10 African Revolutionaries Who Changed the World

10 African Revolutionaries Who Changed the World

Peter Baxter - February 20, 2018

Despite the fact that one of the most inspiring revolutionaries of all time, Nelson Mandela, was African, Africa is not generally known for producing idealistic revolutionaries in the classic pattern. However, Africa was the main focus of the great 19th and early 20th-century European imperial expansion, and by the turn of the 20th century, every substantive territory of sub-Saharan Africa had fallen under some degree of European control. Some territories were acquired purely for strategic purposes – in order to ensure that other European powers did not get them – but others were colonized and settled, and hosted large European populations.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Africa was on the front line of the anti-imperial struggle. The French, the British, and the Portuguese engaged in a process of decolonization after WWII, but often this was not an easy experience, and local settler communities were often reluctant to let go. In other cases, like South Africa, a violent white reaction to African liberation almost guaranteed a war. While many Africans nationalist liberators and cold warriors have names not immediately recognizable today, it was African revolutionaries that influenced the modern liberation movement in all parts of the world, and perhaps more than any other, it is they that deserve to be remembered.

10 African Revolutionaries Who Changed the World
Some of the most influential revolutionaries in Africa. Wikimedia.

Here are ten revolutionaries who, not only shifted politics and culture in Africa but went on to change the world forever. Read on and be inspired.

10 African Revolutionaries Who Changed the World
Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi Source: taringa.net

Mohandas K. Gandhi

We will kick off with this most familiar name, and put him at the bottom of the list, because Gandhi was only a part-time African revolutionary. His principal work was universal, and if one had to pinpoint his major contribution, it would, of course, be to India. However, Gandhi discovered his political vocation, not in India, but in Africa.

The back story is simply this. In 1891, the young Mohandas Gandhi qualified as a barrister in London. Upon his return to India that same year, however, he found legal briefs in the High Court of Bombay difficult to find. When the opportunity arose, therefore, to take a year-long commission in South Africa, as a legal assistant in litigation between two powerful Indian trading families, he seized the opportunity.

The Indian community in South Africa originated from early indentured labor on the sugar estates, from which grew an influential and wealthy community of traders. In a highly charged racial atmosphere, however, they suffered discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives. Although he found this irritating and inconvenient, Gandhi was initially concerned only with completing his term of service in South Africa and returning to India. One day, however, something happened to change his mind.

Traveling from the coastal city of Durban to the inland capital of Pretoria, he purchased a first-class train ticket and entered a first-class compartment of the train. Soon this attracted the attention of his fellow white travelers, and a complaint was lodged with the conductor. Gandhi was then asked to remove himself to a third-class compartment, which he would not do, with the result that he was forcibly removed from the train.

This event, at least as far as the popular telling of the tale goes, triggered something in the young Gandhi’s mind, and he determined that he would simply not accept it. Some say that the beginning of the end of the British Empire began right then, for Gandhi decided that he would champion the rights of the Indian community in South Africa, and a unique revolutionary was born.

Gandhi understood two things. One was that a conspicuously wealthy community would not willingly partake of revolution, and the Indian community of South Africa, although socially and politically alienated, was certainly very wealthy. The other was that framing his revolutionary ideas in Hindu spiritualism would engage a population otherwise disinclined towards revolution.

Gandhi’s personal evolution from professional barrister to composite spiritual-political leader began then. His philosophy became known as Satyagraha, or ‘firmness in the truth’, and his greatest success in South Africa was achieved by his first application of the concept of a ‘peace march’. The South African authorities were powerless in the face of non-violence, and by a willingness to suffer imprisonment, and remain utterly passive, he in the end won the political reforms that he sought. Gandhi returned to India in 1914 as a fully initiated revolutionary, his innovative persona fully formed, and thereafter he led India to independence from Britain.

