Global Perspectives on Human Language:
The South African Context

      Mandela, Biko and other South African Leaders  

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Ajani Husbands
Updated 9-19-2004
Timeline of Apartheid
Steve Biko
After 10 Years of Democracy

"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 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."
- Mandela's statement from the dock at the opening of the defense case in the Rivonia Trial, Pretoria Supreme Court, April 20th, 1964.

"In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift- a more human face."- Stephen Bantu Biko

These two quotes are perhaps some of the most well-known words from Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela, two of South Africa's most prominent political leaders.  Historically, the political prowess of these two has been put on aggressive terms.  However, by looking at these quotes, it is plainly obvious that both Biko and Mandela both wanted only one thing: a more equal South Africa, one that placed Black South Africans as equal to white South Africans.  The research and material on this webpage provides a more detailed look into the lives of Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko and how exactly each one affected not only South Africa, but also the world. 

Nelson Mandela Biography:

Who specifically is Nelson Mandela?  His name has floated in and out of our generation's ears since our birth, yet we bear the unfortunate circumstance of not knowing fully who this great man is.  In short, he is the father of South African democracy. 

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in a village near Umtata in the Transkei on July 18th, 1918.  In his early 30s, Mandela took on the task of reforming the African National Congress to suit the needs of national emancipation.  To this avail, they founded the African National Congress Youth League.  It was through this organization that Nelson Mandela was able to impress his peers and slowly move up the political rank.

During this time, Mandela found himself in a string of political run-ins with the South African judiciary system and was arrested several times before the infamous Rivonia Trial, after which he was given a life sentence and was sent to Robben Island Prison. 

Being at Robben Island had the contrary intended affect, however, in that it gave Mandela even more political leverage.  Through a total of 27 years, Nelson Mandela was able to generate a global awareness about South Africa's apartheid and slowly succumb the National Party into abolishing the apartheid regime. 

After his release in 1991, Mandela continued to fight for an equal, non-racial South Africa.  In 1994, his efforts were rewarded when South Africa held its first democratic elections.  To no one's surprise, Mandela was elected as South Africa's first democratic president.


Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress

1912 saw the formation of the African National Congress.  The organization was formed in response to the onslaught of colonialism and out of the need to protect the African homelands from European settlers.  The organization was united under the mantra of "We are one people.  These divisions, these jealousies, are the cause of all our woes today."

The first few decades of the ANC were fraught with indecisiveness and too-careful maneuvers.  However, in the 1940s, the ANC found new life and energy, boosting it to a mass movement in the 1950s.  This was partly due to the formation of the ANC Youth League, which became Nelson Mandela's first exposure to the ANC, as well as that of Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo.  The resounding belief was that Africans could not look to Britain or another outside source for their freedom, but that they as Africans could only be freed by their own efforts. 

In the 1950s the ANC began the Defiance Campaign, which sparked the nationwide mass movement.  The Defiance Campaign was a stolid resistance to the predominant apartheid laws at the time.  ANC members walked through "Europeans Only" entrances, demanded service at "Whites Only" counters, and blatantly broke the pass laws by publicly burning their hated pass cards.  The people coalesced their demands together into the Freedom Charter, adopted June 26th, 1955.

The ANC continued its struggle into the 60s and 70s by taking up armed struggle against the government's increasingly militant reprisals against their freedom movement.  Students also joined in the movement by protesting the Bantu education laws, which made Afrikaans the mandatory language of instruction for all students.    It was also around this time that the government officially banned the ANC, arresting its leaders by the dozen. 

It took approximately 20 more years of continued protests before the ANC was officially unbanned.  By this time, Nelson Mandela and many other ANC leaders who had been incarcerated had begun to lay the groundwork for a South African government that would abolish the racism of apartheid.  In 1994, the ANC negotiations with the government led to the first South African elections based on one person one vote in April 1994.  The ANC won tese first elections with a vast majority of 62.6% of the 22 million votes. 


Nelson Mandela And the Black Consciousness Movement

Historically, the philosophies of Nelson Mandela and the Black Consciousness Movement, led by Steve Biko, were not placed next to each other on the political spectrum.  When Mandela was in Robben Island Prison, he tactfully led the ANC to many small victories over the prison staff and the apartheid legislation. 

In 1964, Mandela and the ANC began to see the first trickling of a new stream of political prisoners who followed the beliefs of the Black Consciousness Movement.  The contrast between the two organizations was quite stark at first.  The BCM followers represented a group of radicals who believed in a headstrong victory, while the ANC had practiced using strategy and reform to achieve their goals.  Needless to say, there was some clashing.

