South Africa: Nelson Mandela and the Anti-apartheid Movement


By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University

Revolutionary change never comes easily. But rarely has the deck seemed so stacked as against the proponents of change as in South Africa during the second half of the 20th century. Beginning in 1948, when the Afrikaner Nationalist Party came to power, it codified a system of racial segregation that had already long been practiced. The white minority institutionalized its control over a sizable Black majority in the country and human rights violations were systematic.

pattern of South African flag on raised hands
Nelson Mandela gave a new direction to the anti-apartheid movement. (Image: Chinnapong/Shutterstock)

Apartheid and the ANC

In 1948, fearing the changes the post-war world might bring in a country with a large Black majority, the Afrikaner Nationalist Party instituted the system of apartheid to deny Black Africans the right to participate politically at any level. The government also decreed that certain urban areas would be restricted by race.

In 1912, a group of Black Africans had formed the South African Native National Congress to promote Black unity and fight for basic rights. The group renamed itself the African National Congress (ANC) later. The ANC’s leadership included a young lawyer named Nelson Mandela, who’d joined the group in 1944. The ANC trained volunteers in non-violent resistance. This was called the Defiance of Unjust Laws campaign and it kicked off on June 26, 1952. Blacks entered areas and buildings designated as being for whites or Europeans only. Others burned their pass cards.

Mandela made clear that the ANC planned to “stick to non-violence… [as long] as the conditions permitted.” But the white government’s 1954 Native Resettlement Act brought new degradation to Black Africans and demanded a response.

The act allowed the government to remove any Black Africans who lived within or next to the magisterial district of Johannesburg. Black African families abruptly found themselves living in slums and shanty towns, housed in little more than sheds with no water, toilets, or electricity.

Mandela’s Arrest

Mandela gave a speech urging South Africans to rise against apartheid. Meanwhile, a political coalition of African, Indian, mixed-race, and white groups under the ANC umbrella, called the Congress Alliance, issued a document called the Freedom Charter, which advocated for universal suffrage and rights.

As a result, at the end of 1956 Mandela and 155 other members of the Congress Alliance were arrested and charged with treason. The government then dragged out their trials over a period of four and a half years to hamper attempts to organize a national protest movement.

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The Umkhonto Wesizwe

The government declared a state of emergency and outlawed the ANC. Thousands were arrested throughout the country.

Activist leaders went into hiding to escape arrests while planning a new work boycott to coincide with the 1961 proclamation of the Republic of South Africa. The government moved armed forces into Black townships to intimidate the people into backing out of the boycott.

Statue of Nelson Mandela
Mandela formed a new military organization that would work toward establishing a democratic and free society for all. (Image: Chrisdorney/Shutterstock)

It was decided that Mandela would form a new military organization, separate from the ANC, to be called umkhonto wesizwe—Zulu for Spear of the Nation.

Mandela explained that, “All lawful modes of expressing opposition…had been closed by legislation.” So, people like him had a choice. Either they had to “accept a permanent state of inferiority” or “defy the government”. They chose the latter.

Mandela’s Strategy

The plan was to attack economic interests rather than human life. Mandela explained that acts of sabotage against industrial and financial interests would scare off foreign investment and be such a drain on the economy that the government would have to negotiate a compromise.

Spear of the Nation struck in December of 1961, attacking power stations, electrical lines, and empty government buildings. It was the first of hundreds of acts of sabotage over the next few decades. Few white casualties were recorded.

Nevertheless, the South African government passed new laws that enabled the police to detain suspects for up to 90 days without a trial and made sabotage a crime that carried the death sentence.

Mandela’s Military Training

Given the dangers, Mandela decided that Black South Africans, who, unlike their white counterparts, had little or no military training, needed to get better prepared to defend themselves.

Mandela snuck out of the country and visited several other African countries where he forged alliances and solicited financial contributions. He even received military training from the Revolutionary National Liberation Front of Algeria in Morocco.

Mandela Sent to Jail

Once Mandela returned to South Africa, South African police quickly tracked him down. He was sentenced to five years in prison for inciting workers to strike, with another trial set for April 1964 on charges of sabotage and attempting to overthrow the South African state.

Facing the possibility of a death sentence, Mandela told the courtroom that his words sounded revolutionary because the “white man fears democracy” in a majority African nation.

Still, the end of white supremacy, he said, was essential to restore human dignity. “During my lifetime,” Mandela said, “I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people…it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

While a guilty verdict could have brought a death sentence, hanging Mandela might also make him a martyr throughout the continent. So, after the verdict was rendered, he was sent to prison on Robben Island, just offshore from Cape Town where he would spend the next 27 years.

Mandela Freed and Celebrated

It was clear by the end of the 1980s that apartheid couldn’t sustain itself amid resistance at home, and opprobrium abroad.

South African President P.W. Botha sought to deflate the crisis by offering to release Nelson Mandela from prison. In exchange, Mandela simply needed to renounce armed struggle. But Mandela refused.

When Botha resigned as president in February 1989, the new leadership ended the government ban on the ANC and Mandela and other political prisoners were freed from prison. The ANC won nearly 63% of the vote in the country’s first democratic election in 1994. And, Nelson Mandela was elected the country’s first Black president.

Common Questions about Nelson Mandela and the Anti-apartheid Movement

Q: What was Umkhonto Wesizwe?

Umkhonto wesizwe was a new military organization, separate from the ANC, formed by Nelson Mandela.

Q: How did Nelson Mandela receive military training?

Nelson Mandela snuck out of the country and visited several other African countries where he forged alliances and solicited financial contributions. He even received military training from the Revolutionary National Liberation Front of Algeria in Morocco.

Q: When was Mandela elected as the president?

Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa‘s president in 1994.

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