Gandhi and Mandela: A Brief Comparison

The legacies of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi transcend time, in terms of the impacts they each had on civil rights and equality.  They were men of different times, yet they drew upon similar principles in their quests to help humanity.  While their causes were distinct to each of their homelands, they inspired similar reverence among followers, eventually standing as inspiration worldwide.

Commitment to Equality

Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela was born in 1918, losing his father at a young age.  As he grew, he gained inspiration from the ancestral tales shared by his caretakers and others familiar with the wars of resistance. As he secured formal education, Nelson Mandela became more outspoken for causes of the suppressed, eventually being expelled from school for protesting; only to return later to earn his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Africa.

Additional schooling allowed him to practice law, fortifying his ability to be heard addressing social issues.  In 1952, Mandela drew a nine-month jail sentence for his role organizing civil disobedience against South African racial policies.  The sentence was suspended.

Mohandas Karamchand GandhiMohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who earned the revered Mahatma designation later, in 1915, was born in 1869.  Raised in western India, he later studied law in London, before practicing in South Africa.  It was there, ironically in Nelson Mandela’s home country, where Gandhi first used civil disobedience to advocate for civil rights for the country’s resident Indian population.  Famously, in 1906, Gandhi was ejected from a first-class rail car in South Africa for not holding racial status to be allowed there. Upon returning to India in 1915, he began to formally mobilize the country’s oppressed residents, protesting discrimination and unjust taxation.

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Writings of Nelson Mandela

Writing has the ability to lay a person’s soul bare.  It reveals things the public – and often times, the author – failed to recognize.  It sheds light on both inspirational moments and devastating personal setbacks.  In general, it exposes a world we might not have known if the author didn’t choose to put pen to paper.

FW de Klerk and Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela was one of the greatest political leaders of our time.  He dedicated his life to the fight against racial oppression in his homeland.  While his actions benefited millions – and earned him recognitions like the Nobel Peace Prize, which he won jointly with F W de Klerk in 1993 (pictured) – they came at great personal sacrifice.

Writing that Reveals a Man’s True Feelings

Throughout his life – his 27 years in prison and his time of political leadership – Nelson Mandela chose to document his major life events.  Many people would expect these documents to contain rich details of historic events.  The compositions are brimming with exquisite details and often reference significant happenings, but the insight they provide is just as noteworthy.


It is safe to assume Mandela had plenty of time to write during his quarter-century in prison.  Ever the family man, he spent quite a bit of that time writing letters to his wife and children.

Two particular letters he wrote in 1989 shed light on the things that were occupying his time.  First, Mandela wrote a letter to his wife, Winnie.  His first priority was to lament recent health problems that had been plaguing her.  He went on to rejoice at her restored health and then moved on to encouragement.

He referenced two books, The Power of Positive Thinking and The Results of Positive Thinking. Mandela wrote, “It is not so much the disability one suffers from that matters but one’s attitude to it.”  Surprisingly, he wasn’t referring to his own “disability”  Instead, he was seeking to bolster poor Winnie.

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HF Verwoerd – a brief summary

Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd is remembered as the architect of the racist laws and segregation practice known as ‘grand apartheid’.

HF VerwoerdHF Verwoerd was born 8 September 1901 in Amsterdam, Holland. His father was a shopkeeper and a deeply religious man. The family moved to South Africa in 1903 and settled for ten years before moving to Rhodesia where Verwoerd senior became an assistant evangelist in the Dutch Reformed Church. After four years they returned to South Africa.

Pampering, levelling and living together

Verwoerd excelled at school and went on to obtain a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Stellenbosch. He continued his studies in psychology in Germany after which he returned home in 1927 to lecture at his old university. He was appointed Professor of Sociology and Social Work. In 1937 he became editor of ‘Die Transvaler’, an Afrikaans newspaper supporting the National Party (NP). He was strongly in favour of racial segregation and attacked the ruling United Party’s policy of ‘pampering, levelling and living together’. In 1938 he published a poster condemning mixed marriages. During World War Two ‘Die Transvaler’ adopted a pro-Nazi position.

