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Nelson Mandela: A legacy of freedom

Written by Dale Hes
There is no person that embodies the spirit of freedom better than South Africa’s first democratically-elected President Nelson Mandela.

Former President Nelson Mandela’s legacy is closely intertwined with the ideals of freedom.

He dedicated his entire life to fighting for the freedom of the people of South Africa.

A fighter's spirit

There is no doubt that Mandela always had a fighter’s spirit and the courage to stand up for injustice. This was first evident in his days at the University of Fort Hare, where the young Mandela refused to take his seat on the Student Representative Council because he disagreed with the manner in which elections were run. Despite facing expulsion, Mandela was steadfast in his beliefs and decided not to return to the university after the student holidays in 1940. 

In 1944, Mandela joined the ANC, becoming part of a group of young intellectuals (including Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo) who fearlessly critiqued the way the organisation was run and were instrumental in forming the ANC Youth League. Mandela and his comrades showed their political savviness early on, creating the landmark Programme of Action that the ANC would adopt several years later following the victory of the apartheid-instigating National Party in the 1948 elections. The Programme of Action called for non-violent mass protest action, including strikes, civil disobedience and boycotts.

In May 1950, the ANC, Communist Party and South African Indian Congress embarked on the highly successful national May Day strike. Mandela was convinced that freedom would only come from creating a broad-based, non-racial alliance against white minority rule and apartheid.

An icon in the struggle for freedom

Mandela was now recognised as one of the most influential leaders of the liberation campaign. In the 1950s, he travelled around South Africa recruiting volunteers to defy apartheid laws, established a legal practice with Tambo to defend people affected by apartheid, and rose to become the deputy national president of the ANC. He was arrested several times and a banning order against him was repeatedly reinstated.

But nothing could sway Mandela from his course. He, along with struggle icons such as Moses Kotane, Joe Slovo and Dr. Yusuf Dadoo, played a leading role in the creation of the 1955 Freedom Charter – one of the most iconic declarations in the struggle. The Freedom Charter contained demands that today form much of the backbone of South Africa’s Constitution.

 Mandela was acquitted during the Treason Trial which started in 1956, after which time he realised that passive resistance against apartheid had been ineffective, especially when the government was responding with violence. This prompted the decision to form Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC. Mandela was appointed Commander-in-Chief.

Police raided an underground safe house at Lilliesleaf Farm, Rivonia, in 1962, and Mandela and his compatriots were subsequently found guilty of treason in The Rivonia Trial and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964.

Creating (and living) the Constitution

Mandela played a crucial role in the formation of our current Constitution. The work began as far back as 1960, when he and other ANC leaders convened the All-In African Conference to discuss possible actions after the banning of the ANC. At the conference, Mandela called for a national convention to draft a new non-racial democratic constitution for South Africa.

Mandela was tasked with writing a letter to Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, drawing attention to the resolution and calling for talks to discuss the drafting of a new constitution, but the letter was ignored. However, this, in addition to the Freedom Charter, firmly laid in place the foundations for our present-day constitution.

 Even during his 27 years in prison, Mandela continued to fight for the freedom of South Africans, having regular correspondences with ANC leaders and government officials. In the 1980s, a surge in violence forced the national government to consider the ANC’s requests for talks relating to the establishment of a democracy, and there was fierce international pressure to have Mandela and other political prisoners released.

On February 11, 1990, Mandela walked out of the Victor Verster prison in Pretoria to worldwide celebration. The man who had fought tirelessly to liberate all South Africans, was eventually free, and the promise of freedom in the country shone bright on the horizon.

Freedom realised

Formal negotiations for the creation of a new constitution began in December 1991, and stretched out over two years. The Interim Constitution of 1993 was formally enacted on 27 April 1994, the day of our first democratic election (now celebrated as Freedom Day) and the day which saw South Africans vote for their icon of freedom, Mandela, to be their democratic President.

It is fitting that the final Constitution of the Republic of South Africa was signed into law two years later by Mandela, the man who had played such a crucial role in its development, and who passionately lived the constitutional principles of freedom, equality, non-racialism and social justice.

Mandela’s philosophy on freedom was perfectly summed up in A Long Walk to Freedom, when he said: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”