Is Nelson Mandela A Human Rights Hero History Essay


In order to be able to answer this question we must first analyse the meanings of the words hero and villain so that we can establish the traits that each of these words have when applied to a person in the human rights world.

Typically, when we think about the qualities of a ‘hero’ in human rights, we think of a person who is brave, self-less, willing to help others and one that has strong opinions about his cause. Also, a human rights ‘hero’ is generally thought to be one that has innate leadership skills and will stand up to fight for equality. However, when we think of a human rights ‘villain’ we tend to think of traits such as; a person who is a dictator, one that wants to control others and take away their rights. We think of them as generally badly behaved and selfish people who care not about the lives of those they are oppressing.

When people hear the name ‘Nelson Mandela’, they think of him as a human rights hero as he was a brave man, who stood up for his rights against apartheid.

Nelson Mandela was born on the 18th of July 1918 in a district of Umtata which is the capital of Transeki and fell 800 miles east of Cape Town. He originally wanted to be a lawyer; he was able to attend the University of Witwatersrand (Johannesburg) where he undertook his Bachelors in law. However during the 1940’s, a number of events took place which captured Mandela’s attention and made him want to be more involved with the politics of South Africa (Mandela, N, 1994).

He created and became a member of the ‘Youth League’ alongside his friends and colleagues; Lembede, A.P. Mda, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, William Nkomo and himself – where William Nkomo took leadership. The Youth League was after African Nationalism, with their manifesto stating ‘We believe that national liberation of Africans will be achieved by Africans themselves…’ (Mandela, N, 1994).

Events such as the Asiatic Land Tenure Act where it restricted the free movement of Indians and decided where they could and where they couldn’t reside and trade in is what especially sparked his interest in politics; the reason for this being that the Indian community organised a campaign against ‘colour oppression that the Africans…had not.’ Mandela was since then far more interested in politics and in 1947, he was elected to be a part of the executive committee of Transvaal ANC (African National Congress (Mandela, N, 1994).

Nelson Mandela, along with the ANC began to fight against apartheid in South Africa in 1948 when the National Party came in to power, under their slogan of apartheid; with its literal translation meaning ‘separateness’, where only whites were allowed to vote. During apartheid the nationalists decided that everyone within South Africa would have to be assigned to one of their national categories. (Ross, R. 2008).

By ‘national categories’, the National Party meant a racial segregation in which South Africa would be divided in to their respective races which were: white, coloured (mixed race), Indian and Black. It was made sure by the state that these different races would remain separated by putting forward the Population Registration Act of 1950 whereby, by law each individual of South Africa was put in to one of these racial categories. It was also made sure that each race would remain ‘pure’ by creating the Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 where no one could remain in a mixed marriage or start one. As a result of this, many families were separated. (Ross, R. 2008).

Malan’s government (National Party) also enforced through apartheid that races were to live in separate cities. This triggered Mandela and as the National Executive of the ANC, he decided that they were to take a far stronger approach and were going to ‘exert pressure in order to compel the authorities to grant its demands.’ Despite their ideas, the ANC had insufficient resources to make them happen at that time. (Sampson, A. 1999).

Shortly after this, in 1950, the government put a law in place (Suppression of Communism Act) which made the communist party at the time illegal and because of this, it brought the ANC’s young activists and those banned communists closer together. This lead them to organise a strike on May Day where thousands gathered. However that evening, Mandela and Sisulu, whilst watching a number of people during a peaceful march, saw numbers of police men firing at them. It resulted in 18 black people being killed solely in the place they were at; they found out that the same thing happened in other townships. This Mandela said, was a ‘turning point’ in his life. (Sampson, A. 1999).

On the 26th June 1952, Mandela and the ANC organised what was to be called the ‘Defiance Campaign’ and travelled with Yusuf Cachalia and Sisulu to where Malan resided. They walked in with 52 other volunteers and no permits demanding Malan to show himself. It resulted in everyone present getting arrested, including Mandela; this was the first time he had been to prison. Despite this, Mandela proceeded to reiterate this peaceful campaign for over six months when after this time, it ended due to the Government banning it. (Sampson, A. 1999).

Nelson Mandela was constantly working to improve his nations’ human rights regardless of the government always finding ways to stop him and his colleagues.

Mandela realised that the passive approach they were taking was not going to make any differences to the way he and the rest of South Africa were living. The outcome was that he would start a military extension to the ANC called ‘Umkhonto’ (The Spear of the Nation) (The History Channel website, 2013).

Mandela’s aim for Umkhonto was to be able to disrupt the government without harming anyone. This he thought, would be the only way a resolution would be possible in South Africa. Due to the formation of Umkhonto and its’ sabotage schemes, Mandela was subsequently arrested and taken to Johannesburg where he was put in prison until further notice as he had to wait for a trial in court (Lodge, T. 2006).

Mandela, along with 156 others was charged with high treason where the punishment for this in South Africa would typically be death. The trial lasted for over a year. In December 1957, it was proclaimed that 61 of those who had been faulted were dropped from all their charges and the trial in general was recessed starting again in August 1958 which carried on until 1960 (Mandela, N. 1994).

However the trial came to a halt on March 21st 1960 as massacre took place in Sharpeville. It stemmed to around 60 black protesters being killed. Mandela and the majority of the ANC were in Pretoria being trialled when this occurred. When they were informed about this, Mandela decided to call for the whole nation to burn their pass books; he burnt his in front on journalists on the 28th March – he was arrested. (Lodge, T. 2006).

They were later found not guilty of the charges. However later in 1961, there was a police raid in Rivonia; where the ANC would meet secretly. They were arrested again and taken to trial for treason and sabotage amongst other evidence against them. (The History Channel website, 2013).

On the12 June 1964, Nelson Mandela sentenced to life imprisonment, although an unjust system, Mandela was relieved not to be getting the death sentence. He was sent to Robin Island and spent 27 years of his life since then in prison and was released on the 11th February 1990.

It was clear that after all he went through with the ANC and everything he did in order to uphold his nations’ human rights; that he was most certainly viewed as a leader and as a hero to the South African black community. Despite his numerous arrests and set-backs by the government, he would rise above it all and proceed to fight for what he believed in, in order to one day better his country and free it from oppression. He would always have supporters in every meeting and every speech he would give. This was especially shown during his 27 years in prison.

In 1980 Oliver Tambo created the ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ campaign which kept his name alive with his community and kept him very much present, remaining a leader in anti-apartheid. Later on in 1989 South Africa had a newly elected president who removed the ANC ban. He also made it a point to enforce Nelson Mandela’s release.

South Africa was now declared a non-racist country. 1994 held the first voting in South Africa where blacks were allowed to vote. Nelson Mandela was effectively then elected as the president of South Africa by his devoted people – he was the first black president of this country. (The History Channel website, 2013).

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