Mandela’s Long Walk
Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, tells the story of South Africa’s courageous stand against the brutal oppression of apartheid (in Afrikaans, “the state of being apart”). But a long walk to freedom doesn’t stop with victory. As the activist icon writes in his conclusion, “I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”
Considered by many to be one of the great protest songs, “Free Nelson Mandela” was written by Jerry Dammers, a British musician who admitted to not knowing much about the imprisoned South African activist until he attended a 1983 antiapartheid concert in London. Dammers was hardly the only person of that era to learn about apartheid through music, and his single joined a chorus of 1980s pop songs that raised global awareness. But unlike, say, Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” (about South African activist Stephen Biko) and other mournful protests, “Free Nelson Mandela,” as performed by Dammers’s ska ensemble the Special A.K.A., is up-tempo and draws on a South African tradition of lively protest songs dating back to the pre-Victorian slavery era. These songs and hymns took on an increased urgency in South Africa in the 1950s, after the Afrikaner-dominated National Party established “grand apartheid,” sweeping laws that formally separated the races on a large scale. When such performers as Hugh Masekela and Miriam “Mama Africa” Makeba went into exile, they spread this music and the message worldwide. By the 1980s, antiapartheid concerts had become effective tools for galvanizing public support for the extensive international economic sanctions that helped end apartheid.
“Free Nelson Mandela” opened the world’s eyes to what was happening on Robben Island, a notorious prison where the South African authorities detained Nelson Mandela (from 1962 to 1982) and numerous other political dissidents. Although Mandela had been transferred to Pollsmoor Prison by the time the song was released, in 1984, its description of the conditions at Robben—“Shoes too small to fit his feet / His body abused, but his mind is still free”—spotlights the sufferings of antiapartheid activists there. In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela calls this place of racist oppression the “most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system.” At this “hardship station,” as he terms it, white warders enforced apartheid’s rigid racial hierarchy by treating Indian and mixed-race prisoners better than black ones, who were denied even adequate clothing and food. Inmates slept on straw mats and were physically and verbally assaulted and strictly isolated. Their letters and visits were restricted—to break their will and maintain the economic and social inequality of apartheid even behind prison walls. Thanks to “Free Nelson Mandela,” Robben became an international symbol of apartheid’s inherent brutality. It is now a historical museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As a child, Nelson Mandela learned about Makhanda Nxele, a.k.a. Makana, an early-19th-century Xhosa warrior prophet incarcerated at Robben Island after a failed attempt to defend his people against British rule. On Christmas Day 1819, Makana tried to escape, along with other political detainees, but drowned in the attempt. “The memory of that loss is woven into the language of my people,” writes Mandela, also a Xhosa, in Long Walk to Freedom. Makana’s followers awaited his return for 50 years before they held a funeral for him.
Robben Island’s warders tried to destroy Mandela’s spirit with backbreaking lime-quarry work, physical abuse and denial of even the most basic comforts. When more militant detainees from the Soweto Uprising arrived, the warders tried to pit Mandela’s cohort against them, but an alliance was born between the old guard and the new arrivals. Their challenges to the system brought about the end of forced labor, giving inmates time to organize and share their knowledge about various forms of resistance. Mandela writes, “Robben Island was known as the University because of what we learned from each other. We became our own faculty, with our own professors, our own curriculum, our own courses.”
We may comfort ourselves with the notion that the world has slowly progressed toward racial equality, but a glance at the timeline of South African apartheid is a reality check. Just as the Jim Crow laws passed in the American South following the Civil War restricted the rights of African Americans, South African legislation limited the legal and economic power of nonwhite populations after slavery was officially abolished (in 1833, throughout the British Empire). The country enacted a series of restrictive laws between 1892 and 1946, but assembling these policies into one systematic framework that made discrimination and segregation official state policy didn’t occur until after the National Party took power, in 1948, and the government began to officially classify citizens by race. Opposition was immediate. Within 15 years, traditional political action such as mass strikes and boycotts had progressed to acts of greater civil disobedience and sabotage, initially condemned as terrorism by many in the international community. The 1976 Soweto Uprising, sparked when police fired upon protesting teenagers, marked a turning point in global sympathies. The United Nations passed a resolution censuring the South African government’s reaction to the uprising and, further, denouncing apartheid entirely.
Although Fidel Castro may seem an unlikely figure to become a hero of the antiapartheid movement, the Cuban revolutionary is often credited with having given essential support to the attack on South Africa’s racist governing system. The African National Congress Party, to which Nelson Mandela belongs, has roots in left-leaning labor and political organizations, and Castro’s stance against U.S. imperialism can be considered roughly analogous to black Africans’ resistance to Dutch and British colonialism (especially if you overlook Spanish Cubans’ own ethnic background as descendants of colonizers). Inspired by the 1959 success of the Cuban Revolution, led by Castro and his comrade-in-arms Che Guevara, in 1961 Mandela started his own guerrilla warfare group, Spear of the Nation, which sabotaged government installations. In the 1970s Castro became an active participant in the antiapartheid movement when he deployed Cuban soldiers in Angola to support left-wing rebels in their border war with South Africa, a move that chipped away at the power of the state and ultimately contributed to the end of apartheid. Soon after Mandela was released from prison, in 1990, he acknowledged his debt of gratitude to Castro and paid him a visit in Cuba to thank him personally.
In the 1970s antiapartheid activism in South Africa was increasingly influenced by the country’s Black Consciousness Movement, which encouraged black Africans to take pride in their heritage. High school students in the Soweto area of Johannesburg saw cultural genocide in a 1974 decree mandating that black schools minimize indigenous languages and reduce the use of English in favor of Afrikaans, the Dutch-derived language of the oppressive National Party. On June 16, 1976, approximately 20,000 students walked out of their classes. Despite organizers’ intentions, the march didn’t remain peaceful. When children threw stones, police opened fire. Thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson was the first casualty. Riots ensued, and hundreds of people were killed. For the international community, the Soweto Uprising branded apartheid as a human rights failure.
June 16 is now a South African holiday called Youth Day; a museum named for Pieterson, near where he was shot, commemorates that day in 1976. At a 1998 memorial service for Pieterson, antiapartheid ally Fidel Castro said, “These people who died…did not die only for the well-being of Soweto. They also died for the independence, the freedom and the well-being of all the peoples of Africa. They died for…all men and women on earth.”