Nelson Mandela and the Demise of Racism

Racism as the Norm in Human History

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 achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die                                                                                                                                             Nelson Mandela

Today Nelson Mandela is honoured as a hero and the anti-Apartheid campaign he led is celebrated as having ended an appalling injustice. But for most of history the racist beliefs against which he fought were almost universally accepted in white societies. In the broader sweep of history, Mandela will be remembered for helping to bring an end to the belief that people are inferior because of the colour of their skin.   

In his life’s work to end racism as a valid basis for human relations, Mandela stood on the shoulders of other giants in a struggle which stretches back centuries. The Americas were built on the premise of white racial superiority. Christopher Columbus’ voyage in 1492 marked the beginning of a trans-Atlantic trade in African slaves, whose forced labour built the New World. For three centuries after Columbus, an average of three Africans were hunted down and shipped into slavery for every European who set out freely for the Americas.[1] In 1800, three quarters of those who had made the journey across the Atlantic were African slaves.

Racist beliefs persisted in white societies long after the British Parliament finally abolished the slave trade. During the nineteenth century a range of pseudo-scientific theories arose in Europe and the United States which divided humanity into distinct biological races defined by features such as skin colour, shape of head, or size of nose. Such theories provided ‘proof’ that the white race was at the pinnacle of human development, and that black Africans were closer to apes in intelligence than to Europeans. In 1906 the Bronx Zoo in New York exhibited a pygmy man from the Congo, Ota Benga, in a cage alongside an orang-utan to demonstrate that black Africans were closer to apes than they were to whites.[2] The Encyclopaedia Britannica in its 1911 edition stated as fact that, ‘Mentally the negro is inferior to the white.’[3]

Racism formed the basis for colonial occupation of much of the world by European powers. And even after the end of colonialism, racism remained entrenched in law in a number of countries – most notably the United States and South Africa. The dehumanisation of blacks in the southern United States continued right up until the Civil Rights campaign of the 1960s. In South Africa it continued until 1994, when the first free elections were held in which blacks were able to vote.

A Great People – A Black People

…when the history books are written [in future generations], the historians will [have to pause and] say: “There lived a great people – a black people who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.                                                                                                                                                 Martin Luther King

The struggle to end racism in South Africa stretches back to the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1912, the African National Congress was founded to oppose racial discrimination. In 1952 Albert John Lutuli was elected its president. In Lutuli’s South Africa, the population was almost 15 million, of whom around 3 million were white. However, the country was ruled exclusively by a white government elected by an exclusively white electorate and the laws of apartheid restricted and regulated every facet of life for non-white people.

Non-whites had no vote; they were deprived of the right to live where they chose and the right to choose their employer; their children were not entitled to the same schooling as white children; there was virtually no redress against police tyranny; and marriage and sexual relations between white and non-white people were illegal. In every aspect of life non-white people came up against the all pervading sign “Whites Only”. Every year almost one million people were arrested and jailed or fined for breaches of restrictive pass and permit laws.

Despite such extreme provocation Lutuli believed passionately in non-violence and vigorously opposed the incitement of hatred against whites. “It could well be expected” Lutuli wrote, “that a racialism equal to that of their oppressors would flourish to counter the white arrogance toward blacks. That it has not done so is no accident. It is because, deliberately and advisedly, African leadership for the past fifty years … had set itself steadfastly against racial [hatred].”

Twenty three years after Lutuli received his Nobel Prize for his leadership of the anti-apartheid struggle, Desmond Tutu received the same Prize. By this time the South African government was engaged in an aggressive campaign to resettle blacks in isolated homelands. Around three million people were forcefully deported and their homes demolished. White minority rule was being maintained through the widespread use of state violence – the violence of police dogs, tear gas, detention without trial, exile, and murder.

When the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa was at its height, across the Atlantic Martin Luther King was leading the twentieth century’s second great struggle against racial injustice. Like Lutuli and Tutu, King’s campaign to secure equal rights was rooted in non-violence. Like Lutuli and Tutu, King rejected any incitement of hatred towards whites. “The movement does not seek to liberate Negroes at the expense of the humiliation and enslavement of whites.” He wrote. “It seeks no victory over anyone. It seeks to liberate American society and to share in the self-liberation of all the people.”

A Giant on the Shoulders of Giants

In time, we shall be in the position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face.                                                                                                                                                 Steve Biko

It is for his embrace of these principles of non-violence, reconciliation and equality for all regardless of colour, that Mandela is rightly revered. Apartheid now is history. The third time the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to South Africans – to Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk – the apartheid regime was already being dismantled. As the former enemies accepted the prize together, the date for the first fully democratic elections in South African history had been set and South Africa’s new Constitution was being drafted to provide for the protection of the basic rights of all. Racism as the basis of government was being banished from the face of the earth. With Mandela’s election as President, the stage was set for one of the greatest examples of leadership, wisdom and humanity in the history both of Africa and of the world. For his actions in forging reconciliation, establishing the institutions of an inclusive democracy, and stepping aside after a single term to allow democracy to take its course, Mandela can truly be called the Father of South African democracy. But there is more. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Mandela was a great person – a black person, who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilisation.


[1] David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The rise and fall of slavery in the New World, Oxford University Press, 2006:80

[2] Phillip V. Bradford and Harvey Blume, Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo, St Martins, 1992

[3] Quoted in David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The rise and fall of slavery in the New World, Oxford University Press, 2006:76

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