10 African Revolutionaries Who Changed the World
First Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba Source:thefamouspeople.com

Patrice Lumumba

The story of Patrice Lumumba is one of the revolutionaries that could have been, and should have been. His place in the pantheon of African revolutionaries derives from the fact that he was killed for his efforts, and was therefore martyred to the cause of the African revolution.

The Belgian Congo probably suffered the worst experience of all the European colonial territories in Africa. It began its modern existence as the private fiefdom of Belgian King Leopold II, the infamous Congo Free State, and as such, it was ruthlessly exploited. It was taken over as a possession of the Belgian nation in 1909, and received its independence in 1960.

Most historians agree that the Belgian Government, in its haste to divest itself of the colony before it found itself with a war on its hands, made very little effort to prepare the ground for an indigenous takeover of power. Blacks in the colony had never been permitted to rise above the level of junior administration, or the lower ranks of the military, and as such, there was no one in a position to responsibly assume power when the Belgians handed it over.

Lumumba was born into humble circumstances in the deeply rural eastern region of Congo, and he received his early education, as most prominent Africans of that period did, from Christian missionaries. Later, he was drawn to the enlightenment ideals of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Molière and Victor Hugo, and later still, of Marxism and Leninism. These he adopted as a composite ideology of revolution, developing them, as many other enlightened Africans did, into a philosophy of ‘African Socialism‘.

African Socialism is hard to specifically define. It was a widely quoted doctrine that varied considerably, depending on where and by whom it was spoken. A common denominator of African Socialism, however, was a rejection of the capitalist, imperialist system, and an acknowledgment that pre-colonial and pre-slavery Africa existed as an egalitarian, socialist society in its natural form. Thus the utopian view of the past was seen as an ideal pivot upon which a future African society, in a modern context, could turn.

Lumumba gained membership of the Congolese revolutionary party, the Mouvement National Congolais, and espousing these generally pacifist principles, was seen by the Belgians as the least seditious of potential leaders, and he was groomed to inherit power. Despite this, he was staunchly pan-African, and highly revolutionary in outlook. When independence was granted to Congo in July 1960, and Lumumba was sworn into office, he made quite clear the changes that he had in mind.

However, the vast territory of the Congo was made up of a kaleidoscope of ethnicities, many mutually antagonistic, and when the Belgians left, a pressure cooker of tension exploded almost immediately. The army mutinied, separatist movements began and a civil war erupted. Lumumba, the idealist revolutionary, simply lacked the moral authority to impose order. He was deposed, imprisoned, tortured and eventually murdered, and the Congo, almost inevitably, fell to a military coup. A thirty-year dictatorship followed, and it is arguable whether the Congo ever recovered. Lumumba, however, is remembered, and celebrated, as one of the original African revolutionaries.

10 African Revolutionaries Who Changed the World
Mozambican Revolutionary Eduardo Mondelane Source: delagoabayworld.files.wordpress.com

Eduardo Mondelane

Revolution in Africa was a risky business, and often the greatest danger lay less at the hands of the colonial authorities than fellow revolutionaries. The Portuguese were in every respect the senior colonists of Africa, making landfall early in the 15th century as they pioneered the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. They were the first around the Cape of Good Hope, and the first to pioneer a sea route to India, arriving on the west coast of the Indian sub-continent in 1498. They founded two major colonies in Africa, East and West, respectively the modern nations of Mozambique and Angola.

Eduardo Mondelane was born in rural southern Mozambique in 1920. He was one of twelve children of deeply traditional parents, and in the heavily prejudicial environment of Portuguese Africa, his first years were spent in the humble pursuit of herding the family flock. As was often the case, however, as a child of rare perception and intelligence, he attracted the attention of local missionaries, and despite the objections of his father, he began his education.

This journey would take him from a humble missionary school in rural Portuguese East Africa, largely by his own efforts, to various schools and institutions in South Africa, and eventually to the University of Lisbon. At the age of 31, he was able to gain entry to the Oberlin College in Ohio, under Phelps Stokes Scholarship, obtaining eventually degrees in anthropology and sociology. From Oberlin he advanced to Northwestern University, winning a Masters and a Ph.D.

