“Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.” - Nelson Mandela
Across the political spectrum, no other leader has been esteemed or beloved to the degree of South African president Nelson Mandela. The man, father and activist triumphed over one of the worst human events in history: apartheid. But many stood alongside Mandela in the fight to weaken, and later overcome the oppressive nature of racial discrimination. Here are five anti-apartheid leaders that stood tall.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela Former wife of Nelson Mandela, Minnie is prominently known in South Africa as “Mother of the Nation” and Mandela’s “voice” during his 27-year imprisonment. Born in Bizana, a village in Transkei, Winnie showed an interest in social work at an early age. She moved to Johannesburg to complete her studies and became the first black medical social worker in the country. She would later dedicate her service to ending apartheid. In 1957, Winnie met Nelson Mandela for the first time at a bus stop in Soweto and they soon married a year later.
Throughout their marriage, she experienced several struggles, raising their two daughters (Zenani and Zindzi) in the absence of Nelson. She was arrested several times, tortured in prison, and put in solitary confinement for 18 months at a Pretoria prison. She was also banished to a remote town and put on house arrest. Yet, she remained steadfast in her support for her then-husband and continued to vocalize opposition toward a racist government. In 1985, Minnie received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for her work in South Africa.
Steve Biko A medical student and leader, Biko actively sought to empower black communities with his ideas of “black consciousness” and unity. He was pivotal in the development of several organizations, including the South African Students Organisation (SASO), the Black Peoples Convention (BPC) and the Black Community Programmes (BCP), an organization that tackled the issues of black workers.
He was later expelled from medical school, banned by the government in March 1973, and restricted to his birthplace, King Williams Town. He continued to work for the BCP, creating the Zimele Trust Fund in 1975 to help political prisoners and their families. On Aug. 18, 1977, he and a fellow colleague were stopped at a roadblock outside of King Williams Town. He was then taken into police custody where he was interrogated, arrested and severely beaten. On Sept. 11, he died of brain damage in a Pretoria prison. His brutal death branded him a martyr of the anti-apartheid movement.
Oliver Tambo Friend of Nelson Mandela, Tambo is revered for keeping the political party, African National Congress (ANC), alive during the stronghold of apartheid. A student of law, science and education, political activism became evident in his college years. In 1944, he co-founded the Youth League ANC with Mandela and years later, in 1952, they started the first black law firm in South Africa. The ANC’s nonviolent approach changed direction in 1960 after the Sharpeville massacre, a demonstration that turned violent when police opened fire on hundreds of protesters, killing and wounding more than 200 people. The party was banned by the government days after the incident and Tambo, along with other party members, were exiled.
Tambo moved to Zambia and England to rebuild, using the banishment as an opportunity to seek outside support. In 1967 he became president of ANC and rallied for defiant and aggressive resistance to the apartheid regime. In 1990, the ban was lifted and Tambo returned to his home country. In 1991, he turned over the presidency to Mandela and became the national Chairman until his death in 1993.
Helen Suzman A significant yet solitary pillar in the South African Parliament, Helen Suzman is recognized for her advocacy of human rights. Born of Jewish immigrants, Helen started her education at a convent and sought further schooling at Witwatersrand University. She suspended her education at age 19 to marry Dr. Moses Suzman and had two daughters (Frances and Patricia). She returned and finished her education in Economics. She worked as a statistician and lecturer until 1953, winning a seat in Parliament as a member of the United Party (UP) and thus, beginning her political journey.
Six years later, angered by the stolen rights of black Africans, Helen, along with 10 of her colleagues, left the UP and formed the Progressive Party. In 1961, in a general election, Helen was the only member to retain her seat. For six years she was the only female parliamentarian, but her tenure in Parliament lasted several years until 1989. During her time in office, she visited prisoners at Robben Island, one being Nelson Mandela. Her fearless reputation for combating discrimination earned her several awards, including the United Nations Human Rights Award in 1978 and two years later, the Medallion of Heroism.
Albert Luthuli "I have joined my people in the new spirit that moves them today, the spirit that revolts openly and broadly against injustice."
Albert Luthuli is the first African to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (1960), for his powerful role in South African history. As an educator and tribal chieftain, Luthuli joined the ANC in 1945 and led several protests in defiance against discriminatory laws and unspeakable violence toward black Africans. In 1952 he was elected president-general of ANC. He advocated for non-violence even as the ANC adopted a more forceful stance.
In response to Luthuli’s growing determination and authority, the government forced him to choose between his chieftainship and position with the ANC. He refused both options and was ultimately relieved from his chieftainship. He was jailed on several occasions and banned at least three times by the government, limiting his right to travel. He was also accused of treason, but was later cleared. In 1963, he published an autobiography called “Let My People Go.”