Hewers of wood

In 1948 when the National Party led by D.F. Malan came into power, Verwoerd left his position as editor to represent the NP in the Senate. In 1950 he was appointed Minister of Native Affairs and was responsible for the displacement of some 80,000 black Africans. As part of his portfolio, he was in charge of African education where his policy limited any form of higher education for those he regarded as ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’.

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The Sharpeville Massacre – a summary

The Sharpeville Massacre of 21 March 1960, which left 69 unarmed black South Africans dead, and more than 180 injured, drew the world’s attention to the evil of the apartheid system practiced within South Africa.

Pass Laws

The protest at Sharpeville, a black township about forty miles south of Johannesburg, on 21 March 1960 was part of a campaign against the so-called Pass Laws. The law required South Africa’s black population to carry around at all times an identity book which contained pertinent information about themselves, such as name, address, employer details and even their tax code. Those caught without the books were liable to immediate arrest.

The demonstrations against the Pass Laws were organised and led by the PAC (Pan-Africanist Congress), an off-shoot of the ANC (African National Congress). The march on Sharpeville was to be the first in a series of non-violent actions due to take place over a five-day period. Participants on the march were to present themselves at the police station at Sharpeville without their pass books and demand to be arrested. If enough blacks were arrested and kept from going to work, the country’s economy would collapse. That, at least, was the theory according to Robert Sobukwe, leader of PAC.

Sobukwe fully informed the police beforehand of the Sharpeville demonstration, emphasising the non-violent intention of the marchers.

Down with the passes

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FW de Klerk – a summary

Frederik Willem de Klerk was born 18 March 1936 in Johannesburg and obtained a law degree in 1958 from Potchefstroom University. He practiced law until he was elected to Parliament as National Party MP for Vereeniging in 1972.

FW de KlerkIn 1976, FW de Klerk was appointed Minister in the government of BJ Vorster. In 1978 when PW Botha became Prime Minister, De Klerk was appointed to a succession of ministerial posts. In 1985, he became chairman of the Minister’s Council in the House of Assembly. On December 1, 1986, he became the leader of the House of Assembly.

As Minister of Education his position was to support segregation in universities although advocating equal expenditure on pupils of all races. When he became leader of the Transvaal branch of the National Party he gave no indication of wishing to promote reform. At the time PW Botha was firmly entrenched as State President. Following Botha’s departure due to a mild stroke, De Klerk was somewhat unexpectedly elected to lead the National Party and the country. In 1989 De Klerk was elected State President.

State President

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Oliver Tambo – a summary

Oliver Tambo was born on 27 October 1917 in the Eastern Cape where he attended primary school. He completed his high school education in Johannesburg and went on to study at Fort Hare University where he obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in 1941. As a result of joining a student boycott he was expelled and was unable to complete his honours degree.

Programme of Action

Oliver TamboOliver Tambo returned to his high school in Johannesburg as a teacher of science and mathematics and joined the African National Congress (ANC) becoming a founding member of the ANC Youth League. Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and others advocated a spirit of militancy in the ANC, and in 1948 he and Sisulu were elected onto the National Executive Committee of the ANC. This position allowed Tambo to impart impetus to the Youth League’s agenda at the top level of the ANC’s senior body. Tambo served on the committee that drew up the Programme of Action which was adopted as ANC policy in 1949. The Programme of Action included civil disobedience, strikes and other forms of non-violent resistance.

Soon after the adoption of the Programme of Action Tambo left his teaching post and set up a legal partnership with Nelson Mandela, forming the first black law firm in the country.

Campaign of Defiance

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BJ Vorster – a summary

BJ Vorster (Balthazar Johannes Vorster) was born 13 December 1915 and attended school in Uitenhage in the Cape Province. He was the fifteenth son of a sheep rancher. He studied law at Stellenbosch University and graduated in 1938. He became registrar to the judge president of the Cape Division of the Supreme Court and shortly thereafter entered practice as an attorney in Port Elizabeth and subsequently in Brakpan.