In 1953, he married a white woman from Indiana, settling for a time in the suburbs of Chicago. Soon, however, he moved to Syracuse to take up a position of Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Syracuse University. This extraordinary right of passage of a boy from rural Africa to the higher echelons of American academia is in itself an amazing tale, but in 1963, he turned his back on it all and returned home to engage in the Liberation Struggle that was just then beginning to gather momentum in Mozambique.

The Portuguese held on to their colonies with unusual tenacity, even after other European powers were divesting. This had much to do with the prestige that an overseas empire offered a comparatively impoverished European country, and the wars of liberation in Mozambique and Angola were among the most bitter in Africa.

Mondelane’s qualities attracted the attention of Portuguese officials in Mozambique, and preferring him in than out, they offered him a place in the administration. This he refused, and moved instead to Tanzania, taking over the leadership of the newly formed Frente de Libertação de Moçambique, an umbrella group of exiled independence movements.

His political ideas were basically intellectual socialist. Not by any means a radical utopianist, he nonetheless pictured an egalitarian society built on practical social ideals. This, however, did not go far enough for many of his more radical peers. In 1969, he opened a package mailed to him at his headquarters in Dar es Salaam, and was killed outright by the subsequent explosion. No one has ever been brought to book for his murder, and while inside the movement, blame has always been leveled at the Portuguese, most historians acknowledge that Mondelane was murdered by his own.

10 African Revolutionaries Who Changed the World
Burkina Faso Coup Leader Thomas Sankara Source: 21stcenturywire.com

Thomas Sankara

Thomas Sankara, the formal military is rarely the breeding ground of original thought, and certainly not revolutionary thought, but Thomas Sankara was a notable exception to this rule.

The French, along with the British, were the major colonizers of Africa, owning between them, at the height of the imperial age, the lion’s share of colonial territory. The French divided their African empire into two federations comprising most of West/Central Africa. Upper Volta was in every respect a backwater of the French West African federation. It was landlocked and comprised mostly the Sahel region of dry, semi-desert savannah. It was stifled by severe Islamic religious conservatism, and a large population of tribalized animists uninfluenced by modern education or conventional religion.

Upper Volta gained independence from France in 1960, along with most of the West African region. Inherent instability, however, resulted in a military coup in 1966, and then another in 1983. This was led by the 34-year-old Captain Thomas Sankara. While the world shook its weary head at this news, Sankara took power with a very different vision for his nation than simply to loot its national resources and impoverish its democratic institutions.

Often called Africa’s Che Guevara, Sankara rejected the corruption of the former regime, and the continuing influence in the country of the French. Upper Volta was renamed Burkina Faso (Land of the Upright Man), and one of the most ambitious programs of social and economic change ever attempted on the African continent began.

Corruption under the previous regime manifests in overwhelming national debt and dependence on foreign aid. Sankara plunged immediately into a program of reducing both. This was followed by land reform and the pursuit of agrarian self-sufficiency, backed up by a determined drive to establish universal health and literacy.

He outlawed female genital mutilation, promoted women’s rights, banned forced marriage and polygamy and appointed women to senior positions in government.

With extraordinary vision, his revolutionary campaign extended to environmental protection and regeneration, with a program to plant over 10 million trees to stem the creeping desertification resulting from overpopulation and poor land use.

All of this was truly revolutionary in the context of one of the most traditional and conservative societies in Africa, and to achieve it, his rule began to grow increasingly authoritarian. Inevitably he ran foul of the strong traditional elements of Burkinabe society, and while he became an icon to the nation’s poor, he also attracted the ire of powerful forces in the military and the establishment.

To live by the sword is to die by the sword, and Thomas Sankara fell to a military coup in October 1987. A week before his assassination, on the day of the coup, one of his most famous utterances was made.

‘While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.’

