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Nelson Mandela and the ANC -- and the choices he made in his fight for freedom


South Africans go to the polls on Wednesday, and the country is facing a turning point. The ANC, the African National Congress, has been in power for the last 30 years, ever since Nelson Mandela took office as the country's first Black president. Increasingly, though, that power is being challenged, and across the political spectrum, people are trying to claim Mandela's legacy as their own. Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei, co-hosts of NPR's history show Throughline, bring us a story about Mandela's early involvement with the ANC and the choices he made in his fight for freedom.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: Nelson Mandela was in his 20s when he joined the ANC, a political organization that advocated for the rights of Black South Africans. At the time, the system was dominated by white South Africans, many of whom were the descendants of Dutch colonists known as Afrikaners. And within just a few years, the stakes of this political fight got much higher.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We can act in only one of two directions. Either we must follow the course of equality, which must eventually mean national suicide for the white race, or we must take the course of separation. Daniel Francois Malan.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: In 1948, a new, exclusively Afrikaner government led by Prime Minister Daniel Francois Malan came to power in South Africa and put in place a new policy called apartheid.

ARABLOUEI: Apartheid shaped every part of life for Black and white South Africans as well as the small but significant populations of mixed-race, quote, "colored" and Indian people, whose ancestors were often brought to South Africa as slaves and indentured servants.

ABDELFATAH: Black people were removed from their homes and forced to live either in urban townships, often without electricity or municipal services, or rural areas called bantustans that were overcrowded and impoverished.

ARABLOUEI: Society was completely segregated. If you were Black, colored or Indian, you needed a passbook to travel into any white area, and there was a strict censorship of the media.

ABDELFATAH: Faced with this escalating prejudice, Mandela and other young members of the ANC teamed up to create the ANC Youth League.

TSHEPO MOLOI: These are young people who start to say, we need to change the strategy.

ABDELFATAH: This is Tshepo Moloi. He's a lecturer in the history department at the University of Johannesburg.

MOLOI: We need to be more confrontational now.

ABDELFATAH: Their stance earned them the nickname the Young Lions. They launched what was called the Defiance Campaign.


MOLOI: The laws that day defied us to walk into white areas without permission.

RICHARD STENGEL: He said, I violated the laws, but the laws themselves are unjust.

ABDELFATAH: This is Richard Stengel. Alongside Mandela, he wrote "Long Walk To Freedom: The Autobiography Of Nelson Mandela."

STENGEL: The laws themselves should be on trial.


MOLOI: On the 21 of March 1960...

ARABLOUEI: Activists go on a march in a place called Sharpeville.

MOLOI: The group of people who lived in Sharpeville went to the police station to burn their passbooks and be arrested. The police opened fire on the people, the crowd which was there.

ARABLOUEI: Sixty-nine people were killed, most of them shot in the back.

MOLOI: And scores of others were injured.


ARABLOUEI: The South African government declared a state of emergency nine days after the massacre and banned the ANC and another Black liberation organization called the Pan-Africanist Congress, who had organized the Sharpeville protests.

STENGEL: Mandela began to think that non-violent protest wasn't going to overturn apartheid. And Mandela then became the founder of uMkhonto we Sizwe, spear of the nation, which was the military wing of the ANC. Even though Mandela - he abhorred violence morally, his goal, to which everything was subordinate, was freedom for my people - one person, one vote. When I asked him about the turn, the embrace of violence, he said...


NELSON MANDELA: The strategy I would use would depend on the conditions. That's why we resorted to violence, for example - because the conditions demanded that we should take up arms.

STENGEL: Almost in these words, for Gandhi, non-violence was a moral principle.


MANDELA: Gandhi would never have agreed.

STENGEL: For me, it was a tactic. And when a tactic is not working, you change it. He thought this was a way of putting more pressure on the government and perhaps getting more international support. And that was more his goal than overturning the state or defeating the very powerful South African military.

ARABLOUEI: Which was getting support and weaponry from the West, including the U.S., who saw the South African government as an ally in its Cold War against communism.

ABDELFATAH: Meanwhile, the ANC and its members were considered an enemy in that war because of their links to the Soviet Union and their new willingness to engage in violence. Mandela was placed on the U.S. terrorism watch list.

STENGEL: Mandela then shortly thereafter went underground, and he started to build a guerrilla movement.


ABDELFATAH: It happened on a Thursday.


ABDELFATAH: Acting on a tip from an informant, the police raided a farm where an underground militia was believed to be plotting a violent insurrection against the government. Nineteen people were arrested.

ARABLOUEI: At the time, Nelson Mandela was already serving a short stint in prison on a separate charge, but the evidence the government gathered in the raid was enough to bring him to trial for treason and sabotage. The stakes for Mandela were life or death.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) The accused deliberately and maliciously plotted and engineered the commission of acts of violence and destruction throughout the country. Their combined operations were planned to lead to confusion, violent insurrection and rebellion.

ARABLOUEI: In 1964, after this trial, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. For years, he was labeled by the state as prisoner 46664. But eventually, against all odds, in 1994, he transformed from South Africa's No. 1 terrorist into South Africa's first Black president, ushering in a new era of democracy.

KELLY: That was Throughline hosts Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah. And you can hear the whole episode by finding Throughline wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.