Monday, May 10, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Inauguration of Nelson Mandela

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In a world where the all-too-normal progression is from politics to jail, on this day in 1994 Nelson Mandela (shown here with his predecessor and Vice-President, F. W. de Klerk) was sworn in as President of South Africa*, after spending 27 years in jail for the heinous crime of being black and unwilling to accept the strictures of apartheid in that country. Having been first held in the Fort on Johannesburg's Constitution Hill following his arrest in August 1962, he was then transferred to Robben Island, and later still at Pollsmoor Prison, Mandela was eventually released from Victor Verster Prison in February 1990 after de Klerk reversed a decades-long ban on the African National Congress (ANC), of which Mandela was the leader.

Mandela and de Klerk had previously shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for ending apartheid, but the real vindication for Mandela must have come when the ANC claimed 252 of the 400 seats in the country's National Assembly, forming what was known as the Government of National Unity, which was in force until February 1997. Their innovative approach taken to ensure a smooth transition to majority rule included the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu - which sought neither to expunge the grievous injuries of apartheid from history or bathe the country in vengeful blood for them, but to help South Africans come to terms with what had transpired, and so move forward.

The entire story of Mandela's early life, activism, and rise to power is told in his memoir Long Walk to Freedom, published in 1994; for a slightly meatier version of the story, try Mandela: The Authorised Biography, in which Mandela discussed issues relating to Winnie Mandela and de Klerk with his friend, the journalist Anthony Sampson.

*Having been elected on April 27th - now a national holiday called Freedom Day.

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