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The rise of a politician

By admin
15 December 2013

The rise of a politician

Arriving in Johannesburg from the country in 1940, Mandela as awed by the city. “The possibilities seemed infinite. I had reached the end of what seemed like a long journey, but it was actually the very beginning of a much longer and more trying journey that would test me in ways that I could not then have imagined,” he said in A Long walk to Freedom.

Mandela briefly worked as a mine policeman at Crown Mines, but both he and Justice lost their posts when it was discovered that the boys had run away from the regent. Mandela went to stay with a cousin, Garlick Mbekeni, in George Goch township. Hearing of his ambition to become a lawyer, Garlick introduced Nelson to a successful young property broker by the name of Walter Sisulu. Sisulu took Mandela to meet Lazar Sidelsky, a lawyer at the firm of Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman, who agreed to employ Mr Mandela as an articled clerk. Here he met Gaur Radebe, who belonged to the ANC and the Communist Party and began to take Mandela along to ANC meetings.

Mandela soon moved to Alexandra township, where he rented a shack from the Xhoma family at 46 Seventh Avenue. “Alexandra occupies a treasured place in my heart,” Mandela said in A long Walk to Freedom. “It was the first place I ever lived away from home. Even though I was later to live in Orlando, a small section of Soweto, for a far longer period than I did in Alexandra, I always regarded Alexandra Township as a home where I had no specific house, and Orlando as a place where I had a house but no home.”

At night, Mandela devoted his time to studying towards his BA degree through UNISA. On a salary of £2 per week, he struggled to make ends meet, often going hungry and making the almost 20km journey to and from his work in the city, on foot. “Mr Sidelsky, who was my height, once gave me an old suit of his and, assisted by considerable stitching and patching, I wore that suit every day for almost five years,” he said in A Long Walk to Freedom.

In 1942, Mandela moved to the WNLA mining compound, where he encountered people of many different cultures and languages. Meeting Mantsebo Moshweshwe, the visiting queen of then Basutoland, led him to an important realisation: “I had unconsciously succumbed to the ethnic divisions fostered by the white government … I again realised that we were not different people with separate languages; we were one people, with different tongues.”

In 1942, Mandela’s guardian, Jongintaba, died. Mandela and Justice travelled to Mqhekezweni, a journey about which he wrote in A Long Walk to Freedom, “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged, to find the ways in which you yourself have altered”.

Mandela became increasingly active in politics, joining a march for the first time in 1943. “Through my friendship with Gaur and Walter, I was beginning to see that my duty was to my people as a whole, not just to a particular section or branch. I felt that all the currents in my life were taking me … towards what seemed like the centre, a place where regional and ethnic loyalties gave way to a common purpose,” he said in A Long Walk to Freedom. “The ANC was the one organisation that welcomed everyone; that saw itself as a great umbrella under which all Africans could find shelter.”

This was also the year he completed his BA and began studying towards a bachelor of law degree at the University of the Witwatersrand. He was the only African student in the faculty, and encountered hostility from many of his white peers. But this was also where he met and befriended Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Ismail Meer, JN Singh, Bram Fischer and George Bizos.

During this time, Mr Mandela was arrested – for the crime of taking a tram. Like many other things in the old South Africa, trams were off limits to black commuters. Though Indians were allowed on the trams, Ismail Meer and JN Singh were arrested with him when they defended their black friend. Were it not for Bram Fischer’s defence in court, Mandela may well have been jailed for the offence.

In April 1944, Mr Mandela was among the 100 ANC members who came together to establish the ANC Youth League, headed by Anton Lembede, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Peter Mda, and others. The league saw the need for a more organised mass campaign, though many among the older leadership of the ANC did not support its goals.

“African nationalism was our battle cry, and our creed was the creation of one nation out of many tribes, the overthrow of white supremacy, and the establishment of a truly democratic form of government,” he wrote in A Long Walk to Freedom. Mandela himself supported the league’s opposition to the inclusion of communists and members of other races in the organisation.

In the mineworkers’ strike of 1946, 70 000 African miners mobilised to demand wage increases and improved conditions. The strike, led by the African Mine Workers’ Union, was quickly and forcefully suppressed by the government, and union president JB.Marks and 52 others were prosecuted when it failed.

But another protest campaign would soon inspire Mr Mandela and others in the ANC. The Indian community’s campaign of passive resistance against the 'Ghetto Act' was far more effective. Officially known as The Asiatic Land Tenure Act, it imposed restrictions on freedom of movement, trade and property ownership of the Indian community. Many of Mr Mandela’s Indian friends and fellow students went to jail for their beliefs.

“They reminded us that the freedom struggle was not merely a question of making speeches, holding meetings, passing resolutions and sending deputations, but of meticulous organisation, militant mass action and, above all, the willingness to suffer and sacrifice,” he said in A Long Walk to Freedom.

Mr Mandela took up his first official position on the Transvaal ANC executive committee in 1947. In the 1948 elections, the National Party, led by DF Malan, defeated General Smuts’ United Party. Apartheid had begun.

The government started implementing its oppressive policies ruthlessly, and the ANC Youth League called for mass action. Inspired by the passive resistance campaign a few years earlier, and Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent protest campaign in India, the League pushed for protests, boycotts, and strikes – all of which were, by now, illegal.

This revolutionary new direction did not sit well with everyone in the organisation. At the 1949 annual conference, ANC leader Dr Xuma was replaced by Dr JS Moroka as president general, and the moderate old guard made way for a younger, more fiery generation of leaders, ready to fight for change. Among these were new secretary-general, Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo.

The strike of 1 May 1950 was not sanctioned officially by the ANC, but received massive support. Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu were there when police opened fire on an orderly march in Orlando West, an unprovoked attack that left 18 people dead and many injured. Soon after, the Communist party was banned.

Across South Africa, other liberation organisations realised they would go the same way, and resolved to stand together against the new threat. Mr Mandela was now a member of the National Executive of the ANC and actively involved in the running of the ANC central office, which co-ordinated the 26 June national protest that denounced the Suppression of Communism Act and the massacre of 1 May. The protest was, by Mr Mandela’s reckoning, a 'moderate success', but it gave both the ANC and the government its first taste of the true power of the liberation movement.

By 1951, the government had introduced several acts to enforce segregation. The Group Areas Act came into effect, the forced removals of entire communities beginning with Sophiatown. Mr Mandela was serving as president of the Youth League when the ANC proposed its 1952 Defiance Campaign. He was assigned the task of organising and co-ordinating the campaign, as well as recruiting volunteers who would deliberately but peacefully provoke arrest by contravening the laws that restricted freedom of movement for all non-whites.

At the height of the campaign, Mandela – along with Yusuf Cachalia – was arrested, and spent two days in prison at Marshall Square among more than 50 other detained volunteers. The campaign was a huge success, swelling the ANC ranks from 20 000 to 100 000 members, and proving that people were willing to stand up for their beliefs, even if it meant going jail. For the liberation struggle and indeed, Nelson Mandela himself, there would be no turning back now. A new era had begun.