Through a cousin he met Walter Sisulu, a mixed-race realtor also from the Transkei who would become a significant mentor, colleague and, eventually, cell mate. “It was the beginning of a partnership which would be crucial to Mandela’s political career,” British journalist Anthony Sampson writes in Mandela: The Authorized Biography.
Sisulu had left school at 16, but Mandela considered him his “intellectual superior, a mentor with an analytical mind.” Later, Sisulu said of Mandela, “I marked him at once as a man with great qualities, who was destined to play an important part.”
By now, Mandela had decided he wanted a legal career, so Sisulu introduced him to lawyer Lazar Sidelsky, who hired him as a clerk at his firm, loaned him £50 and gave him an old suit – which Mandela wore for the next five years.
The apprentice also went back to school, taking correspondence courses to finish his bachelor of arts degree and then, early in 1943, enrolling in law at the University of Witwatersrand, which was admitting a few black students (but not allowing them to use the sports facilities).
THE MAKING OF A REVOLUTIONARY
However, it was at Wits that he had his political awakening, meeting student activists such as left wingers Joe Slovo and his future wife, Ruth First, whose father had been a founding member of South Africa’s Communist Party in 1921.
After six years, Mandela left Wits without a degree, his studies undermined by discrimination, the pressure of his job and his growing interest in politics. As well as his student friends, he was influenced by Gaur Radebe, the law firm’s other black employee, who was a decade older and politically astute. He helped to organize a bus boycott when commuter fares into Johannesburg were raised 20 per cent. Joining the protest, which saw the fare hike reversed after nine days, was Mandela’s introduction to the African National Congress (ANC).
The congress had been formed in 1912 to protest against the creation two years earlier of the Union of South Africa, which had united the country’s four British and Afrikaner colonies but failed to give Africans any voice in how they were governed. After falling dormant in the 1930s, the ANC had been revived with the election of Alfred Xuma as president in 1940 and the arrival of new members such as Anton Lembede, a Zulu activist and a friend of Sisulu.
Still, the ANC balked when some of the new members, including Mandela, proposed taking a bolder approach, including mass boycotts. Nevertheless, they were allowed to establish the Youth League in 1944, with Lembede as president and Tambo, Mandela, now 26, and Sisulu on the executive committee. Holding a view of the universe as “an organic entity, progressively driving towards greater harmony and unity,” the Youth League quickly began to attract members.
The same year, Mandela, now 26, met and married the first of his three wives: Evelyn Mase, a cousin of Sisulu from the Transkei who’d come to Johannesburg to train as a nurse.
THE RISE OF APARTHEID
With the end of the Second World War, the Union Party government of Jan Smuts struck out against both the black and South Asian communities, crushing a strike of 70,000 mine workers seeking better pay and working conditions, and then banning the sale of land to anyone of South Asian descent.
Even those repressive actions didn’t satisfy rabid white supremacists. In 1948, voters handed power to the Afrikaner-dominated National Party, which was led by Daniel Malan and advocated apartheid, the policy of segregation and repression that would dominate the country for almost 50 years.
Two years later, the Malan government passed the Group Areas Act, which legally established separate residential and business sections for each race. The ANC combined forces with the Communist Party, which had been outlawed (less because of its Marxist ideology than its espousal of racial equality), and the South African Indian Congress to mount a civil-disobedience campaign. A rally in Johannesburg drew 10,000 protesters and a May Day strike kept half of the city’s black workers at home.
Afraid that outside groups would adulterate the ANC’s mission, Mandela was at first unwilling to involve the Youth League (of which he was now president) in the protests. But he was outraged when police in Soweto on the outskirts of Johannesburg opened fire during the May Day strike and killed 18 protesters. “That day,” he said later, “ was a turning point in my life ... in understanding, through first-hand experience, the ruthlessness of the police.”