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On His 95th Birthday, the Story of Nelson Mandela’s Struggle Told Outside His Old Soweto Home

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As the world marks the 95th birthday of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president and a beloved symbol of the country’s struggle to end apartheid, longtime South African activist Trevor Ngwane takes Democracy Now! on a tour of the township of Soweto. Speaking outside of Mandela’s former home, Ngwane recalls when the ANC leader was first captured, leading to a 27-year imprisonment before his release in 1990. Ngwane was active in the struggle against apartheid that culminated in Mandela’s 1994 election and today remains a leading South African voice for human rights.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Today the world is celebrating the 95th birthday of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president and a beloved symbol of the country’s struggle to end apartheid. Mandela spent 27 years in prison under the apartheid regime before his release in 1990. Four years later, he was elected president. This is Epainette Mbeki, mother of former South African President Thabo Mbeki.

EPAINETTE MBEKI: I’m wishing you a happy birthday and many more returns.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: After weeks of battling a serious lung infection, Mandela remains in the hospital where he has been since June. South African President Jacob Zuma wished Mandela a happy birthday and said in a statement that his health is “steadily improving.” He echoed an update from Mandela’s daughter, Zindzi Mandela.

ZINDZI MANDELA-MOTLHAJWA: I’d like to assure each and every one of you gathered here, though I may not be a medical doctor, that Dada is making this remarkable progress, and we look forward to having him back home soon. I often tease him, and I say, “Our father who art in Houghton.” So, we wish—we would very much like to have him back there in Houghton and not in a hospital.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Many around the world are marking Mandela’s birthday by dedicating 67 minutes of their time to helping others, in honor of Mandela’s 67 years of public service. This is South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: Never before in history was one human being so universally acknowledged in his lifetime as the embodiment of magnanimity and reconciliation as Nelson Mandela.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Meanwhile, schoolchildren across South Africa began their day by singing “Happy Birthday” to Nelson Mandela. The United Nations has declared July 18th as Mandela Day.

On Wednesday, President Obama and first lady Michelle released a statement saying, quote, “Our family was deeply moved by our visit to Madiba’s former cell on Robben Island during our recent trip to South Africa, and we will forever draw strength and inspiration from his extraordinary example of moral courage, kindness, and humility.”

Well, two years ago, Democracy Now! traveled to South Africa to cover the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban. Amy Goodman and the Democracy Now! team stopped in Johannesburg, where longtime South African activist Trevor Ngwane took them on a tour of Soweto. Ngwane was active in the struggle against apartheid that culminated in the election of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994. He remains a leading voice for basic human rights and against corporate globalization. Amy interviewed Trevor outside of Mandela’s former home in Soweto.

TREVOR NGWANE: OK, so let’s walk to Mandela House. I see now they’ve got it all worked out. We have to pay over there. Before, I used to come that side. And, you know, I knew Winnie Mandela, so I would come with her, and I’d just go in, you know? But I see they’ve redone it a bit. So let’s see what happened to the old entrance. This used to belong to Winnie Mandela, this restaurant. I don’t know if it still does. They once pulled it down here. OK. Oh, yeah, it must still belong to her. There is her—OK, I think you can have a look at the house. OK, all this, especially the patio, was not there. It was just a normal four-roomed house. And I think they have extended it a bit, so it looks slightly bigger than it was. But, certainly, it was originally a red-brick township house.

AMY GOODMAN: When did Nelson Mandela live here?

TREVOR NGWANE: Yeah, in the early ’50s, ’51, ’52, ’53, yeah. He was married to, you know, his previous wife, ex-wife, Eve, and then I think this is where they had a divorce, and then he met Winnie Mandela.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of him living here in 1951, how he was organizing, and then how he was captured in 1961.

TREVOR NGWANE: OK. Yeah, the fact that Mandela lived here is quite significant, because, remember, Mandela is a country boy, actually, you know, and in fact he’s a chief. Yeah, so he came here, you know, to work in the mines, and then he got a job here. Then he studied part-time until he got his law degree. But now he imbibed the township spirit. He became an urban man. He got the new politics. And he met people like Walter Sisulu. Walter Sisulu lived somewhere that side, not far, yeah. And then he joined the ANC here—although I think he must have joined ANC when he was still in Fort Hare. But he caught the urban-based ANC here, and then also worked with the Communist Party, although at first he was very anti-communist.

