Thursday, December 5, 2013

Nelson Mandela: the passing of a world leader

This evening, 12/05/13, a grieving world received news that Nelson Mandela, the man who personified the 20th century African struggle against Apartheid and white minority rule in South Africa, joined his ancestors at age 95. Mandela’s death came after a protracted illness and hospitalization. 
After 27 years of political incarceration—a period that witnessed ceaseless internal and external African-led resistance to the indignity of Blacks of South Africa being treated as semi-slaves in their own native land under an oppressive system of governance, known as Apartheid—Mandela was released in 1990 by former  South African President F.W. de Klerk. Mandela’s release from prison took place after decades of what eventually evolved into a world-wide movement against apartheid. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a regime of UN-led economic sanctions against the apartheid regime, which got tightened in the 1980s. 

For decades, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which later renamed itself as the African Union in 2001, spearheaded an international campaign against apartheid rule in South Africa-- through ceaseless resolutions of its own, boycotts, activism at the United Nations and lobbying of other global organizations and nations. Because South Africa has a significant share of the world’s much-valued strategic natural minerals, such as gold, diamond and platinum, for a long period of time, officialdom in the Western World aligned itself with the white minority regime in South Africa.  The following excerpt sheds light on the importance of strategic minerals.

Four important minerals that the United States imports vast quantities from African nations include chromium, cobalt, manganese, and platinum. Each of these will be discussed separately.

Chromium is one of the major elemental resources that the United States depends upon. Chromium is used to make stainless steel, tool steel, and used in high temperature applications. Since 1961, the U.S has been 100% reliable on other nations for chromium. The Republic of South Africa and Zimbabwe contain 98% of the world's reserves of this mineral (Mangone, 1984, p. 32).

Cobalt has not been mined in the U.S. since 1971, because the amount that the United States can produce cannot compete with the price of other countries. Cobalt is primarily used in gas turbines and jet engines. Zaire, Zambia, Morocco and Botswana contain approximately 52% of the free world's reserves of the mineral (Mangone, 1984, p. 38).

There are no significant ore deposits of manganese in the U.S. available for economic production. Manganese is a highly valuable strategic mineral to the U.S. since it is used to make steel. All of the manganese used by the United States is imported from other countries, and thirty-nine percent from South Africa. Over 75% of the free world reserves come from South Africa and 37% of this is consumed by the world market (Hagerman, 1984).

Platinum is only obtained in the U.S. in trace amounts and therefore, the nation depends 100% on other countries. South Africa contains 73% of the world reserves of platinum and virtually all of the United States need is met by this country (Hagerman, 1984) (

Until the late 1980s or thereabout or probably beyond, Western governments, including the United States, regarded anti-apartheid organizations and their leaders, such as Nelson Mandela himself and his African National Congress (ANC), as terrorist organizations—in concurrence with the perspective of the oppressive white minority regime.  On the other hand, for much of the period of the struggle, the Eastern Bloc, instead of the Western Bloc, was a steadfast friend-in-need to the South African liberation effort--much in tandem with its erstwhile posture on the larger antecedent African continental liberation movement. Real support from Western governments for the anti-apartheid struggle--beyond grassroots demonstrations of solidarity--began to filter in during the dying years of the movement. For instance, it was in 1986 that the Congress of the United States took a historic stand of over-riding a veto by President Ronald Reagan to enact a Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. The Act, which was the brain-child of Congressman Ronald Dellums and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), came about partly in response to grassroots pressures from a nation-wide divestment movement that fermented in the late 1970s and through the 1980s across the campuses of America. Randall Robinson's TransAfrica was a notable force in the Free South African Movement of this period. 

History recalls that part of the strategem of the white minority regimes in South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Mozambique and Angola , was to cast the African freedom fighters as communists or communist sympathizers. This strategem was designed to attract and sustain the sympathy of the West--and it did, a West (led by the United States) which, for much of the period under review, was engulfed in an ideological and nuclear arms race with the socialist Eastern Bloc (led by the defunct Soviet Union) otherwise known as the Cold War.

