and the international community to address the demands of workers for fair wages, of the rural poor for land, and of the liberation movement to maintain the spirit of the 1955 Freedom Charter, "that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white."

Nelson Mandela's legacy to the South African nation is secure. He will forever be remembered as a patriot, as a stalwart veteran of the liberation struggle, and as a remarkable visionary in the fight against racism. These speeches are essential reading for historians, activists and followers of the anti-apartheid movement. They chart four years in the life of a man capable of immense self-sacrifice in service of his principles, whose power and importance will be felt long after he is gone. At the April 1993 funeral of slain ANC veteran Chris Hani, Mandela delivered what surely is a fitting summation of his own significance to South Africa, and in fact to all of us: "In our heart, as in the heart of all our people, you are irreplaceable....You laid down your life so that we may know freedom. No greater sacrifice is possible."

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