Mandela and de Klerk Share Nobel Peace Prize

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At the time Nelson Mandela began his long prison term, he was an advocate for violence in his efforts to eradicate apartheid in South Africa.

Mandela was once the head of Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”) which was the terrorist wing of the ANC (African National Congress) and South African Communist Party.

At his trial, he admitted guilt for about 156 acts of public violence. Some of these incidents included:

  • Mobilizing terrorist bombing campaigns;
  • Approving the planting of bombs in public places;
  • Approving the planting of a bomb at the Johannesburg railway station.

When Mandela was called upon to renounce violence, so he could be freed from prison, he said:

I cannot sell my birthright. Nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free.

In this sense - of violence as a method to right wrongs, such as apartheid - Mandela differed from Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Both of those civil-rights leaders advocated non-violence. That method, however, did not work for Mandela because it was not producing results.

Because non-violence was unsuccessful in resisting South African apartheid, Mandela changed his philosophy and began to embrace violence. It seemed the only method to end the country’s gross unfairness toward its people of color.

By 1953, when non-violence as a political strategy seemed to be failing, Mandela gave a speech in Sophiatown (a suburb of Johannesburg). Among other things, he said:

You can see that there is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow again and again before we reach the mountaintops of our desires.

Dangers and difficulties have not deterred us in the past. They will not frighten us now. But we must be prepared for them like men in business who do not waste energy in vain talk and idle action.

After the Sharpeville massacre, when 69 protestors were killed by South African policemen, Mandela turned away from nonviolent activities.

Within a few years after his turn to violence, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison after a lengthy trial. After serving many years in confinement, he began to rethink his methods and approached negotiations with the South African government in a different manner.

He was, in short, willing to forsake violence if apartheid - and, hence, peace in his country - could be achieved by negotiated terms.

In 1985, he approached the government of South Africa with new ideas. Over the following years, he suggested how he - and they - could end apartheid and free the political prisoners. His methods worked.

One of the last political prisoners to be freed, he was able to convince the government to hold democratic elections. And - as part of the process - in 1990, Umkhonto we Sizwe abandoned its own policy of violence.

Not everyone understood Mandela’s change in approach. To his critics, who wondered why he wasn’t giving hot-blooded speeches (as he had in his youth), Mandela said:

Well, in a climate of this nature, when we are trying to reach settlement through negotiations, you don’t want rabble-rousing speeches. I don’t want to incite the crowd. I want the crowd to understand what we are doing and I want to infuse a spirit of reconciliation to them.

Mandela did “infuse a spirit of reconciliation” throughout South Africa. He, and F.W. de Klerk, successfully negotiated an end to apartheid.

In 1994, when South Africa held a democratic election, Mandela won. He took office, thereafter, as the country's President.

Mandela had changed from a revolutionary, advocating violence, to an elder statesman who understood when violence was no-longer helpful to the cause.

Desmond Tutu - a close friend of Mandela - believes that the first black man to lead South Africa had changed during his years of confinement. In his “Setting Free the Past” lecture, Tutu told a Georgetown University gathering:

He had gone to jail as an angry, frustrated young activist. In prison the fires of adversity purified him and removed the dross; the steel was tempered.

He learned to be more generous in his judgment of others, being gentle with their foibles. It gave him a new depth and serenity at the core of his being, and made him tolerant and magnanimous to a fault, more ready to forgive than to nurse grudges - paradoxically regal and even arrogant, and at the same time ever so humble and modest.

Mr de Klerk could go ahead with his very courageous initiative [lifting a decades-long ban on the African National Congress, for example] because his counterpart was not vindictive, bitter and resentful.

It was not really popular to have done what these two leaders did - anything but. On the white side the intransigent wanted to dig their heels in and to fight to the last drop of blood. (We later discovered that there were arms caches buried in different parts of the country, and we were just a whisker away from the bloodbath that had been so widely predicted.)

On the liberation movement side there were those who believed that they could knock the stuffing out of the apartheid establishment, who were hell bent on demanding their every pound of flesh. They wanted all the apartheid functionaries to be brought to book in a process of retributive justice akin to the Nuremburg Trial.

Mercifully for us, the 27 years gave Madiba an unassailable credibility. He could say, "Let us forgive these guys!" and no one could say, "You're talking glibly about forgiving - you don't know anything about suffering!"

Well, he could have retorted, "Twenty-seven years you know!" His moral stature and authority were, and are, impeccable and equally unassailable, as the world has come to appreciate.

Wonderfully it was not just he. He was the most spectacular example.

There were many others, such as the late Joe Slovo, the Jewish Chairperson of the Communist Party, greatly admired in the black community. He sold to the radicals acceptance of the so-called "sunset clauses" that guaranteed that white officials in the apartheid dispensation would not be retrenched or lose their benefits with the advent of democracy and freedom.

Or Chris Hani, whose assassination brought us to the brink of disaster, and whose popularity was second only to that of Madiba, idolised as the Communist leader of umKhonto weSiswe, the ANC's armed wing, and who had been able to persuade the fire-eaters among the young activists to agree to laying down arms and ending the armed struggle.

Clearly courageous leadership, ready to take risks and refusing to pander to populist demands, played a crucial and indispensable role in our transition.

On the 15th of October, 1993, Mandela and de Klerk were named joint winners of the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end South African apartheid.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5155stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Sep 21, 2018

Media Credits

Photo of Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk with their Nobel Peace Prize - online, courtesy FW de Klerk Foundation.


Excerpts from the Oliver R Tambo Lecture - "Setting Free the Past" - by Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town.  Delivered at Georgetown University in 2002.  Online, courtesy Georgetown University.


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"Mandela and de Klerk Share Nobel Peace Prize" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Sep 21, 2018.
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