Famous civil rights leader Nelson Mandela is back in a hospital due to a lung infection which doctors say may be pneumonia. Mandela has an unfortunate history of lung problems, dating back to his imprisonment in South African prison for his struggle against the unjust apartheid regime. Just a few months ago, he was being treated for a lung infection and gallstones. Doctors say he is responding positively to his treatment, but only time will tell if the civil rights icon will make a full recovery; at 94 years old, Mandela’s health is already somewhat fragile. Mandela, the African National Congress, and South Africa’s president have asked people across the world to pray for his return to good health.
Mandela’s fame comes from his central role in the struggle to end apartheid, the official South African state policy of segregation and discrimination from much of the latter half of the twentieth century (1948-1994). Apartheid, the Afrikaans word meaning “the status of being apart” consisted of rigid systematic segregation and discrimination against black South Africans. Much like the American Jim Crow system, apartheid severely limited the rights of blacks and ensured the social and political dominance of whites (one major difference being that in South Africa, whites comprised a minority of the population).
Specific policies included the prohibitions on interracial marriages, and of all interracial sexual relations; a system of racially designated utilities, public places, and services, very similar to the American “separate but equal” system; a specialized education system designed to educate blacks to be members of the “working class”; the disenfranchisement of blacks, which along with older restrictions on voting rights, made whites the only recognized voters (the white supremacist National Party being the main governing party); and forced relocation of blacks, often to areas set aside for specific ethnic groups called “Bantustans.” This overtly unjust system, which faced intense and at times violent resistance throughout its existence, finally came to a end through a series of negotiations between the National Party (the country’s governing party), the African National Congress, and various other organizations between 1990 and 1993.
Nelson Mandela’s role in the struggle against apartheid began in 1952, when he was elected president of the African National Congress’ Transvaal branch during the organization’s Defiance Campaign. In the years after this effort, Mandela worked as a lawyer and found himself arrested numerous times. The final straw for the government came when Mandela, up until that point committed to nonviolent resistance, helped found a militant anti-apartheid branch of the African National Congress.
Mandela was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life in prison. After spending 27 years in prison, Mandela was finally released due to an international campaign pressuring the South African government to release him. After he left prison in 1992, Mandela helped lead the ANC through the negotiations with the National Party, culminating with the end of apartheid and the electoral victory of the ANC.
Mandela served as South Africa’s president for one term (1994-1999), during which he wrote a new constitution, investigated the apartheid regimes’ human rights abuses, and drove a reconciliation effort with white Afrikaners. Since his retirement, Mandela has remained active in promoting human rights and welfare; he has won over two hundred awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize.
Regardless of how Mandela’s fight against his lung infection goes, when Mandela does pass away, there will surely be numerous ceremonies to celebrate the heroism of a man who fought against barbaric injustice, and to reflect on current incarnations of injustice. It is impossible to speak for Mandela, but there is good reason to think that the best way to honor him, more so than any medal, commendation, or ceremony, is to be found in the active struggle against racism, bigotry, and injustice.
It is certainly not the case that one’s actions must be as epic in nature as Mandela’s, or that one must echo his democratic socialist ideology in order to fight injustice, but it is the case that each of us is capable of identifying some form of injustice that we can take action against.