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Public Employee Press

Farewell to a freedom fighter

By DIANE S. WILLIAMS


"To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freeddom of others" — Nelson Mandela.



The world mourned the passing of iconic freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, the beloved Madiba, who died Dec. 5 at the age of 95. In his lifelong pursuit of democracy, justice and dignity for his people, Mandela, the revolutionary, the liberator, overcame the entrenched apartheid system of brutality, hatred and oppression with optimism, intelligence and unshakable faith in humanity.

Mandela was born to royalty, the son of a chief of the Thembu. He left his small village for Johannesburg and was educated as a lawyer as his native land subjected his people to ever-harsher minority rule.

South Africa began as British and Dutch colonies that came under British rule in 1902. In 1948 the oppressive National Party codified and intensified longstanding colonial practices as the apartheid (pronounced apart hate) system of racial segregation and extreme political and economic discrimination against all nonwhites. Blacks and other people of color were denied the right to vote, access to education, skilled jobs and economic advancement; marriage and travel were sharply restricted.

Apartheid handed all the land and power to the white minority — just 5 percent of the population. Blacks and people of color were forced to work at white-owned diamond and gold mines and farms and driven into cramped, impoverished townships.

Inspired by the African Mine Workers Union strike of 1946, Mandela became an organizer and activist in the African National Congress. The country's leaders branded him and other ANC leaders Communists and terrorists.

In 1962, Mandela was arrested on information that many believe came from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Tried and convicted of sabotage and conspiracy, Mandela and ANC leaders were imprisoned on barren Robben Island, six miles offshore from the thriving Cape Town metropolis. Guards inflicted cruel corporal punishment intended to break and kill the prisoners.

After 27 years of isolation and hard labor, with rare visits and letters from his wife, Winnie, political prisoner Nelson Mandela emerged from the bowels of that notorious prison in February 1990, unbroken and triumphant.

Unbroken hero

Greeted by crowds of supporters and the world press, Mandela was embraced as a hero because of his unwavering courage and strength and his unyielding determination to uproot apartheid's ruthless tyranny over his beloved South Africa.

During Mandela's imprisonment apartheid's chokehold increased, fueling uprisings and protests by freedom fighters like Winnie Mandela, Steven Biko and others. Hundreds of unarmed schoolchildren and demonstrators were shot by South African police in towns like Sharpeville and Soweto.

News of the massacres reached the United States and Europe and reverberated with activists, including many children of the 1960s civil rights movement who had defeated segregation in the United States.

Anti-apartheid activism

A global groundswell of anti-apartheid activism grew as people from London to Los Angeles pressed elected officials, universities, cities and pension funds to boycott South African products and cancel investments in banks and businesses that engaged in commerce with the apartheid regime.

Labor unions and churches, entertainers and artists, students and municipal employees protested and prayed for Mandela's release and demanded that Congress impose economic sanctions on South Africa.

In New York City and in Washington, students and labor leaders protested apartheid and demanded freedom for Mandela. They were arrested by the busload, but not everyone rooted for Mandela: President Ronald Reagan and many in power enjoyed cozy relationships with South Africa's ruling party and turned a blind eye to the economic imbalance and inhuman conditions apartheid created.

In the 1980s Congress passed toothless sanctions, but the divestment by the University of California, which pulled $3 billion from South Africa, struck a critical blow, Mandela said.
The great freedom fighter's release from jail in 1990 signaled apartheid's coming doom. With Winnie, he embarked on an international tour to raise funds for the ANC and to keep up the pressure for maintaining economic sanctions until apartheid ended.

From prisoner to president

Mandela's visit to America was orchestrated by former AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer William Lucy, New York City Mayor David Dinkins and his aide, the late Bill Lynch. In New York City, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers of all races lined the streets and cheered him at a Yankee Stadium rally.

Lucy and former President Gerald McEntee brought Mandela to the 1990 AFSCME convention in Miami, where union activists raised more than $310,000 for the cause, with three DC 37 locals giving $10,000 checks. Mandela also visited the United Auto Workers in Detroit, a further demonstration of his solidarity with the U.S. labor movement.

In Miami, Cuban exiles protested his visit because of his alliance with Fidel Castro, who, Mandela said, "contributed aid to the ANC when others would not."

Mandela stood for one person, one vote, which became a reality in 1994 with South Africa's first free, democratic, multiracial election. That historic vote swept him into the presidency, and the nation's first black president served one term, from 1994-1999.

Mandela had triumphed over the bellicose and violent minority rule that put political and economic control in the hands of a few white men who murdered South Africa's children and disenfranchised and robbed the native people of their land, wealth, rights and dignity. The tenacious protests and flowing blood and tears of South African blacks — supported by boycotts and civil disobedience arrests of students and working people worldwide — had ended apartheid.

Yet without animus, peacemaker Nelson Mandela extended an invitation to former President F.W. de Klerk, who was elected a year before Mandela's release from prison, to be his deputy and partner in dismantling apartheid and rebuilding South Africa as a true democracy with equal rights for citizens of all races.

Mandela became an international symbol as a champion of human rights and freedom. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. Mandela used his global status to press the struggle against HIV/AIDS, the disease his son died of, which was destroying lives and mangling families in his beloved South Africa and around the world.

In a 1975 letter to his wife, he wrote, "Difficulties break some men and make others."

Mandela's final illness appeared to stem from the lung disease he got in prison. At his trial in 1962, Mandela said: "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."


 
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