Humanity, Equality and Peace: The Life and Vision of Nelson Mandela

July 18, 2022

Author: Nyah Graham

VCU history student Nyah Graham talks with Assistant Professor Priscilla Shilaro about the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.

newspaper photo of nelson mandela with a raised hand

Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy is one to view with a sense of honor and accomplishment. What is important to his story however is not just the vision he held for the nation of South Africa, but the vision for what the world could become if the divisions from the past were not given room to flourish for profits. Mandela imagined a world where color did not affect the way he and people of color were seen or represented. We spoke with VCU Assistant Professor, Priscilla Shilaro, Ph.D. about Mandela and the challenges he faced growing up in apartheid South Africa, as well as the brutal history that spawned apartheid.
Mandela was born during the First World War in 1918. His roots in leadership were deep due to his powerful family history. Shilaro points out, “Mandela came from royalty. He came from the Thembu people.” His father named him Rolihlahla which translates to "pulling the branch of a tree" but its colloquial means "troublemaker." Shilaro talks about the first time he went to school stating, “a white teacher asked, ‘What is your name?’ and he says ‘My name is Rolihlahla.’ The teacher says ‘No, what is your Christian name’ and when Mandela says he does not have one, she gives him the name Nelson.” Throughout his life, Mandela faces the truth of what it means to be an African in South Africa. In this example it is being renamed in class by a white teacher who did not want to take the time to learn his name and what it meant. Further on we will see him be punished and disciplined for taking leadership roles against an oppressive system all around him. 

Shilaro discusses the history which formed the volatile apartheid era South Africa was engulfed in during the majority of Mandela’s life, saying “The people of South Africa lived peacefully within their borders as independent people, running their own businesses and owning their own land and governing themselves. Then, in 1652, the first Dutch settlers arrived at the Cape of Good Hope. They were led by a man named Jan van Riebeeck and he was at the head of the Dutch East India Company.”  Initially, the interaction between the Dutch and the local people was cordial. There was trade and intermarriage. “However, things started to change when the Dutch decided to settle permanently at the Cape,” Shilaro said. Conflict arose when Dutch settlers commenced seizing Khoisan lands and cattle and it sparked the first war in which the Dutch were able to further conquer the indigenous Khoi and San peoples of South Africa. From there, the seeds of “racial and racist relationships originate from the Dutch settlement at the Cape” according to Shilaro, “even before Charles Darwin had written his Origins of Species, in 1859, which had misled Europeans to see that he had proven that Black people were inferior to white people.” 
From then on, the rights and freedoms of the Africans were being limited in exchange for profits. Shilaro explains that “By the 1890’s Cecil Rhodes had created the DeBeers Company, the company which monopolized diamond production around the world. So, Cecil Rhodes was dominating the diamond industry. He also established a big company to dominate the gold industry. And by the early 1900’s, Cecil Rhodes had urged to pass a law which ended up with the Afrikaner government coming up with the Native Land Act of 1913, which took 93% of all the land in South Africa and gave it to the minority whites.” Similar laws would be put in place which would further limit the Africans of South Africa into lower positions in the social stratosphere. 

From 1936 to 1994, Africans had no voting rights in South Africa. In 1948 a white only general election saw candidate Daniel Malan run on the slogans of apartheid, black danger, white supremacy; black subservience, as well as whites will always be bosses in South African. Malan’s government comes to power, and “that system of apartheid “apartness" or "separate" is going to now legalize racist, segregationist, oppressive policies against the Africans of South Africa,” says Shilaro. 

Mandela was instrumental in seeking change to fight back against apartheid. As he rose up the ranks of the African National Congress in Johannesburg, there were many challenges, including the fear instilled upon many of its leaders which often stopped them from taking more action. As Shilaro points out, “people have been oppressed so much, it takes a lot of time to convince them that it is worth doing what needs to be done.”

In a famous case known as Nelson Mandela and others v. The State in 1963-64,  better  known as the Rivonia Trial, Mandela provides a statement that convinces people that it is worth doing what needs to be done. This statement is important for the trajectory of South Africa as we know it and as he knew it at the time. In his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” Mandela writes

I had been reading my speech (for over four hours), and at this point I placed my papers on the defense table, and turned to face the judge. The courtroom became extremely quiet, I did not take my eyes off Justice de Wet as I spoke from memory the final words. 

During my lifetime, I have dedicated my life to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. 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 achieve, but, if need be, my lord, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

The silence in the courtroom was now complete. At the end of the address, I simply sat down. I did not turn and face the gallery, though I felt all the eyes on me. The silence seemed to stretch for many minutes, but in fact it only lasted no more than thirty seconds. From the gallery, I heard what sounded like a great sigh. A deep, collective ‘Mm’ followed by the cries of women.

Shilaro reads this quote and interprets it as a direct statement of Mandela’s vision for not only South Africa, but the world as we know it, a place with peace and equality for all. 

During his twenty-seven-year jail sentence, Mandela loses everything except his life. Anything a man could lose he loses as Shilaro puts it. He lost his law practice, freedoms, and family. “His mother died while he was in jail, he could not attend her funeral. His son died in a car accident and again, he could not attend the funeral. Mandela sacrificed everything for the freedom of the people in South Africa,” Shilaro explains. Even upon his release, when many thought he had become a sellout to the South African government, despite the fact he rejected all offers for a conditional release, he continued to forge reconciliation between the races of South Africa with his leadership. 

Shilaro wants her students and all others to understand that Mandela’s legacy is one of humility, honesty, reconciliation and humanity, saying "When someone puts you behind bars for twenty seven years, you miss your whole life.  You do not see your children grow, yet you come out and shake their hand and proclaim the 'Rainbow Nation.' That is classic Mandela!"

She continues, “Mandela epitomizes the idea of Ubuntu meaning humanity, the idea of being humane. As the great South African Reggae legend, the late Lucky Dube, noted in a scathing critique of South Africa’s apartheid regime in one of his songs, 'God created humankind in His image .... But He didn't say Black or White. Who are you to separate the people? Different Colors, One People; Different Colors, One People!'” 

Amandla! Viva Mandela, Viva!

The interview with professor Shilaro was informative and enlightening, and provides a much fuller narrative into Nelson Mandela’s life and the history of South Africa. Read the extended interview