South Africa: The Obamas Meet Mandela


As I watched the news of Michelle Obama and her daughters visiting Nelson Mandela in South Africa, it occurred to me Michele was born in 1964, the same year Mandela went to prison, and her children, ages 10 and 12, were not even alive in 1990, when he was released. Since the South African story is no longer new, and young people may not know it, it is time for a review.

When the all-white Nationalist Party won the 1948 South African elections, they ushered in a new era of racial prejudice, known as apartheid, which divided South Africa into black and white districts, under a Group Areas Act (1950). Separate residential areas were mandated based on race, as blacks were evicted from their homes, and forced to relocate. Blacks were not allowed to hold certain jobs, or receive equal pay for equal work. They could not use white buses, trains, restaurants, restrooms, theatres, or beaches. They were not allowed to vote, or permitted to protest.

When unarmed blacks, inspired by independence in other parts of Africa, protested an ID papers law, they were shot and killed by the police, in the Sharpsville Massacre (1960). The UN called the event a danger to peace, and asked South Africa “to abandon their policies of apartheid and racial discrimination.”

The white South Africans instead conducted searches without warrants, and authorized 90-day detentions, without trial (1961). Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid African National Congress leader, was sentenced to life in prison, for allegedly plotting sabotage (1964). A UN admonition to release political prisoners, and an end arbitrary trials and executions, was ignored.

Another 600 blacks were later slain, as 10,000 marched through the Southwest Township (SOWETO), near Johannesburg (1976).

Hope spread when the all-white government in neighboring South Rhodesia abdicated (1980). Anticipating change, the UN warned South Africa not to carry out death sentences against African National Congress inmates, and asked them to drop treason charges against political prisoners, like Nelson Mandela (1980).

As forced relocations continued in the townships, blacks were killed near Johannesburg and Cape Town, and a state of emergency was declared. The nation came close to civil war (1985). 25 million South African blacks were no longer willing to be governed by 5 million whites. They kept up the pressure by torching the cars and houses of collaborators, as the government detained hundreds without trial, accused them of treason, and denied them due process. Many black activists were hung (1986).

Democrats in the U.S. House voted to impose sanctions, as the UN urged members to suspend investment, discontinue using the South African currency, and embargo military equipment (1985). American corporations, who controlled 125,000 jobs in the oil, auto, and computer industries, withdrew from the country (1986).

The final push for freedom began when President F. W. de Klerk replaced Prime Minister Botha (1989). Beaches were opened for blacks and they were no longer barred from four communities, exclusively white for 39 years (1989). De Klerk lifted the ban on Mandela’s African National Congress and started talks.

On Feb. 12, 1990, after 27 years in prison, Mandela was released, in an act praised around the globe. He flew to the U.S., appeared before Congress, and requested American support (1990-91). After the Parliament repealed racist legislation (1991), De Klerk announced the end of apartheid, as some whites left the country (1992). A National Peace Accord was signed (1992), and De Klerk and Mandela received Nobel Peace Prizes (1993).

Once the blacks of South Africa gained majority rule, they elected Nelson Mandela president (1994-99). Mandela, a man of peace and great patience, set retribution aside, and instead created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which held hearings on what happened during the apartheid era (1996). The recent Obama audience with Mandela gave us the opportunity to reflect upon the South African struggle, and their first black president, a man of great conviction, who spent over a quarter of a century in prison.

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