South Africa was hot bed of racism. It stood for apartheid even when the young Mohan Das Gandhi began his legal practice in South Africa. The entire country was of three groups racially – whites, coloreds and blacks. All the public places meant for whites only are strictly out of bounds for the coloureds and blacks. The blacks were the worst affected.
They were not only discriminated but even humiliated and insulted. They very harsh and draconian law, namely the Group Areas Act has kept the blacks in their unclean and dirty slums. Ghettos and squalid hovels were their abodes. It is from this black race was born a male child on July 18, 1918 in a tribal village of Cape Province. It was none other than Nelson Mandela who changed the course of history in South Africa. He was instrumental in abolishing apartheid and giving a status to the blacks.
Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (1995) speaks in detail of his early life. Both ways he had to walk and jog nearly twenty five kilometers a day to attend his elementary school. The entire route was through wild brushes and thorny jungles. After his schooling, he graduated himself with Law as a special subject.
In pursuance of his academic studies, when he had come to Johannesburg he saw with his own eyes how the blacks were treated inhumanly by the racist White government. He decided to dismantle apartheid, abolish poverty and remove inequality. To achieve these noble objectives, he has to pay a heavy price of agitation, boycott, strike and at once stage, a long incarceration of 27 years.
At the age of forty six, he was consigned to a solitary cell in Robben Island. There he had to work hard and break the lime rocks in a terrible sunny and hot weather. He was forbidden to talk with anyone even during working hours. He bore all these travails with tolerance and fortitude.
Such a very harsh prison sentence was imposed on him when his African National Congress was outlawed in 1960. Besides, Mandela was accused of having indulged in sabotage and found to have resolved to lead an armed struggle against the racist White government. He was charged with treason and his advocates had no hope of getting him back without being hanged. It was a fifty –fifty chance.
Mandela addressed the judge and confessed that he worked for the abolition of Black and as well as White domination. He added that he struggled to restore peace and harmony in public life and bring equality among Blacks and Whites. If these are evils, let me die, My Lord, he said. The Justice Quartus de Wet sentenced him to life imprisonment. This historic verdict brought sighs of relief from the public gallery.
It is the White President De Klerk released Mandela from the prison in February, 1990. At the age of 71, Mandela walked free after 27 years of solitary confinement. In about four years of time, the first free elections were conducted in 1994. When De Klerk’s security men have murdered 45 people in Biopatang town, Mandela walked out of peace talks and called for a general strike and personally led a march with about one lakh of ANC volunteers.
When the political pressure was mounting against the racist regime, gestures of reconciliation surfaced. The ANC secured a landslide victory and Mandela became the First Black President of South Africa in 1994. He harboured no ill- will either against the White government or against the White individuals, however inimical they were. Tit for tat has never been his policy. Forgive and forget have been his ideals.
After he became President of South Africa, Mandela called Percy Yutar, the Government Prosecutor who pleaded for Mandela’s hanging and offered him an official lunch. The Commissioner of Prisons was appointed as an Ambassador to Australia. Betsy Verwoerd was a cruel champion of apartheid and deadly inimical to Blacks. Mandela invited his widow Betsy Verwoerd and offered her a high tea in a formal meeting.
In forming his cabinet, Mandela gave ministerial ranks to Whites, coloureds and Blacks. Mac Maharaj of Indian-origin was a Co-prisoner with Mandela at Robben Island in 1964. During Mandela’s Presidency, Mr. Maharaj was made transport minister.
Mandela visited India first in 1990 and again as President of South Africa in 1995. Normally he was soft-spoken and unfailingly polite, calm and very patient. He was a towering personality with great compassion and wisdom.
During his first visit to India in 1990, Mandela was conferred with Bharat Ratna the highest Civilian Award in India. He was awarded Nobel Prize for Peace in 1993. The UNO has declared July 18th of every year as Mandela Day to revere his memory all over the world.
So selfless and humble he was to reject the Presidency of South Africa when he was offered it for the second time and enabled Thabo Mbeki to occupy the gunernatorial post. Robert Zuma, the present President of South Africa was Mandela’s Co-prisoner in Robben Island.
On the occasion of his first visit to India, he was informed of the steps taken towards the implementation of Mandal Commission Report. He felt happy to know that socially depressed sections were coming up. Jaico Publishing House has brought out a highly informative biography. Madela’s autobiography is one more title eminently readable.