10 African Revolutionaries Who Changed the World
Angolan Liberation Leader Agostino Neto Source: Wikicommons

Agostino Neto

Some revolutionaries carry a darker moral shade than others, and sometimes the tactics of the revolution must by necessity compromise its own ideals. Angola suffered arguably the most difficult revolutionary birth of all African countries, and the dramatis personae of its liberation proved to be a very mixed bag indeed.

Angola fell at the junction of three major ideological fault lines of the age: African Liberation, South African Apartheid and Soviet/United States Cold War imperialism. As the nation itself struggled to overthrow Portuguese colonial domination, these three forces fought to control and influence the process. The result was over forty years of bleeding war.

Agostino Neto was a poet, an idealist and a raw Marxist. In a rough-and-tumble corner of the world, he fought to control forces that in the end controlled him.

Neto’s early schooling in Luanda was, once again, achieved through local Christian missions, in his case a Methodist mission. From there he studied medicine at the Universities of Coimbra and Lisbon. While in Portugal, he was radicalized, developing a strong, Marxist-Leninist political identity that very quickly attracted the attention of the Portuguese intelligence services. Portugal was then under the fascist dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, and in 1951, Neto was arrested and imprisoned for three months. This began a series of improvements, each attracting increasingly severe terms. The result, however, was even greater radicalization, and an even more uncompromising Marxist position.

In 1959, as a newly qualified medical doctor, and a poet of growing reputation, he returned to Angola where almost immediately he was re-arrested and imprisoned. This prompted popular demonstrations in Luanda that were violently suppressed. In an episode now known as the Massacre of Icolo e Bengo, 30 were killed and 200 injured when the army opened fire.

By then Neto had taken over the leadership of Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA. The MPLA was a left-wing, pro-Soviet liberation movement, focused on the capital, Luanda. However, a more right-wing, pro-West movement National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA), was also in the picture, as was the South African-supported National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA)

The result was a liberation war against the Portuguese and an ideological war within the liberation movement. By the mid-1970s, as Portuguese rule in Africa was collapsing, the three liberation parties went to war with one another. The MPLA, after a bitter, bloody and divisive struggle emerged as the first among equals, and Neto took power in November 1975.

Unusually, Agostino Neto died of natural causes in 1979, but the war in Angola, this time civil war, would continue for another two decades. In the end, Angola was reduced to almost utter social and economic ruin. This was the legacy of the absolute determination of Agostino Neto, his successors and his rivals to achieve, and hold on to power.

10 African Revolutionaries Who Changed the World
Mozambican President Samora Machel Source: thisisafrica.com

Samora Machel

Eduardo Mondelane’s successor as leader of Mozambique’s Frente de Libertação de Moçambique, or FRELIMO, was a younger, comparatively sparsely educated, but far more radical liberation leader. This was Samora Machel.

Machel has been described as a Castroesque revolutionary, imbued with the iron-hard discipline of the revolution and committed to armed struggle. Like Castro, his favorite color was olive drab, and like Castro too, he ruled with a sense of pre-destiny that precluded any opposition.

The Portuguese fought hard and bitterly to retain their colonies, and the liberation movements in all of their colonies fought no less hard and bitterly for independence. Unlike Angola, however, Mozambique had just one, ubiquitous liberation party, FRELIMO, and Machel was firmly at the head of it.

The war of liberation in Mozambique was hard-fought and bloody, and Machel led it as a composite military and revolutionary struggle. His personal charisma and enormous courage inspired a people to continue the fight against crippling odds, and against a brutal and uncompromising regime. Machel pioneered the concept of a popular revolution, involving an entire population committed to a single objective. This required great leadership skill, on many fronts, and as such Machel remains the quintessential African revolutionary.

Portuguese rule in Africa collapsed after a left-leaning military coup toppled the fascist government in Lisbon. The ‘Carnation Revolution‘ marked the moment when Portugal gave up the fight, and power was handed over in both Mozambique and Angola to whoever was in place to receive it. In Angola, that prompted a lingering civil war, but in Mozambique, there was no question that Samora Machel would be the first independent president of the nation.

