Nelson Mandela Foundation

This is a revised version of an article published in Apartheid Briefs, Against Apartheid and Racial Discrimination on 18 July 2021

Nelson Mandela was born in 1918, as the First World War was coming to an end and as the global pandemic, which came to be known as the Spanish Flu was about to devastate human populations in many countries. His birth also coincided with the beginning of British rule in Palestine and what has been called the second Aliyah – another wave of organised Jewish immigration to the region. He was born into the state of South Africa, which at that time was less than ten years old. In many ways he was born into interstitial space – what had been four separate British colonies were still amalgamating into one administration, the Union of South Africa, and segregationist policies for the control of ‘Native Affairs’ were still being developed out of those inherited from the British. In deep rural Eastern Cape, Mandela grew up in what was very much a colonial milieu.

He moved to Johannesburg in 1941 and began cutting his political teeth in the African National Congress (ANC) at precisely the moment it was being radicalised by a new generation of younger leaders; and precisely at the moment which we now recognise as the dawn of South Africa’s apartheid era, which began formally in 1948 with the National Party’s victory in the general election of that year. The term was used by the party as an election slogan, and although over time substitute appellations were utilised by both party and the state, ‘apartheid’ stuck as the term of choice world-wide for a system of governance (and a legitimising ideology) which endured in its essentials until 1994. Mandela’s political journey, and his life path, became defined by struggles against apartheid.

Chronologically South African struggles have paralleled Palestinian struggles. These struggles, in different parts of the world, and with very different historical and other contexts, nonetheless displayed powerful resonances. And, of course, they were to find solidarity one with another. As Mahmood Mamdani has argued, both South Africa’s apartheid state and the state of Israel are best understood as what he calls ‘settler-colonial nation-states’, where full citizenship is enjoyed by the chosen nation – the settlers - and Indigenous peoples and formations are made into permanent minorities. The colonial logic of ‘native reserves’ and the apartheid logic of ‘separate development’ and ‘self-determination’ uses a chimera of sovereignty to mask processes of exclusion and minoritisation. In neither the South African case nor the Israeli case can the trappings of a modern democratic state hide the fundamental attributes of a colonial polity. South African struggles for freedom and Palestinian struggles for freedom are quintessentially struggles for decolonisation.

As with all periodisations, unqualified reference to the period 1948-1994 as South Africa’s apartheid era is problematic. On the one hand, apartheid patterns in society are proving extremely resilient, so that 1994 constitutes the demise of apartheid only in a formal sense. On the other, the system’s roots stretch back to a colonialism inaugurated in the seventeenth century and built upon by the post-1910 era of segregation. Moreover, apartheid underwent several substantive systemic changes (with attendant ideological shifts) between 1948 and 1994. The starkest occurred in 1990, when South Africa’s formal transition to democracy began.

Apartheid has been described, most usefully, as a form of racial capitalism in which racial differences were formalised and pervasive socially, and in which society was characterised by a powerful racially defined schism:

“to one side, a dominant section with disproportionate control over economic resources, a presumptive privilege in social relations, and a virtual monopoly on access to the state; to the other side, a subordinate section with constrained economic resources and with little standing in social or political relations.”

Amongst the world’s racial orders, South Africa’s was unique in its rigidity and, arguably, in its pervasiveness. The danger is to view its form of domination as an amorphous, all-encompassing relationship between social groupings distinguished by their physical characteristics. This would be to miss the complex interplay of identities - ethnic, social, gender, cultural, linguistic, political and, crucially, class - which informed apartheid’s fundamental schism. Indeed, it has been argued persuasively that racial domination is best understood as “a series of specific class relations that vary by place over time and that change as a consequence of changing material conditions.”

There is strong evidence to suggest that in the era before European colonisation of southern Africa, neither race nor ethnic consciousness shaped identities. Colonial social engineering, focused and energised by the industrialisation of the late nineteenth century, fashioned racialised social groupings. South Africa’s capitalist development in the first half of the twentieth century, founded on the need to accommodate resilient non-capitalist modes of production, fostered the development of ideologies informed by the segregation and control of pre-capitalist societies. This was the crucible out of which both Afrikaner and African nationalism emerged.

