Few events bring together the entire world in collective celebration. Feb. 11, 1990, was such a day, when Nelson Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years of incarceration.
By the mid 1980s, the struggle to free Mandela and other South African political prisoners had globally come to symbolize the fight for human rights and social justice. Nearly every nation in the West could boast a “Free South Africa” movement. The activism took on many different forms, including campaigns for sanctions and disinvestment; musical tributes; boycotts; films; educational workshops; sit-ins and occupations; and rallies.
In the United States, the Reagan administration’s tacit support for the South African government, under the policy of “constructive engagement,” was soundly defeated, constituting perhaps President Reagan’s most significant foreign policy setback. The 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act called for the freeing of Mandela and other political prisoners and an end to apartheid. Future Vice President Dick Cheney, then a congressman, voted along with a few other conservatives against the legislation but it passed overwhelmingly. Reagan vetoed the bill; however, the veto was quickly overridden and strong sanctions were put in place.
Measures aimed at the apartheid government increased worldwide, as solidarity movements pushed western governments to cut ties with the apartheid regime. In South Africa, activists increased the pressure, initially forcing limited reforms and, finally, by the end of the 1980s, an official recognition that the time for radical change had come.
Previous efforts by the government to offer freedom to Mandela, but with limits and restrictions, had been firmly rejected. White South African leaders had hoped that a freed Mandela would be passive. No such luck.
Instead, Mandela remained consistent with his demand that not only did apartheid have to go, but a new democratic, inclusive South Africa also had to be built. Every anti-democratic structure and institution had to be dismantled, a new constitution was required, and social justice had to be a hallmark of the new country. As Mandela stated in his 1993 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance lecture, “We will have created a society which recognizes that all people are born equal, with each entitled in equal measure to life, liberty, prosperity, human rights and good governance.”
It was no surprise when four years after leaving prison, in South Africa’s first genuine election, Mandela was elected president. He would serve for one term before stepping down in 1999.
While Mandela and the African National Congress had high ambitions for a new South Africa, economic, political, and social realities slowed the effort to bring change. Endeavors to build housing, provide education, create jobs, and offer health assistance fell far short of the goals established by the leadership. White privilege remained strong, and the poor felt little change.
In the wake of his presidency, Mandela assumed the role of global statesman. He founded The Elders, a peace and human rights group that included, among others, ex-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former President Jimmy Carter, ex-Irish President Mary Robinson, and fellow South African activist and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu. Mandela’s death on Dec. 5, 2013, signaled the end of an era.
There is widespread disappointment about the contemporary situation in South Africa. Yet, it is impossible not to acknowledge the enormous victory brought on by an international movement for justice when Mandela walked free 25 years ago.
Clarence Lusane is a professor of political science and international relations at American University. He can be reached at email@example.com.