The world is mourning the passing and celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela.
In order to fully understand and appreciate his greatness in the creation of a new democratic nonracial South Africa, one must understand what South Africa was and what it has become thanks to him.
It is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse nations in the world.
Of its over 52 million population, 42 million, or nearly 80 percent, is black; 4.7 million or 9 percent is colored (mixed race); 4.6 million or 8.7 percent is white; and 1.3 million or 2.5 percent is Indian.
It is unfortunate that many Americans, especially, members of the millennial generation, have no conception of the brutal South African system of Apartheid.
What did Mandela fight against and overcome?
What kind of country was South Africa when he was imprisoned and for decades after?
Under “apartheid,” South Africans were divided into four racial groups: “Black,” "White," "Colored," and "Indian."
Residential areas were segregated, sometimes by brutal forced removals called “resettlements.” Non-white political representation was abolished in 1970, and starting in that year black people were deprived of citizenship, legally becoming citizens of one of 10 tribally based self-governing homelands.
By law, education, medical care, beaches, and other public services were segregated with service for blacks inferior to those of whites.
During the period of apartheid, it is estimated that over 20,000 people died and countless others were tortured and jailed by the white minority government.
It was that structure and system that Mandela fought for which he was imprisoned for 27 years and over which he eventually was victorious.
The white minority are descendants of the English and Dutch (Afrikaners) and the Afrikaner government ruled the black majority with a terrorism and brutality.
The black population consists of several different indigenous ethnic groups/tribes including the four largest: Zulu, Xhosa (Mandela’s), Sotho, and Tswana.
The country has 11 official and many more unofficial languages with English being the most commonly spoken language although it is the fifth most spoken at home.
I saw this racial and linguistic diversity firsthand on my first visit to South Africa in 1982 when I spent over a month visiting virtually all major areas of the country from Cape Town to Pretoria, meeting with representatives of various racial groups as well as with representatives of the government, academia, and business leaders discussing solutions to the ending of apartheid.
Mandela’s leadership resulted in the transformation of this diverse racial, cultural country into a democratic nonracial society through reconciliation and unification — not revenge, violence, or division.
Given the brutality and inhumanity of apartheid, this was no small accomplishment.
In some respects, South African apartheid was not that different from segregation practices in the south in the United States, except that in South Africa it was mandated by national law.
In the United States, it was practiced and mandated by state “Jim Crow” laws and policies in contradiction to the United States Constitution.
Alabama Gov. George Wallace once pronounced: “segregation today, segregation tomorrow; segregation forever” — the same position and policy of South Africa’s ruling class.
In the American south, the Ku Klux Klan was the unofficial arm of local law enforcement and government to oppress and terrorize blacks.
In South Africa, the South African Police — SAP — were the main enforcers of apartheid with the full backing of the government.
In South Africa, it took years of protest, global condemnation, and isolation, and the eventual realization that politically and economically — and morally — apartheid could no longer stand.
In the final analysis, it was not only Mandela’s sacrifices over nearly three decades in prison and his embracing of democracy that prevailed; it was how he ruled as president.
During often-heated discussions, I was often reminded by many government officials during my visits of the fear among most white South Africans that black majority rule would, as in other African nations, such as neighboring Zimbabwe, result in “One man one vote, one time, and persecution of the white minority."
Not so with Mandela!
He chose the path of democracy and worked closely with then-President F.W. de Klerk to dismantle apartheid, eventually becoming president and heading a multi-racial government which included de Klerk.
He chose to serve only one term.
As Newsmax publisher Christopher Ruddy recently wrote: “Mandela, upon release from prison, rejected the Marxist model of Fidel Castro and the dictatorship that Robert Mugabe chose for a liberated Zimbabwe. Instead, he chose to have his nation walk the path of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, embracing the ideals of nonviolence and forgiveness.”
Richard Stengel, who worked with Mandela on his autobiography, got it right when he said that Mandela was a rarity in African history: “He could have been president for life, but he knew that for democracy to rule, he could not.”
There could be no greater tribute to Mandela than that those who praise and celebrate his life today demand that black African leaders adhere to the same standards of democracy and respect for human rights as did he.
Clarence V. McKee is president of McKee Communications, Inc., a government, political, and media relations consulting firm in Florida. He held several positions in the Reagan administration as well as in the Reagan presidential campaigns and has appeared on many national and local media outlets. Read more reports from Clarence V. McKee — Click Here Now.
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