31 Years on: The World’s Best-Known Political Prisoner is Remembered

An iconic figure of anti-racism, Nelson Mandela, the leader of a movement to end South African apartheid, was released from prison on 11 February, 1990.

Today is the 31st anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from incarceration, a key event that would lead to the end of South Africa’s brutal apartheid system.

Activist and lawyer, Mandela walked through Victor Verster Prison gate in 1990, setting off joyous celebrations and violent clashes as blacks nationwide welcomed their leader back from 27 years in jail.

Affectionately referred to by his Xhosa clan name, ‘Madiba’, Mandela became the world’s best-known political prisoner of the time and an icon of the anti-apartheid struggle.

In 1994, Mandela’s inauguration as the President of South Africa made him the first black man to take this role. It also marked the moment the country turned the page on an oppressive system of racial segregation that for roughly 50 years privileged whites over blacks.

What was the apartheid regime?

Apartheid, or ‘apartness’ in the Afrikaans language, became the policy that governed relations between South Africa’s white minority and nonwhite majority. It sanctioned racial segregation and political and economic discrimination against nonwhites.

The implementation of apartheid, often called “separate development” since the 1960s, was made possible through the Population Registration Act of 1950. In essence, it divided South Africans into four broad groups – White, African, coloured and Indian to enforce the minority government’s policy of racial segregation.

White people, who made up less than 20 percent of the population, owned more than 80 percent of the land. They also controlled the economy, including the lucrative mining sector, and all political levers.

Black people had no right to vote and were relegated to inferior jobs, education and services. They were also forced to live in neglected townships on the outskirts of urban areas or in various disadvantaged ethnic-based homelands called ‘Bantustans’.

Until 1986, black South Africans were obliged to carry a passport-like document called a “passbook” which restricted their movements.

To maintain the system, the apartheid government imposed severe censorship and relied heavily on its security forces, with compulsory conscription for white males between 1967 and 1993.

Apartheid was finally repealed in 1991 as the country moved towards democratic governance. Racial classification, however, is still very much part of the conversation in the country.

Nelson Mandela’s legacy and the fight against apartheid

Believing that everybody should be treated equally, Mandela joined a political party called the African National Congress (ANC) in 1944 and later co-founded the ANC Youth League, leading protests against apartheid.

The ANC led the resistance by first adopting non-violent tactics such as strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience campaigns. Among the first major protests was a boycott of government buses in the Alexandra township in 1957.

In 1960, a march in Sharpeville against the hated passbooks became a massacre when the apartheid regime’s police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 blacks. The same year, the South African government decided to ban the ANC and other opposition groups by imposing a state of emergency.

Converting into an underground and exiled organisation, the ANC then turned into an armed struggle. Nelson Mandela was among the leaders of the organisation who was sentenced to life in prison for sabotage in 1962.

The massacre in Sharpeville drew the attention of the world to the brutal repression of the apartheid regime and led to the start of its internal isolation period.

After this, South Africa was expelled from the United Nations, faced arms and trade embargoes and was even excluded from the Olympic Games. The South African Olympic Committee was officially expelled from the IOC in 1970. It would remain an Olympic outsider for the next two decades.

In the mid-1980s, Mandela rejected offers to go free in exchange for a renunciation of violence.

In 1988, international personalities turned into activists and became a part of the struggle against apartheid. One such example of this was the major rock concert held at London’s Wembley Stadium to honour Mandela.

In 1990, just five months into his term, President F. W. de Klerk announced the legalisation of the ANC.

Shortly after, Mandela would walk free and within a year and a half, aparthied’s discriminatory laws were undone.

The dismantling of apartheid was celebrated with the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize – it was awarded to Mandela and de Klerk.

The transition to democracy was not without hurdles with white extremists violently resistant and the rivalry between ANC militants and the Zulu party Inkatha breaking into deadly violence.

In 1994, the first all-race elections took place and black South Africans queued for hours to cast a vote for the first time in their lives.

With the ANC winning elections by a landslide, Mandela’s presidency began on 10 May, 1994 and ended on 14 June, 1999.

On 5 December 2013, Nelson Mandela passed away at the age of 95 after suffering from a prolonged respiratory infection.

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