The Second World War saw Vorster become active in the Ossewabrandwag, a movement that was responsible for various acts of sabotage designed to hinder South Africa’s aid to the Allied Forces. Vorster rose to the rank of general. In September 1942 he was interned in a detention camp until February 1944 when he was released under restrictions. The experience of internment served to increase his anti-British attitude.

Vorster’s first attempt to run for parliament in 1948 failed by a narrow margin, but in 1953 he won the constituency of Nigel for the National Party and took his seat in parliament. He became known for his prowess in debate and rose to deputy minister. In 1961 he became a full minister, responsible for justice, social welfare and pensions. Following the Sharpeville Massacre of the previous year and faced with further underground activities of extra-parliamentary opposition, Vorster developed a formidable security police force supported by harsh legislation that gave wide powers to the police such as detention without trial. His activities as minister of justice bestowed a ‘strong-man’ image on Vorster and after the assassination of HF Verwoerd in September 1966, Vorster was unanimously elected leader of the National party and became prime minister. Continue reading

Nelson Mandela – a brief summary

Former South African President, Nelson Mandela, was born in the Eastern Cape on 18 July 1918. His father died when he was nine and Mandela was placed in the care of the acting regent of the Thembu tribe.

‘He who shakes the branch of the tree’

Universally known as ‘Nelson’ Mandela, this was not his birth name. In his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom (1996), Mandela describes how he became known as Nelson: ‘No one in my family had ever attended school […]. On the first day of school my teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave each of us an English name. This was the custom among Africans in those days and was undoubtedly due to the British bias of our education. That day, Miss Mdingane told me that my new name was Nelson. Why this particular name I have no idea.’ Mandela’s birth name, Rolihlahla, means ‘he who shakes the branch of the tree’ or ‘troublemaker’ for short, an appropriate name for one who was destined to overturn a regime and change the direction of the nation.

Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1943, first as an activist, then, together with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, as a founder and president of the ANC Youth League, becoming its general secretary in 1947.

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Walter Sisulu – a summary

Walter Sisulu was born in Eastern Cape on 18 May 1912, the same year as the founding of the African National Congress (ANC). He was the son of a white father, Albert Dickenson, and a Xhosa mother named Alice Mase Sisulu. His father had little input into his upbringing and Walter was raised by his mother’s family who were related to Nelson Mandela’s first wife, Evelyn Ntoko Mase.

Despite having a white father, young Walter was initiated into the Xhosa tradition, his uncle being a local chief. Sisulu attended a local missionary school after which he moved to Johannesburg in 1928 and worked in various manual jobs, jobs which included a stint in a Johannesburg gold mine, a bakery and in domestic service.

African National Congress

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PW Botha – a summary of the Apartheid president

Anthony Holmes summarises the life of PW Botha (Pieter Willem), president of South Africa during the apartheid era, from 1984 to 1989.

PW Botha’s father had fought against the British in the Second Anglo-Boer War and his mother had been interned in a British concentration camp. Botha attended school and university in the Orange Free State where he read law, dropping out before graduation to pursue a political career.

National Party

PW BothaIn 1939 South Africa entered the Second World War. Anti-British factions coalesced to form the Herenigde (Re-united) National Party which became the National Party (NP). In that year Botha became the leader of the Cape Town branch of the pro-Nazi Ossewabrandwag but was expelled for accusing the newspaper ‘Die Burger’ of interference in national politics. The expulsion was fortunate for Botha who thereby avoided internment. (Pictured – P W Botha in 1962).

Botha helped the NP win the general election of 1948 and he gained a parliamentary seat. With HF Verwoerd elected prime minister in 1958, Botha was appointed deputy minister and in 1961, the Minister of Community Development and Coloured Affairs. He was responsible for the forced removal of coloured people under the Group Areas Act. In 1966 Botha was made Minister of Defence, a post he held for fourteen years.

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