Apartheid in South Africa meant there were different laws for different people based on their racial group as blacks, mixed race and whites. Although whites were the smallest group they held most of the power. They had the money, the military and the government.
South Africa was a colonized nation. The Dutch arrived in the 19th century. They took over the country. It was not very different from when Europeans arrived in North America or the Spanish arrived in South America.
The indigenous (native) South African people became subjects ruled by their white conquerors, the Dutch. This kind of outcome can produce progress and prosperity. It also is likely to produce war and hostility.
Nelson Mandela was a child of South Africa. In the world he grew up in. black people were treated as inferiors. They could not get the housing, education, health care and job opportunities of the minority Dutch population.
Mandela helped to create the African National Congress (A.N.C.). It worked to end apartheid. He was sent to prison for leading actions that threatened the government. He was imprisoned for 27 years.
His story recalls the American civil rights movement and the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr.
South African apartheid came to the end of its time. White rule came to an end. Mandela was released from prison. He was the undisputed leader of the country. He was elected president.
Here is what makes him a towering figure for the ages. He said South Africa would stay a multi-racial country. The whites would not be driven out. He understood the words on the American seal — E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One.
And he understood that only a democracy could keep this pledge.
America has always been a country of settlers. Sometimes they come in trickles, sometimes in waves. Settlement takes time to happen. It creates uncertainty and upheaval.
Nelson Mandela’s life reminds us that a country can reinvent itself. If it is dedicated to serving its people it can absorb, manage and be strengthened by this change.
December 6, 2013