Mandela personally respected the followers of the Black Consciousness Movement and, as he seemed to do with all political philosophies, sought out to learn more about the organization so that he could adapt to the changing times and still be an effective leader.  The result was that Mandela found many common characteristics between the Black Consciousness Movement and the ANC Youth League that he was a part of nearly 25 years prior.             

    "While I was encouraged by their militancy, I thought that the philosophy, in its concentration on blackness, was exclusionary, and represented an intermediate view that was not fully mature.  I saw my role as an elder statesman who might help them move on to the more inclusive ideas of the Congress Movement."
                                                                                    - Long Walk to Freedom, p. 486

As the two organizations were able to learn more about each other, Mandela was slowly able to incorporate views of the ANC into the followers of the Black Consciousness Movement.  The result created a renewed sense of political vigor within the prison that added even more strength to the anti-apartheid movement.

The collaborative effort of these two political efforts can be seen even today, as Nelson Mandela was chosen as the chief speaker for the 5th Annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town.  During this seminar, we were privileged enough to have tickets to sit inside the lecture hall and hear the lecture firsthand.  The response to Mandela's lecture was amazing.  Each praising word from Mandela about Steve Biko was met with resounding joy. 

"History from time to time brings to the fore the kind of leaders who seize the moment, who cohere the wishes and aspirations of the oppressed.  Such was Steve Biko, a fitting product of his time; a proud representative of the re-awakening of a people."
            - Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko 5th Annual Memorial Lecture, September 10, 2004

Nelson Mandela giving this historic lecture truly represents the collaboration that the ANC and the BCM had during the apartheid movement.  Though there were some heavy disputes between the two organizations at times, both worked hard for a South Africa free from apartheid.

Biography of other ANC Leaders

Oliver Tambo

Oliver Tambo was the ANC president from 1967-1991.  Born in 1917, five years after the birth of the ANC, Oliver Tambo spent most of his life working in the struggle against apartheid.  In the 1940s, Tambo became the ANC's first National Secretary.  In 1948 he was elected President of the Transvaal ANC Youth League and national vice-president in 1949.  It was while he was in the ANC that he was first able to team up with Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela.

Soon after the transformation of the ANC from an organization that occasionally petitioned the government to a campaigning movement that sponsored mass action, Tambo and Mandela set up a legal partnership.  Through this legal institution, he and Mandela were able to pay the legal costs of victims of apartheid law who would otherwise be unable to defend themselves. 

In 1958, Oliver Tambo became the Deputy President of the ANC.  The following year he was banned for five years by the South African government.  Regardless, Tambo began to focus his efforts overseas, working to set up the ANC international mission and mobilize international opposition to the apartheid regime.  With the assistance of various African governments, Tambo was able to establish the ANC in Egypt, Ghana, Morocco, and in London. 

In 1969 Oliver Tambo was elected to the ANC presidency.  This only increased his international prestige as he traveled the world and spread a unifying message against apartheid.  He spoke before the U.N. and other international gatherings on the issue.  In 1985, Tambo was re-elected to the presidency and also served as the Head of the Politico-Military Council of the ANC, and as Commander in Chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe. 

In 1989 Oliver Tambo suffered a stroke and underwent extensive medical treatment.  By 1991, he was able to return to South Africa from three decades of exile.  Oliver Tambo died in 1993 revered as one of the most highly respected Black South African leaders.  During his tenure as ANC president, he was able to raise the ANC to a status higher than that of the predominant government.  Internationally, he was received with the protocol reserved for Heads of State. 

Walter Sisulu

Walter Sisulu is best known as a founding member of the ANC Youth League in 1943.  Born in 1912, the year of the ANC founding. While in school, he was inspired by Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa" movement, and also by various African leaders including Shaka, Moshoeshoe, Cetshwayo, and General Mokanda.  After helping to found the ANC Youth League in 1943, he traveled internationally to the various conferences in Romania, Poland, the USSR, China, and the UK.  In 1949, he became the ANCYL secreatary.

In 1954, Sisulu wrote and published a book on African nationalism.  He also wrote numerous articles for the Guardian, New Age, and Liberation.  These literary acts of revolution caused him to be jailed for life in the Rivonia trials of 1963.  Being imprisoned in Robben Island, however, did not stop him from completing a B.A. in art history and anthropology.  He also read more than 100 biographies while in prison. 

Sisulu was released from prison in 1989 and was elected Deputy President of the ANC in 1991.  In addition, Sisulu became a patron of the Omhle Trust, the Twa Twa Trust, the UDF, and an honorary chancellor of the University of Venda.  All together, he holds four honorary doctorate degrees.  On the 80th anniversary of the ANC, he was awarded the Isitwalandwe.