Reading Mandela in an atmosphere of demonisation

Helder Camara, a Catholic Archbishop of Brazil, said: “When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor they call me a communist.”

In his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom,” Mandela speaks of what attracted him to study communism.

He saw the personal sacrifices of Moses Kotane, Ismail Meer and Ruth First. He observed the devotion and hard work of several other members of the South African Communist Party (SACP). He admired Dr Yusuf Dadoo “whose role as a fighter for human rights had made him a hero to all groups” (page 137). 6 SACP members were his co-accused in the Rivonia Trial which resulted in his 27 year imprisonment (see my previous article).

Insights from Marxist analysis helped him make an actionable diagnosis of the problems in South Africa. He was especially attracted to this idea: “history progresses through struggle… change occurs in revolutionary jumps” (page 138).

In 1950 he read much about communism. Six years later he was arrested. 155 others who were active in opposition parties were also arrested.

Their number included 105 Africans, 23 Whites, 21 Indians and 7 Coloureds. They were priests, professors, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen, middle-aged and older persons. 10 of them were women. They were treated abysmally; 40 years later, Mandela wrote:

“A nation should… be judged by how it treats… its lowest [citizens] and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals” (page 233).

They were charged with high treason, of conspiring to overthrow the government and to replace it with a communist state. They were alleged to have done so over a period of 50 months. The charges carried the death penalty.

After their arrest they were detained for 2 weeks. During this time they held the “largest and longest unbanned meeting of the Congress Alliance in years” (page 234). They got to know one another better.

They gave, heard and discussed talks about history and culture. Once M. B. Yengwa recited a praise song in honour of Shaka, a legendary Zulu warrior and King. This so moved Chief Luthuli, President of the African National Congress (Mandela’s party), that he began to dance and chant. The other detainees did likewise.

Mandela describes this as a revealing and formative moment:

“Suddenly there were no Xhosas or Zulus, no Indians or Africans, no rightists or leftists, no religious or political leaders; we were all nationalists and patriots bound together by a love of our common history, our culture, our country and our people. In that moment, something stirred deep inside all of us, something strong and intimate that bound us to one another. In that moment we felt the hand of the great past that made us what we were and the power of the great cause that linked us all together” (page 235).

While the detainees met, set goals and strategized, the people outside protested and demonstrated. They proclaimed: “We stand by our leaders.” No one would negotiate with the government on behalf of the parties whose leaders had been detained.

When the detainees were taken to a court to be charged, the crowds converged and chanted. The convoy which took them from prison to court seemed like a victory procession. The atmosphere in the courtroom was “more celebratory than punitive.”

The evidence against Mandela and the 155 others was related to the Defiance Campaign, the Sophiatown removal and the Congress of the People. It is not difficult to see how they were inspired by a “communist” (class) analysis of the prevalent conditions.

The Defiance Campaign was in 1952. Thousands participated. Over 5 months, about 8,500 people were arrested for wilfully defied laws. Blacks got arrested for using “Whites only” entrances. Blacks and coloureds got arrested for entering towns without permits. One group of protesters was led by old, arthritic Nana Sita, president of the Transvaal Indian Congress. They drew domestic and international attention to unjust laws.

The story of Sophiatown has been powerfully told by the Anglican Priest and educator Trevor Huddleston in his book Naught for their Comfort. The Sophiatown removal is a story of poor blacks and coloureds being evicted from their miserable slums in to make way for relatively rich working class whites. Mandela says “By the middle of [1953], the local branches of the ANC and the TIC and the local Ratepayers association were mobilizing people to resist” (page 180).

I have previously written about Trevor Huddleston here.

The Congress of the People (CoP) in 1955 was an assembly of over 3,000 delegates, of whom over 300 were Indians, over 200 were Coloureds and over 100 were Whites; the remainder were Africans. Mandela says: “Our dream for the Congress of the People was that it would be a landmark event in the history of the freedom struggle – a convention uniting all the oppressed and all the progressive forces of South Africa to create a clarion call for change. Our hope was that it would one day be looked upon with the same reverence as the founding convention of the ANC in 1912” (page 199).

The output of the CoP was the Freedom Charter, which included these expectations:

  • “The rights of the people shall be the same regardless of race, colour or sex.
  • All national groups shall be protected by law against insults to their race and national pride.
  • The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole.
  • “Restriction on land ownership on racial basis shall be ended, and all the land re-divided amongst those who work it, to banish famine and end hunger.”

After 13 months of what came to be known as The Treason Trial, the magistrate’s Court ruled there was enough evidence to try the accused in the Supreme Court for high treason. By this time the state had dropped charges against 61 of the accused.

To cut a long story short, in 1961 the Supreme Court – to their credit – passed a “not guilty” verdict on the accused. During the 5 years of trials, due to widespread public action and unrest, the government had declared an Emergency in the nation.

During the emergency, the police were allowed to detain people without trial. Mandela and many of his co-accused were amongst those who were detained. They and their families suffered immensely. Mandela says: “The wife of a freedom fighter is often like a widow, even when her husband is not in prison” (page 253). To support them, Bishop Reeves and a couple of others started a Treason Trial Defence Fund.

While I’ve been pondering all of the above, some Malaysians have been demonizing Father Andrew Lawrence and Marina Mahathir over the Allah controversy; they’ve been demonizing Hasmy Agam, Saifuddin Abdullah and Comango over the UPR-LGBT controversy.

I’ve been warmed by the passion of many Malaysian individuals and groups who’ve spoken out against the “demonisers”. I’ve been insulted by Umno and state religious leaders who collaborate with the demonisers, whether by their words or by their silence.

I’ve been comforted by the words of Gandhi who inspired both Camara and Mandela: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Rama Ramanathan maintains the blog Rest Stop Thoughts

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