While Machel’s hard-left social and economic policies may not have succeeded as well in practice as they did in theory, he retained the affection of his people, and the Mozambican revolution remains to this day of and for the people.

Mozambique, however, did not escape civil war, and in its own bid to survive, white South Africa invested huge economic and military resources into destabilizing Mozambique. The result of this was a somewhat manufactured civil war that crippled Mozambique for two full decades after independence. In an ideological compromise, Machel was forced in the end to deal with the South Africans, but on the eve of the signing of a non-aggression pact, the Nkomati Accord, Machel was killed in an aircraft accident. The date was October 19, 1986.

Peace only came to Mozambique when liberation came to South Africa, but to this day, Samora Machel remains an icon, not only of the Mozambican liberation struggle but of the African revolution as a whole.

10 African Revolutionaries Who Changed the World
Zimbabwean Revolutionary Leader Robert Mugabe Source: thetimes.co.uk

Robert Mugabe

Robert Mugabe’s political legacy stands perhaps as a warning of the danger of longevity in revolutionary politics. Born in 1924, into a devout Catholic family, his early education was gained at a Jesuit mission in the central province of Rhodesia, the future Zimbabwe. As a young man, Mugabe displayed no early signs of revolutionary zeal. He was abandoned by his father early in his childhood, and developed a strong, almost compulsive attachment to his mother. The regime at the Kutama Jesuit Mission, where he lived and studied, was benign, and lacked the overt racism of day-to-day life in the outside world. Mugabe, therefore, did not radicalize, but remained a conservative Catholic with an interest in education.

His first real experience of institutionalized racism came when he attended Fort Hare University, a black university in South Africa. But even then, he did not emerge with a great political consciousness. In 1958 he accepted a position as a primary school teacher in the newly independent Ghana, and it was there, for the first time, that he tuned his ear into the African revolutionary frequency.

In the meanwhile, in Southern Rhodesia, the future Zimbabwe, liberation fervor was seeping the subjugated black nation. On a visit back to Rhodesia in 1960, Mugabe was persuaded to join the nationalist party, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, and at that moment, a revolutionary was born.

White Rhodesia, however, was not about to go down without a fight. Civil unrest and popular demonstrations simply resulted in heavier oppression and stronger emergency measures. In 1965, a hard-right, white nationalist government declared unilateral independence from Britain, creating a rebel republic. The entire spectrum of black nationalists in the country were arrested and imprisoned, Mugabe among them.

For ten years, Mugabe remained imprisoned, and it was during that period that a deep radicalization took root. The mild schoolteacher emerged as an iron-hard, fundamentally committed revolutionary whose passion very quickly projected him to the leadership of the movement. When, under international pressure, he and his cadre of revolutionaries were released from prison, he absconded immediately to Mozambique, and there began building a liberation army.

By then, the Zimbabwean liberation struggle had devolved into a full-blown civil war, far more brutal and bloody than any so far, and backed up by a fanatical determination on both sides not to yield. Mugabe, never a military leader, nonetheless drove the struggle. It was during this period that a dark, Machiavellian streak to his nature was revealed, in his willingness to sacrifice any number of lives, and to shed any amount of blood to achieve absolute victory.

The victory came in 1980, and Mugabe took power as one of the most impassioned and respected black leaders in Africa. The rot, however, had already set in, and within a decade, Mugabe’s rule had become violent and corrupt. By the end of the 1990s, Mugabe had become the quintessential corrupt African dictator, and his nation a signature basket case. Mugabe was deposed in 2017, but had he, like Machel, Lumumba and many others, died by the hand of the revolution, his fall from grace would not have been quite so complete.

You May Interested: African Dictators Who Ruined Their Countries.

