By Bessie House-Soremekun
A military fly-past above a statue of former South African president Nelson Mandela at the Union Buildings in Pretoria Photo: Getty Images
Over the past week or so, we have all been in global mourning over the death of former South African President Nelson Mandela, a man for all times and seasons. I would like to also pay my respect to this extraordinary man.
Nelson Mandela defies definition by any conventional standards that we as members of the human community can create. He was a very special person and symbol to the world of the importance of taking a stand for things that he deemed to be morally correct and just and was willing to accept the tremendous punishment that was meted out to him as he stood his ground.
In this case, Nelson Mandela personified the belief in the importance of eradicating apartheid and the numerous structures in society that were outgrowths of one of the most inhumane and unjust systems on the face of the earth. He also believed in racial equality for all South Africans and the idea that all racial, ethnic, religious, and gender communities could live together in harmony utilizing the principle of racial reconciliation and mutual self respect.
The United States shares much in common with South Africa, because as the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. has noted, ‘We also had a form of apartheid here in the United States.’ Although there were some important differences, there were also marked similarities as well. The word ‘apartheid’ is an Afrikaaner word that means separateness.
Although the roots of the word can be traced back to early efforts by the Afrikaners to separate themselves from the British colonialists who also colonized South Africa, the word took on a different meaning as it eventually connoted the belief that individuals should be separated based on racial characteristics and skin color.
Although the Portugeuse first traveled round the coast of West Africa down into the lower tips of Southern Africa on their way to find a route to the East Indies, the first colonial power to settle in South Africa were the Dutch people who penetrated the Cape of Good Hope in the 17th century, first in the year 1647 for a brief period of time and later in 1652, when the Dutch East India Company decided to send an exhibition under the command of Jan Van Riebeeck.
A few Germans, Englishmen, and Danes were also amongst the early group. Around 1688, a small group of French Huguenots who were Calvanist Protestants that had earlier fled to the Netherlands from France to avoid persecution, traveled to South Africa as well. The Huguenots became assimilated as a result of intermarriage into the Dutch and German communities.
The term ‘Afrikaner’ was used to refer to Dutch-speaking white South Africans who were part of the Dutch Reformed Church. They were also referred to as ‘Boers’ in the seventeenth century which meant farmers in the Dutch language. Over time, the terms ‘Boer’ and ‘Afrikaner’ were used synonymously to connote “all Duth-speaking South African whites.”
This time period is particularly important because it marks the time of the advent and expansion of capitalism on a global scale. The Dutch East India Company, a profit-making entity, was interested in using its’ resources to bring South Africa, a very wealthy country in terms of its’ natural resource endowment, into the orbit of global capitalist economic development.
When the Dutch entered South Africa, they were welcomed by the indigenous Africans, but later many violent conflicts developed as Europeans began to take the land, cattle, and other resources of the indigenous people. In the early 1800’s when the British arrived, because of their more advanced naval capability and their desire for control and power as well, a three-sided military struggle developed between the indigenous South Africans, the British, and the Dutch.
The discovery of gold and diamonds in the 1800s also served to intensify the struggle between the groups in the colonial period because of the economic imperatives of global capitalism.
Through the years, as a member and one of the leaders of the African National Congress, Mandela fought for the rights of all South Africans to be treated with dignity and respect. His goal was to one day create a multiracial democracy in the land of his birth. Mandela was accused of treason and sentenced to serve 27 of the best years of his life in a South African prison.
But, the struggle for equal rights and justice continued. He was finally released from prison and was subsequently selected to receive the Nobel Peace Prize along with F.W. DeKlerk in 1993. He was also elected as the first South African President in a truly democratic South Africa in 1994. He served one term in office. He also appointed Bishop Tutu to serve as Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was created to promote the process of healing in the country.
Nelson Mandela, through his many acts of heroism, bravery, and his consistent pursuit of the attainment of human rights for all South Africans, have made him a truly enduring and well-respected global leader. His refusal to take retaliation against his persecutors was truly admirable and set a global standard for methods for achieving hope and reconciliation.
He was truly one of the greatest transformational figures in world history. We salute him for his phenomenal leadership, moral tenacity, and unflinching courage in the face of tremendous adversity. Although he has departed this earth in a physical way, in a real sense, his essence will live with us forever. Although he is gone, he will never be forgotten.
May his soul rest in perpetual peace, now and forever more.
Bessie House-Soremekun is Professor of Political Science and Africana Studies and Director of Africana Studies, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, USA.
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