“Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, what they did was hard. It takes time. It takes more than a single term. It takes more than a single president … and more than a single individual.” – Barack Obama
Barack Obama became America’s first Black president in 2009. Nelson Rohihlahia Mandela preceded Obama to the top of his government, being inaugurated as South Africa’s first Black president on May 10, 1994. Both presidents will be remembered in history but the 94-year-old Mandela holds higher “street cred.” He commands a level of respect that grew out of issues that are 40 years ahead of Obama.
Born July 18, 1918 in the Transkei region of South Africa, Mandela was steeped in Black culture. Mandela’s life and works represent a vision and values that demonstrate new levels of achievement and life’s possibilities for Blacks. Mandela’s father was Tembu Tribe Chief Henry Mandela. Nelson was groomed to become the next chief to rule his tribe. He attended the prestigious all-Black Fort Hare College, a key institution in higher education for Black Africans from 1916-1959. Fort Hare created an African elite that was part of many movements and governments of newly independent African countries.
Not to be confused with Obama’s post-racial ideology, Mandela represents real Black power. He is the movement’s uncompromising force and figure. When he realized that non-violence would not suffice, Mandela resorted to guerilla warfare to achieve his means. The U.S. government still considers Mandela and the ANC as terrorists. Mandela still needs to get a special waiver to enter the U.S. The iconic struggle between the apartheid regime of South Africa and those who resisted it has a complex timeline that begins with the founding of Cape Town in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company as a way station between the Netherlands and the East Indies. As it developed into a settlement, it was populated by the European ancestors of the Afrikaners, who eventually were the White minority comprising less than 20 percent of the population but who had nearly complete control of the nation’s government and economy.
November 1962, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 1761, establishing the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid and imposing economic sanctions on South Africa. Through campus demonstrations, corporate boycotts, media and music campaigns, the U.S.-based activists helped galvanize efforts against apartheid. The international movement of solidarity with the South African struggle was arguably the biggest social movement the world has seen.
In his lifetime, Mandela went from anti-apartheid activist to prisoner to South Africa’s first Black president from 1994 to 1999. It’s important to note Mandela’s militant activism. In 1962 he was arrested, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. He served 27 years, many of these on Robben Island. Following his February 11, 1990 release, Mandela used reconciliation between Whites and Blacks as the bedrock of the “Rainbow Nation.”
Mandela became the globe’s symbol of resistance to racism. But, as we enter 2013, an overwhelming majority of South Africans now see him as a figure firmly rooted in the past with limited impact on their future. Democratic South Africa, the “Rainbow Nation” is just 18 years old. Most of the nation’s people were children or not even born when Mandela was released from prison in 1990. A whole generation has been “born free” since racial segregation ended with the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. Almost 60 percent of South Africans are under 35 years old – 29 percent are younger than 15.
With this country’s Blacks’ adoration of Obama, it’s important to point out that both their Black presidencies have left some wanting and illustrate the “fool’s gold” Blacks have about “political empowerment.” In both places, the races remain bitterly divided by economics: White households’ incomes in both countries are six times higher than that of their Black counterparts.
Mandela calls Israel’s structure of political and cultural relationship with Palestinians, an “apartheid system.” Obama baits Palestinians with the possibility of resumption of U.S. aid on condition they “renounce terrorism.”
William Reed is head of the Business Exchange Network and available for speaking/seminar projects through the Bailey Group.org.