10 African Revolutionaries Who Changed the World
South African Freedom Activist Steve Biko Source: sahistory.com

Steve Biko

Born in 1946 to a poor, Xhosa family in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, Bantu Stephen Biko was the poster child of Black Consciousness Movement, a grassroots anti-apartheid campaign of the 1960s and 1970s. This also was the most dangerous time to oppose the monolithic edifice of white rule in South Africa. With its back increasingly against the wall, white South Africa responded to internal black opposition with all of the insidious resources of a police state.

Biko enjoyed the advantage of a well-funded education, thanks to a liberal interest in ‘Bantu’ education at the time, and the fact that he displayed prodigious intellectual gifts. While studying medicine at the University of Natal, he joined the National Union of South African Students, a powerfully anti-apartheid movement. Universities at the time led the anti-apartheid movement, and it was not only black students and activists who were involved. Despite its retrogressive government, a strong liberal movement infused academic and civil society, and Biko found himself in a fertile social environment to develop his ideas of black consciousness.

Biko, however, was distrustful even of ‘well-meaning’ liberal whites, believing their interest in black liberation in South Africa to be fundamentally paternalistic and patronizing. His message was separate organization and separate institutions of liberation. His definition of black included ‘coloureds’ or people of mixed race, and Indians, equally subject to the race restrictions of apartheid. He was influenced by the Martinican writer and political philosopher Franz Fanon, and he himself wrote and published widely, unaffected by the risks that such overt political activity implied.

Soon enough, Biko was noticed by the authorities, and in 1973, he was the subject of a ‘banning’ order. This restricted him to the vicinity of his hometown of King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape. He was now a person of interest to the authorities, and his every movement was monitored. During his banning, Biko befriended the liberal white editor of the Cape Town Daily Dispatch, a newspaper that published a number of Biko’s articles. It was through this friendship that Biko softened his attitude to whites, and his distrust of the liberal white movement in South Africa diminished somewhat.

In 1977, Biko broke the terms of his banning order by driving to Cape Town, and on the return journey he and his companion were stopped at a roadblock and Biko was taken into custody. He was transported to a police station in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, and there held naked and in shackles. He endured lengthy interrogation chained naked to a grille, but details of precisely what happened have never been made public. On September 6, he suffered three brain lesions that resulted in a massive brain hemorrhage, the official explanation for which was that he attacked police and was subdued. Although examined by a doctor, he was declared fit, and forced to stand in shackles. He was driven then to Pretoria, naked in the back of a police vehicle, and he died alone in a cell on September 12, 1977. He was thirty-one years old when he died, and he remains an icon of the South African liberation struggle.

10 African Revolutionaries Who Changed the World
Senegalese Intellectual and First President Leopold Senghor Source: poltach.it

Leopold Senghor

Without doubt, the most accomplished of African revolutionary was Leopold Senghor, the first independent leader of Senegal. Senghor never raised a fist in protest, and never fired a shot in battle, but he led a revolution that championed the autonomy of black culture while at the same time celebrating all that could be derived from France.

Senegal was the flagship territory of the French colonial empire in Africa, and as such, a great emphasis was placed on developing an assimilated society of elite blacks acculturated with French values. In 1914, for example, a Senegalese black man, Blaise Diagne, sat in the French Chamber of Deputies as a representative of the overseas commune of Dakar. Leopold Senghor also occupied that seat at a later date, one of a number of black territorial representatives present at the center of French parliamentary tradition.

Leopold Senghor was born in 1906 into a wealthy Senegalese trading family, beneficiaries of unusual liberalism displayed by the French towards their favorite colony of Senegal. He suffered none of the bitter experiences of racism so common in other colonies, French or British, and he began his education at an elite French Lycee in the capital city of Dakar. In 1928, at the age of 22, Leopold Senghor set sail for Paris.

This was the great Jazz Age, and the decades of Paris Noir. It coincided also with the Harlem Renaissance, a powerful, post-reconstruction cultural revival that Leopold Senghor immersed himself in, while studying in the great institutions of the Sorbonne and the University of Paris. There he developed his uniquely aggregated Franco-African identity, while at the same time stacking up academic achievements. He was designated professor of the universities of Tours and Paris, while studying linguistics at the École pratique des hautes études, a constituent college of the University of Paris.

