He also came to see the strategic and moral significance of a broadly based opposition to apartheid, and endorsed forging a common front with the Indian Congress and the Communist Party, eventually adopting the multi-racial mandate that became the hallmark of the ANC.
By 1952, Mandela had finally qualified as a lawyer and opened the country’s first African law office in partnership with Oliver Tambo, his schoolmate from Fort Hare. Based in Johannesburg, the firm provided cheap legal advice to many blacks who otherwise would have had to appear before white judges without representation.
That year he also played a key role in the “defiance campaign,” a six-month national protest against six laws enacted by the Malan government. He was increasingly torn between his respect for the rule of law and a desire to denounce a regime that had banned him from holding public office (even in the ANC), making speeches or leaving town.
The defiance campaign was a mixed success. It increased the ANC’s profile and membership, but incurred reprisals from the Malan government and led to the arrests of Mandela and 20 of his colleagues from both the Indian Congress and the Communist Party.
More important, though, the brutal crackdown stiffened the resolve of key ANC figures to convene a national conference – open to all South Africans, irrespective of race or colour – to draw up a “freedom charter” for the truly democratic country they envisaged in the future. The Congress of the People was held June 26, 1955, at a private sports field near Soweto. Despite being one of the organizers, Mandela was under a police ban and not supposed to be there, so he could only watch, in disguise, from the sidelines as the charter was recited in three languages: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white … no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people.”
On the third day, armed police moved in to break up the meeting. Nevertheless, the multi-racial charter, with its mixture of lofty poetic phrases and strategic goals, became the manifesto of the liberation struggle. Today it is as iconic for South Africans as the Declaration of the Rights of Man is to the French and the Declaration of Independence is to Americans.
Six months after the Freedom Charter was proclaimed, the Malan government struck back, arresting and detaining Mandela and scores of other opposition leaders on charges of treason. After securing bail, Mandela returned home to find nobody there.
Evelyn had decamped with their children and household possessions. She had become increasingly opposed to his activism, partly because it kept him away from her and their children and partly because, as a Jehovah’s Witness, she didn’t believe in participating in politics. The year before she had given him an ultimatum to choose between her and the ANC.
He wasn’t alone for long. A few months later, as he was preparing to defend himself in what came to be known as the Treason Trial, he spotted Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela as he was passing a bus stop and was so struck by her beauty that he almost turned the car around. Serendipitously she appeared at his law office with her brother a few days later to consult Oliver Tambo.
Also from the Transkei, she had recently graduated as the country’s first black social worker. At 22, she was 16 years younger than Mandela, but they fell passionately in love, and married in 1958, after he and Evelyn had divorced. Daughter Zenani was born that year and her sister Zindzi, in 1960.
The same year that Mandela and Winnie married, Hendrik Verwoerd became prime minister. The Dutch-born psychologist and sociologist had entered politics to help poor South Africans, but not black ones. He is often called the architect of apartheid for the draconian legislation he introduced while minister of native affairs and for his racist pronouncements, such as: “There is no place for the Bantu [black person]in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour.”
Within a year of being sworn in as prime minister, he had imposed apartheid in universities and stripped institutions such as Fort Hare and Witwatersrand of their independence. He’d also established separate tribal homelands, called Bantustans, that had the appearance of self-rule, but were really designed to keep blacks separate from whites. One of them, Transkei, spanned the region where both Mandelas had grown up.
As the ANC was trying to confront the government’s increasingly severe restrictions, the ANC also came under attack from militant black nationalists who objected to its multiracial alliance. One group, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), was especially aggressive and organized a campaign against the notorious pass laws, which prevented non-whites from travelling without official permission and documentation.