The Justice League - Nelson Mandela

The Justice League series of articles charts the stories of justice seekers, martyrs and activists from all over the world. They were originally authored and published between August - December 2014.

Rolihlahla Mandela was born in the village of Mvezo, Transkei, South Africa on 18 July 1918. In his lifetime he was a lawyer, an activist, a soldier, an outlaw, a prisoner and a president.

The name of Nelson Mandela, by which he was known, has become synonymous with selflessness, justice and sacrificial values. As a nation we focus on his most famous victory, the ending of apartheid, although he achieved much besides, both as South Africa’s first democratically elected President and through his work on Aids, poverty and peace-making. Yet despite Mandela’s ‘fame’ it wasn’t until I read his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, earlier this year that I learned the details of his fight for equality in white-supremacist South Africa.

Mandela describes his entry into politics as inevitable: 'To be an African in South Africa means that one is politicized from the moment of one's birth, whether one acknowledges it or not. An African child is born in an Africans only hospital, taken home in an Africans only bus, lives in an Africans only area and attends Africans only schools, if he attends school at all... His life is circumscribed by racist laws and regulations that cripple his growth, dim his potential and stunt his life.'

Mandela qualified as a lawyer and fought against these injustices in the courtroom, as well as being a prominent member of the African National Congress, a body whose highest ideal was a nation where all races are equal. As part of the ANC, Mandela pushed for passive resistance in the form of strikes, stay-at-homes, and rallies. The impact, however, was negligible – the state continued to oppress Africans even more in the face of these acts of resistance. By 1961, Mandela had co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, ‘Spear of the Nation’, to carry out acts of sabotage against the state, saying that the government had left them no alternative. Classed as a terrorist organisation, the actions of Umkhonto we Sizwe contributed to Mandela's 27-year prison sentence.

Mandela's autobiography is more than the story of just one man, though. For the first time I heard about other key actors, fellow members of the ANC like Oliver Tambo and Chief Albert Luthuli, who were no less committed to the vision of ending apartheid and who also dedicated their lives to the struggle. I read how Mandela struggled for equality even when the stakes were small, like campaigning for Indian and black inmates to receive sufficient food in prison. How he used his education and skills in argument when representing black Africans in his career as a lawyer, even when on trial himself.

And yet, contrary to my expectations, reading the account of his life didn’t reinforce my image of Mandela as a hero, but rather challenged it. The cult of celebrity we have built up around Mandela makes us forget, sometimes, that he was a man, that he struggled and made mistakes, and that the victory of ending apartheid belonged to a whole group of people, not to a single individual. I do not want to belittle the incredible contribution that Mandela made, but he was always aware that the struggle was a shared one, that it was a struggle ‘for the right to live’, and that as long as apartheid existed no person living in South Africa could really be free.

Around the world, the name of Nelson Mandela has become a byword for a standard of moral integrity to which few ‘ordinary’ people can aspire. Surely this goes against everything we as the Collective believe?

There are millions of people around the world who struggle against injustice on a daily basis, sometimes with no end in sight.

Mandela himself said,

“I can't pretend that I'm brave and that I can beat the whole world.”

No one can end injustice alone – but if we all play our part, resist the injustice we see every day, and support others who are also doing their bit – then together we stand a chance.