Along with other black intellectuals and academics from Francophone Africa and the Caribbean, Senghor began to develop the idea of Négritude. This, like the Harlem Renaissance, promoted and argued for black cultural autonomy in the face of European imperialism. This ought not to imply a rejection of French values, far from it in fact. Senghor valued more than anything his achievements within the French system and sought a symbiosis of the very best of both cultures.

Leopold Senghor saw service during WWII in the French army, although much of that time was spent as a German prisoner of war. In 1951, he was elected to represent Senegal in the French Chamber of Deputies, and in 1960, almost as a matter of protocol, he led Senegal to independence.

Senghor presided over no wars, shed no blood and suffered no military coups. He remained loyal to France, but a liberated African. In 1983 he was elected to the French Academy, and handed over power peacefully in 1980. In 2001 he died peacefully, and in many ways, that is the revolutionary concept he stood for.

10 African Revolutionaries Who Changed the World
South African Liberation Icon Nelson Mandela Source: sahistory.com

Nelson Mandela

It goes without saying that Nelson Mandela occupies the top spot in this list, for his revolution was so multifaceted and so universal that it supersedes his mere secular function as the father of a free South Africa. Mandela ranks among the great philosophical revolutionaries like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but also among the strong men of the African Struggle who were prepared to fight and shed blood for liberation.

Mandela was born in 1918, to a minor branch of the Thembu royal family in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. At the dawn of the modern liberation age in South Africa, he began his education in a Methodist missionary school, and then the great incubator of nationalist thought in South Africa, Fort Hare University. He was also one of few black men to study at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, where he also practiced law.

It was in Johannesburg that he began his involvement in African nationalist politics, joining the ANC in 1943, and co-founding its Youth League in 1944. Much of his professional work was in defending South African nationalists caught in the tortuous legal system that was the main official weapon against the independence movement. He was a member of the South African Communist Party, in association with which he was instrumental in founding the militant arm of the African National Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or the ‘Spear of the Nation‘.

He led a brief and abortive sabotage campaign, and in 1962, he was arrested for conspiring to overthrow the state, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Thus began the 27-year term of imprisonment that would found the Mandela legend. While he was thus isolated from much of the trench work of the anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and 1980s, he remained symbolically present, and his name became a rallying cry of freedom for a generation of black South Africans.

When he emerged from incarceration in 1990, both white and black South Africans were amazed at his reconciliatory tone, and it was on that basis that he went about the lengthy business of negotiating a transitional constitution. He served a single obligatory term as president of an independent South Africa, but with relief, he retired in 1999 and settled into the role of universal advocate of peace, reconciliation and racial harmony. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and he died on November 5, 2013, his career and legacy unsullied by corruption and power hunger. He truly was the revolutionary for all seasons.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

The African Report – How the CIA got Patrice Lumumba

Telesure – Patrice Lumumba: Revolution, Freedom, and Legacy in DR Congo

The Guardian – Patrice Lumumba: The Most Important Assassination Of The 20th Century

DW – Eduardo Mondlane: The Architect Of Mozambique’s National Unity

RFI – Burkina Faso: Thomas Sankara Assassination Trial To Begin On 11 October

The Conversation – Now There’s A Chance Of Justice For Thomas Sankara, It’s Useful To Review What Got Him Killed

Aljazeera – Burkinabe Ex-President Compaore Charged In Thomas Sankara Murder

The Conversation – How Frelimo Betrayed Samora Machel’s Dream Of A Free Mozambique

BBC News – Robert Mugabe: Is Zimbabwe’s Ex-President A Hero Or Villain?

The New York Times – Apartheid Inquiry Is Told Details of Biko Killing

CNN World News – S. African Officers Confess To Killing Biko

National Geographic Channel – How Nelson Mandela Fought Apartheid—And Why His Work Is Not Complete