Apartheid was South Africa’s equivalent of America’s Jim Crow system of racial segregation—in perhaps a more insidious form. Under apartheid, Blacks/Africans, who make up the majority (about 80% of the population), were denied the right to vote, denied the right to freedom of movement (and were supposed to live in Bantu homelands, otherwise known as the Bantustans,  which amounted to just 18% of the land area of the country. Under apartheid, a white person was legally entitled to a higher level of compensation than a black person for the same type of job.  Africans were subjected to pass laws which made it mandatory for them to carry passports wherever they were within South Africa. Like the apostles of Jim Crow in the United States, the architects of apartheid believed that Africans were of an inferior race and so did not deserve to be treated as equals with whites. There were laws that forbade interracial marriage and provided for separate educational, medical and social facilities. 

From a historical perspective, there were three major events or developments that occurred during the internal struggle against apartheid that became flashpoints or turning points in the struggle. One was the Sharpeville Massacre of 69 Africans on March 1, 1960 when police opened fire on anti-apartheid protesters in that township of what is now known as Gauteng.  A second development that also boosted the anti-apartheid fervor in South Africa was the emergence—in the 1960s—of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). This movement effectively tried to intellectually revitalize the anti-apartheid struggle in the wake of mass imprisonments of organizational resistance leaders, such as Nelson Mandela. In September 1977, the banned Leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, Steve Biko, was murdered in a South African prison. The third turning-point was the police massacre of school children in the township of Soweto in 1976—school children who, on June 16, 1976, embarked upon a peaceful protest against the imposition of Afrikaans (a local South African language of the Afrikaners (the dominant white group) of South Africa) as a medium of instruction in their schools. The school children saw Afrikaans as the language of the oppressor. Afrikaans is a language spoken only within South Africa—a Germanic language that was adapted by Dutch settlers in South Africa in the 1800s. Variants of it are spoken in Namibia and Botswana. The protesting South African school kids would rather be taught in English and their own native languages. Video images of police firing live bullets on and gunning down school children appeared on television screens across the globe and became an immediate catalyst for such external protest movements as divestment and anti-apartheid campus movements in places like the United States. As an undergraduate and graduate student at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana in the middle to late 1980s and a two-term president of the African Student Association (ASA), I participated in and led annual June 16 “Soweto Day” rallies and marches on campus and beyond—rallies during which we recurrently carried placards calling for an end to apartheid in South Africa and for the immediate release of Nelson Mandela from prison. Those rallies and marches attracted and featured diverse student groups—African students, African American students, white students and other international students.

As I stated earlier, in capitulation to a strangulating global regime of economic sanctions and escalating internal black resistance, including the ancillary roles of big brother Nigeria and the frontline states of Tanzania, Zambia, Kenya, Botswana, and to some extent, Mozambique, South Africa’s President De Klerk released Mandela from prison in 1990. For the first time, a democratic election, including African participation, was subsequently held in 1994, which produced Nelson Mandela as the first black president of South Africa, nay the first president of a democratic South Africa. Much unlike certain African nationalist leaders who later emerged as leaders of their countries upon gaining independence from colonial rule, Mandela served or chose to serve for only one term of 5 years, 1994 to 1999. 
As the father of a new rainbow nation, he pursued a policy of national reconciliation most aptly symbolized by the truth and reconciliation hearings that were held in the late 1990s. Instead of seeking retribution against white officials who had masterminded killings and brutalization of African anti-apartheid leaders and foot soldiers, Mandela chose a path of national healing—a path, a system of restorative justice, that earned him the Noble Peace Prize in 1993 and world-wide reverence. In retirement, Nelson Mandela became a global statesman and symbolic father of the South African nation.

Until his death today, 12/05/13, Nelson Mandela, like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, was one of a few remaining prominent African leaders from the era of the African nationalist struggles against colonial rule—both in the settler and non-settler territories. But due to his legacy of a leadership model that championed non-racialism, forgiveness, peace and national reconciliation, he is being mourned, not just as an African leader, but as a world leader worthy of emulation. May his gentle and peaceful soul rest in peace!