“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, called “Madiba” in honor of his Xhosa clan name, certainly believed seemingly impossible things could be done. Madiba was denied the right to be an equal citizen, born in a South Africa torn apart by the systemic dominance of whites over an oppressed majority black population.
However, despite his personal experience of the deep injustice of apartheid, Madiba did not initially set out on a mission to combat injustice. When he was younger, he never would have guessed that he would eventually lead one of the most powerful revolutions in history.
While we in the United States and at Lick do not face the same struggles as Madiba did, understanding the history and current relevance of Madiba’s accomplishments can give us insight into how peaceful revolutions can occur even in a country where laws side with the oppressor and also how a person can shape a movement.
Madiba was born in 1918 as “Rholihlahla,” a name that means “troublemaker,” foreshadowing his future achievements as an activist. He was able to receive a quality education, enrolling in a Western-style boarding school and then Fort Hare University.
At Fort Hare University, Madiba gained his first exposure to an organization known as the African National Congress (ANC), which worked to increase the rights of black Africans in South Africa. Madiba initially refused to join.
However, Madiba’s lack of initial involvement with the ANC did not deprive him of opportunities to stand up against injustice. Madiba became involved in a boycott against the quality of food at the school, leading to his suspension.
Rather than return and apologize, Madiba decided to leave without graduating. While inconsequential at the time, this unwillingness to conform to unfair regulations was a key component of Madiba’s future actions as a leader.
Eventually, Madiba earned his B.A. at the University of South Africa and enrolled in law school. While in law school, Madiba finally joined the ANC. There, Madiba came up with an important strategy: mobilizing youth to fight against white political dominance.
Madiba’s idea led to the establishment of the African Nation Congress Youth League and his eventual promotion to the executive committee of the Transvaal ANC. It was his eventual promotion to the ANC National Executive Committee that gave Madiba his chance to take his activism to the next level.
A few years after his appointment to the ANC National Executive Committee, Madiba helped organize a non-violent resistance Defiance Campaign against apartheid.
The amount of people involved in the ANC increased exponentially. Police tried to control the movement with mass arrests, but Madiba never wavered in his support for his campaign.
Madiba was eventually arrested in 1952 under the Suppression of Communism Act. He was sentenced to a suspended nine months of hard labor. The court—recognizing the integral role of Madiba’s leadership in the success of the ANC—banned him from meetings, leading to the dispersal of the Defiance Campaign.
But, Madiba did not give up.
After numerous nonviolent campaigns failed to change apartheid laws, Madiba began to endorse violent resistance. Along with other ANC members, Madiba attempted to acquire guns and train members for guerilla warfare.
Then, in 1959, police in Sharpeville killed 69 anti-apartheid protestors. Madiba responded not with fear, but instead by burning his pass, which black Africans were mandated to carry in South Africa, in solidarity.
Madiba was arrested but, in a startling twist, the judge handed down a not-guilty verdict, a shocking blow to the South African government.
Soon after, Madiba started a militant group with the intention of engaging in guerilla warfare. His organization was involved in numerous bombings, none of which attempted to harm people.
In addition, Madiba traveled through Africa, intending to learn guerilla warfare tactics.
However, Madiba’s strategy was halted by his arrest in 1962 for guerilla warfare.
Perhaps the most startling part of what became known as the Rivonia Trial is that Madiba never denied the allegations against him. Instead, he sacrificed himself to mount not a defense against the charges, but an offense against apartheid. He challenged the system of racial oppression that led to his actions, making a case for why apartheid was a tremendous injustice.
The judge sentenced Madiba to life in prison.
Nelson Mandela’s conviction started a global movement against apartheid, a campaign that lasted for the duration of Madiba’s 27 year imprisonment.
In prison, Madiba refused to stop fighting. He campaigned for the right to have long pants like white prisoners and won. He continued to educate himself and work, as much as he could, with his imprisoned ANC colleagues. However, many foreign countries did not support Madiba’s fight for peace.
President Ronald Reagan declared Madiba a communist terrorist and supported the fight against the ANC. In fact, Madiba was only removed from the United States Terror Watch List in 2008 despite the fact that while he eventually endorsed some violent resistance, his revolution remains one of the most peaceful complete revolutions in history.
Madiba is now widely acknowledged as one of the greatest leaders of all time, largely because of how peacefully his revolution ended. He began negotiations with the government over his release near the end of his imprisonment, refusing to leave prison until the government granted full equality to black Africans.
Further, Madiba demanded that black Africans be represented equally in the government, essentially asking for whites to willingly accept a role as a minority.
Initially, the South African government refused. Who would elect to give up a carefully guarded majority preserved for decades?
However, Madiba eventually swayed the South African government. Through peaceful negotiations, he got the government to agree to release him and overturn the discriminatory apartheid laws that had bound black Africans for decades. He did not just free himself—he freed everyone.
In the first election held where black Africans had equal voting rights, Madiba was elected the first black president of South Africa. Following his term, he retired from public life and eventually passed away at the age of 95 on December 5, 2013.
One mistake we often make is portraying Madiba as a perfect person. However, that is not true. Madiba did not just sacrifice himself for his cause; he sacrificed his family, too. He largely abandoned his wife and kids in order to prove his point in court. He was unable to see one of his daughters for sixteen years and was unable to attend one of his son’s funeral.
Some argue that these sacrifices pale in comparison to the extraordinary things Madiba accomplished.
After all, it is because of his leadership, sacrifice and negotiations that his children now have the right to be equal citizens. It is up to you to decide.
Madiba’s legacy stretches far from South Africa. Even though I live in San Francisco, I look at Madiba’s pacifist leadership and unwillingness to give in as an inspiration.
A current movement I am involved in is the fight against discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, which is legal in many states. You can be fired for being gay. You cannot get married.
The movement to end that discrimination is very different from Madiba’s. The fight for gay rights has been one fought slowly over time without any threats of violence.
Yet, Madiba’s legacy lives in that movement, too.
There are days when I think the fight is impossible, that I, as a lesbian teen, will never be an equal person.
On those days, the days when I feel like giving up, I read parts of Madiba’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, and read the texts of the speeches he gave.
Quotes such as “It always seems impossible until it’s done” give me hope that, although the gay rights movement is vastly different from Madiba’s fight against apartheid, one day change will come for gay people, too.
We should look at Madiba’s story as one of hope, one of a person who, although flawed like all humans, refused to give in to discrimination and injustice.
Regardless of whether or not you are involved in movements of your own, you can find strength in Madiba’s words.