From the mid-1970s forces in capitalist development began to undermine South Africa’s framework of racial domination, producing what Stanley Greenberg has called a “crisis of hegemony”. Rapid population growth and urbanisation were placing pressures on the apartheid regime. As was a changing economy, the growth of which began to be inhibited by apartheid. Pressures from outside the country began to build up, with the global Anti-Apartheid Movement deploying sanction, boycott and divestment as increasingly effective levers against the regime. Resistance by Black South Africans intensified, with mass mobilisation gaining traction and beginning to bridge ethnic and racial divides. Led by the ANC and allied organisations, the considerable energies of African nationalism began to be channelled increasingly into a struggle for a democracy defined by non-racism. Attempts by the state to reform the system were frustrated by the inertia of its racial apparatus and the deepening divides between elements within the dominant section.

By the early 1980s white – that is, settler – unities were crumbling and apartheid as a legitimising ideology was no longer tenable. As the state plunged deeper into crisis, it attempted to forge a new alliance of classes organised not around racial or ethnic identities, but around the protection of capitalism (the ‘free enterprise’ system) and ‘democracy’ against a ‘total onslaught by world communism’. ‘Total strategy’ replaced apartheid as an ideological weapon in order, precisely, to buttress the apartheid system; the suspension of law, the destabilisation of neighbouring countries, and the unleashing of state terror on oppositional groupings, became the primary instruments of power. Only when it became clear that these would not stem the system’s disintegration, did the regime engage its opponents in a process of negotiated settlement.

In 1986, from his prison cell, Mandela initiated ‘talks about talks’ with representatives of the South African state, thus inaugurating almost a decade of negotiation, which would lead to the formal demise of apartheid in 1994. By 1991, he was President of the ANC and leading the liberation movement through transition processes. By 1994 he was President of the country, the holder of a Nobel Peace Prize, and a global icon of peacemaking. In popular discourses today this is who Mandela was – a peacemaker, a negotiator, a promoter of reconciliation. This selective remembering of his life and legacy has had significant consequences. In South Africa it has, for instance, fed into a younger generation’s narrative of Mandela having sold out Black South Africans during negotiations with the apartheid state and with local and global capital. This is not unrelated to discourses that have judged Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation harshly for the compromises made in Oslo between 1993 and 1995. Globally, selective Mandela remembering has more or less erased dimensions of who he was and diminished significant dimensions of the struggles against apartheid.

Resistance necessarily took many forms. I have mentioned mass mobilisation and international solidarity as critical pillars of struggle. Mandela was the ANC’s Volunteer-in-Chief for the 1952 Defiance Campaign and in the late 1980s and early 1990s was regarded as the symbolic leader of what was called the Mass Democratic Movement. In the 1970s and 1980s, as the world’s longest-serving political prisoner, he became the symbol of the global Anti-Apartheid Movement. And then, of course, he played a huge role in the ANC’s first experiments in underground organisation – in 1961 and 1962 he was called ‘The Black Pimpernel’ by media. And when armed struggle was initiated in 1962, Mandela was trained as a guerrilla and became the first commander of the armed formation uMkhonto we Sizwe.

There is no blueprint for implementing decolonisation projects successfully. There is no single authoritative strategy on offer for those involved in struggles for justice. Mandela’s genius was understanding the apparatus of oppressive power he was confronted by, having absolute clarity on what the ultimate objective was, and combining an unwavering set of principles with a pragmatism in relation to strategy and tactics. As powerful as his genius was though, South Africa is still grappling with resilient apartheid patterning, deep-rooted structures of white supremacy, and an extractive capitalism. For South Africa and for Palestine the summons remains - a luta continua!


1. Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities (Wits University Press, Johannesburg, 2021), pp.20-21.
2. In the paragraphs which follow, I draw on my essay “The Archival Sliver: Power, Memory and Archives in South Africa”, Archival Science 2,1-2 (2002).
3. Stanley Greenberg, Race and State in Capitalist Development: Comparative Perspectives (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1980), p.30.
4. Ibid., p. 406.
5.  Ibid., p.398.
6. Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native, pp.308-309.