And then they were organizing here. And then, also, this is the time when the ANC split, because the Pan-African Congress did not like the ANC working together with whites. You know, they were full of the Pan-Africanism. And then, they were organizing meetings here in town, '55 Kliptown, the Freedom Charter, yeah. So they were going around collecting people's demands. And Mandela and Oliver Tambo, they were working as lawyers, so he was spending days taking—dealing with people’s grievances, as it were, you know, representing people for free, you know, those who couldn’t afford it for pass laws, you know, all sorts of racist laws. So he kind of imbibed the problems of the people. And I think that he’s a great man because he’s actually quite in touch with those problems when he was staying here.

Unfortunately, when he was here, he also divorced his wife. They were estranged, because he was too busy, I think, in a way, like me five years ago, up and down with meetings, you know. And then he met Winnie, this beautiful woman. And, you know, one thing led to another. But, unfortunately, before they can really enjoy their marriage, with Winnie, he was arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: How was he captured?

TREVOR NGWANE: OK, two things happened. He was first arrested, you know, just normally for the first offense, which was the 1961 trial. There was a huge treason trial, where all the ANC leaders were actually rounded up, and PAC leaders. This was after Sharpeville, when people got killed in Sharpeville. There was a massacre. Sixty-nine people were killed, I think 1960 or ’61. And then there was this big trial, which lasted for three, four years, yeah. So Mandela was part of that crowd.

And then—but after Sharpeville, there was this idea that, no, the solution is armed struggle. So Mandela was one of the first to actually opt for armed struggle. So he left the country secretly, and he went to Angola, he went to Ethiopia. I think he even went to China, if I’m not mistaken, you know, trying to get arms and so on and so forth. And then he came back. But, OK, he was an amateur, you know, let’s be frank, you know? And then he was captured in Howick. He was doing some mission there.

AMY GOODMAN: Did the U.S. help with his capture?

TREVOR NGWANE: OK, there’s a story that the CIA was actually involved, because they knew where he was, and they tipped the apartheid government. So, this is the story we read here.

In any case, once they captured him, they were also able to round up his comrades, like Denis Goldberg, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki. Like I said, they were easy to capture because they didn’t really know underground work. I mean, they were actually above-ground campaigners who decided to go underground. And all that they wanted to do, actually, was to place bombs under electricity pylons, you know, to show the government that we mean business. And, in fact, when they captured one, they could capture all of them, because when they found one, here are the names of everyone, you know. It was quite amateurish, actually. So they all got caught. And then there was this big treason trial. People expected them to get the death sentence. But I think intervention by some international people—I can’t remember—stopped that, and they all got life sentence, and Mandela and his comrades spent 27 years in jail in Robben Island, yeah, yeah.

And, in fact, when Mandela and them were sent to Robben Island, there was a long, long lull in struggle from 1963, ’64, until 1973, when the workers in Durban rose up. Can you see? Yeah, in the—in what is now called wildcat strikes, yeah. So, it was a lull of about 10 years. But other people, like Raymond Suttner, who is an ANC author, argue that, you know, the memory was there, it was underground work. I think he exaggerates, but—because, really, ’73, it was just the workers. I was living in Durban. I was a kid. I remember “Usut! Usut!” [phon.] It was just ordinary workers fed up. And it took the bosses by surprise, off guard. And, in fact, they—there were a lot of concessions. You know, people got the pay increase. And then, ’76, again, it caught everyone by surprise, including the ANC, when the students here, you know, rose up. And then, after that, you know, the struggle kind of came together with the international.

You know, with the ANC, Mandela and them, they placed themselves at the head of a people’s movement, OK? And, in fact—OK, it’s my argument, because I do some research. They—in fact, some authors, like Jeremy Seekings, they argue the same. Because I was living somewhere that side, not far from here. We had people’s organizations, street committees, student organizations, women’s organizations, church organizations, all fighting against apartheid. And then, when the ANC was unpent—in fact, leading up to the unpenning, now Mandela was projected as a great hero—which he is—but now the great leader whom we must all, you know, follow. And then the ANC was presented as the only kind of party or movement which could lead us to freedom. As a result, in May '94, when there was elections, even people who supported the Pan-Africanist Congress, they voted for the ANC. But I think that's because the working class knows the importance of unity. So people just said, “OK, if we all vote and support the ANC and Mandela”—and when Mandela came out, he was impressive. We were all impressed. He was sharp. You know, he seemed to be sticking to the line. He came out and said, “We will nationalize the banks. We will nationalize the factories.” OK, that never happened.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was veteran South African activist Trevor Ngwane speaking with Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman outside of Nelson Mandela's former home in Soweto. When we come back, we look at a new film that follows three gifted singers at the University of Cape Town’s Opera School, which was closed to blacks during apartheid. Stay with us.

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