Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for eighteen years in an eight-foot-by-seven-foot cell. He was isolated from the people of South Africa, from his children, and from his wife by the South African white supremacist government. By the time he was released from prison in 1990, the world had not seen an up-to-date photograph of Mandela since 1965.
We, in the United States, recognize and glorify political leaders as a habit whether they are American or Indian or in this case South African. When Mandela died at the age of 95, people paid tribute on social media, summarizing his strive for freedom in less than 160 characters. The Twitter feed may refresh momently, and history may fall into oblivion, but the example of Mandela will live on for those still striving for freedom. These overarching statements do not do justice to the man and the context which made Mandela fight.
He fought and that is the reason we know him. But the reason he fought is not well known.
On March 21, 1960, the South African police open fired on a crowd of peaceful protestors killing sixty-seven, many of whom were students. They were protesting the segregation laws of the apartheid South African government, which resembled the Jim Crow laws imposed on African Americans in the United State. Freedom is not an American desire; it is a universal desire, and oppression is a universal state. Mandela took arms to fight against the segregated state of his nation that led to the Sharpeville Massacre in which those protestors died.
The free cannot empathize with the enslaved. Mandela was arrested for attempting to overthrow the government. At his trial in 1964, he spoke for his defense: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, my lord, if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” His words are succinct, his sacrifice for “an ideal” immeasurable.
UCI students may not recognize Mandela’s historic struggle for freedom. But at least we can acknowledge that a man by the name of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela existed and fought and set an example and died.
Sumeet Singh in a fourth-year English major. He can be reached at email@example.com.