Sunday 14 February 2010

20 years since Nelson Mandela's release.

Last Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years of imprisonment. For me it's another one of those 'I can't believe it was really that long ago' moments!

It only seems like yesterday. A cliche I know, but it's true. Watching the news reports from 1990, it still feels incredibly monumental and inspiring. I'd almost forgotten how historic this moment really was. It was as if the time had finally arrived for black South Africans!

Even from a very early age I was always aware of the political system of apartheid in South Africa. Watching the news during the 1980s, whenever a report from South Africa was on it always seemed to consist of the white government declaring a State of Emergency, and clips of black people protesting and rioting in the streets whilst being beaten back by South Africa's security forces.

Politicians and other African leaders were always arguing over the merits of economic sanctions against South Africa. In this country, the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously opposed the introduction of sanctions. Finally there was the constant talk of this figurehead and leader of the ANC in prison who you never saw called Nelson Mandela.

The South African government had banned any images of Mandela being shown, he was considered too dangerous. All that existed was an old black and white tv interview with him from the early 1960s before he went to prison. When Mandela was finally released part of me just wanted to see who he was, and what he looked like after all these years.

When I look back over the last 20 years, I think that Mandela's greatest achievement was preventing South Africa turning into a blood bath following the end of white minority rule. There was a very real prospect of civil war breaking out in the country which thankfully never happened.

After years of his own personal imprisonment and the decades of oppression and humiliation experienced by the black population, it would have been so easy and natural for a sense of anger, bitterness and revenge to take over, but Mandela didn't allow this to happen. You can't really underestimated this.

You can see an example of this with the recently released film Invicitus about the story of South Africa's Rugby World Cup win in 1995.

Despite the fact that the South African 'Springbok' team were despised by the black majority and seen as a symbol of the apartheid regime, Mandela still embraced them, showing whites that he wasn't their enemy and blacks that they could learn to forgive.

Of course with Mandela's release and the end of apartheid there's another side to the story which needs to be mentioned, it goes something like this.

There were two main reasons for his release and the end of apartheid. The first is purely economic. During the 1960s South Africa had one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but as time passed the economic demands of the capitalist system made the realities of a racially segregated society almost unworkable.

How could a country continue to develop a successful economy when its racial policies meant that the majority of its population were treated as third class citizens and denied the opportunity to seriously contribute to the country's economic growth?

The second reason is the collapse of the Berlin Wall. During the era of the Cold War, South Africa had played an important strategic role as a bulwark against the spread of Communism in Southern Africa. Once the Wall collapsed in 1989 and the threat of Communism disappeared, South Africa's strategic role diminished.

You can't overlook these facts, but it can give a false impression that apartheid in South Africa would have inevitably collapsed! It might feel that way now, but it wasn't the case when I was growing up.

By focusing on those two issues it almost over looks all the years of protest, demonstrations, and sacrifices carried out by both black and white people in South Africa and around the world against apartheid! Their protests constantly reminded the world that this was a regime that was seen to be morally unacceptable!

In the UK and the rest of the world, Mandela is the nearest thing we have to a living saint, sometimes almost embarrassingly so. When it comes to politics and politicians, we live in very cynical times. Nobody can be so inspirational, so loved, and respected. But I can't think of a world leader in the last 30 years who's inspired so much respect.

In saying this, it's easily forgotten that before his release he was the enemy of the state and a terrorist for many whites in South Africa.

Reading this week in the Guardian about Mandela's legacy, there were a number of comments from South Africans on Mandela's impact. One white Afrikaner was quoted saying:

"We felt like we were all watching the end of South Africa. There was a lot of fear because in those days Mandela was the enemy. For a lot of the white people in South Africa they were looking at the snake himself. "...I have a comfortable life, but it was much easier during apartheid.....When your kids leave school now they can't get jobs because they go to the blacks."

It's hard, if not impossible to feel any sympathy for such views, but even though it makes me quite angry to read such comments I wanted to include it in this blog, as it reminds me that people like that were wrong and still are wrong.

20 years after his release, South Africa is changing for the better, but there's still a significant amount of problems for the country to overcome. After the years of apartheid there was never going to be a quick fix in overturning decades of inequality. It will probably take another generation before some of these inequalities level themselves out.

What South Africa does have is the inspirational figure of Mandela to remind its citizens of its overall goal of achieving a racially tolerant and equal society.

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