As americans prepared to celebrate the nation’s independence this week, many around the world were standing vigil for a critically ill Nelson Mandela. The confluence was appropriate, for Mandela has symbolized the synergy between America’s democracy and liberation struggles around the world. When he visited Boston in 1990 after his release from 27 years in prison in South Africa, he praised “the pioneering and leading role of Massachusetts” for becoming the “conscience of American society” in the fight against apartheid. He said, “We are even more touched that it was here in Boston that your own independence movement got its birth.”
When he addressed Congress during the same trip, he embraced the full sweep of our independence movement, from George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson to Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King, Jr. “We could not have known of your Declaration of Independence and not elected to join in the struggle to guarantee the people’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Mandela said.
Mandela’s life was about the pursuit of liberty. He told Congress, “we went to jail because it was impossible to sit still while the obscenity of the apartheid system was being imposed on our people.” What may not be quite as well remembered is that Mandela was offered freedom several times before 1990, but he refused to be released because the conditions imposed upon his freedom were obscene.
In 1973, according to Mandela biographer Mary Benson, the South African minister of prisons, Jimmy Kruger, visited Mandela in prison on Robben Island. This was at a time when the apartheid government was trying to sell the illusion of “independent” homelands — also known as bantustans — for the black majority. Mandela and others were offered a chance to be released if they would resettle in the Transkei. His response, Benson wrote, was that the government’s policy of separate development was totally unacceptable.
Three years later, Kruger came back to Robben Island with the same offer. Mandela wrote in his autobiography that Kruger promised to have his sentence “dramatically reduced” if he recognized the legitimacy of the Transkei government. “I listened respectfully until he had finished,” Mandela wrote. “First, I said, I wholly rejected the bantustan policy, and would do nothing to support it . . . It was an offer only a turncoat could accept.”
In 1985, as the global antiapartheid movement was in full-throttle outrage at South African repression, President P.W. Botha offered Mandela his freedom if he “unconditionally rejected violence as a political weapon.”
Given how the government itself brutally used violence as a political weapon, Mandela rejected the offer. In a letter read at a Soweto rally by his daughter Zindzi, Mandela said:
“I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom . . . What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? . . . What freedom am I being offered to live my life as a family with my dear wife who remains in banishment in Branfort? What freedom am I being offered when my very South African citizenship is not respected?
“Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts . . . I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.”
Mandela was eventually freed, but only when he knew that the people of South Africa were on their way to freedom. As we here in Boston celebrate the Fourth on the Esplanade, we should also remember what Mandela said there: “We are here to acknowledge your courage and heroism . . . . Let us join in this happy celebration of our common victory.” Mandela’s freedom and ours can never be separated.