Many words of praise have been spoken and written about Nelson Mandela in recent days. Rightly so. He was one of the most transformational figures in modern history. A people’s hero who embodied the worldwide resistance to apartheid and a national leader who demonstrated the power of reconciliation.
When we honor Mandela we honor the anti-apartheid movement he led and are reminded again of the power of nonviolent resistance. It is ironic that Mandela went to jail in the 1960s refusing to condemn the armed struggle against apartheid, because his release from prison decades later and the success of the South African freedom struggle resulted almost entirely from nonviolent action.
The armed actions of the African National Congress’s military wing did not have a major impact in weakening the apartheid system. It was the intensifying civil resistance of the people that ultimately brought down the regime.
In the 1980s the United Democratic Front of anti-apartheid groups organized a massive campaign of noncooperation and political defiance that made the country ungovernable. People all over the country participated in rent boycotts, student strikes, consumer boycotts and worker ‘stayaways.’ By 1986 fifty-four townships and some half a million households were participating in rent boycotts. In 1988 the Congress of South African Trade Unions organized the most successful general strike in the country’s history. An estimated 70 per cent of the workforce participated in the three-day strike. During those years the regime faced a constant onslaught of political resistance and civil noncooperation that undermined its ability to maintain public order.[i]
Meanwhile the worldwide antiapartheid movement mounted a massive campaign for sanctions and economic divestment that undermined the financial viability of the regime. As South Africa became more turbulent and political pressures increased in many countries against support for the apartheid system, corporate investment began to dry up, and banks slowed and eventually stopped lending money to the regime. In the United States by the early 1990s an estimated 28 states and 92 cities had adopted divestment resolutions urging companies not to do business with firms linked to the apartheid system.[ii] In 1986 the U.S. Congress adopted the Comprehensive Apartheid Act, overriding a veto by President Reagan.
These external pressures combined with widespread domestic resistance to force the regime to release Mandela and opened the door to the creation of a nonracial democracy.
So as we offer homage to Mandela, let us also pay tribute to the many millions of people in South Africa and all over the world who participated with him in the historic campaign to end apartheid.
[i] See Robert M. Price, The Apartheid State in Crisis: Political Transformation in South Africa (Oxford University Press, 1991); and Jeremy Seekings, The UDF: A History of the United Democratic Front in South Africa, 1983-1991 (Ohio University press, 2000).
[ii] See Jennifer Davis, “Sanctions and Apartheid: The Economic Challenge to Discrimination,” in Economic Sanctions: Panacea or Peacebuilding in a Post-Cold War World?, eds. David Cortright and George A. Lopez (Westview Press, 1995); and Richard Knight, State & Municipal Governments Take Aim at Apartheid (American Committee on Africa, 1991).