Shadows of Apartheid

Twenty-five years after apartheid, Xolela Mangcu is writing the first African-authored biography of Nelson Mandela—and urging young people to continue fighting injustice.

Xolela Mangcu Headshot
Professor of Sociology Xolela Mangcu
June 12, 2019

When Professor of Sociology Xolela Mangcu remembers his childhood in apartheid-era South Africa, the first image that comes to mind is darkness—both the darkness of living under an oppressive regime and the literal darkness that engulfed his segregated township each night when local authorities cut the electricity. In that pitch black darkness, his family huddled silently while violence swept through their streets. Police raided homes, arresting political dissidents. Fighting on the streets often ended in stabbings and fatalities. “Many of the young people I grew up with died in that violence,” Mangcu said. “That complete darkness has stayed with me to this day.”

It was also in that darkness that Mangcu's political consciousness was formed. As a child in the 1970s, he witnessed many of apartheid’s atrocities. He was 10 in 1976 when an uprising in Soweto ended in the slaughter of hundreds of student demonstrators by police. The following year, he marched in his town square to protest the murder of his idol, activist Stephen Biko. Those events spurred Mangcu into political activism, social-justice journalism and scholarly pursuits that led The Sunday Times to call him “South Africa’s most prolific public intellectual.”

Mangcu just completed his first year at GW, teaching a graduate class in Comparative Race and Ethnicity as well as undergraduate classes called The Sociological Imagination and Classical Sociological Theory. He has held fellowships at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Rockefeller Foundation, the Brookings Institution, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He has appeared as an analyst for the BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera. And he’s the author of nine books, including the acclaimed Biko: A Life. His current project is a multivolume biography of Nelson Mandela—the first ever written by an African author.

This year, as the world marks the 25th anniversary of the end of apartheid, Mangcu remains dedicated to sharing its lessons, whether with his fellow South Africans struggling to overcome what he calls “the invisible wounds” of the era or with his students who, he says, are eager to learn from his personal experiences. “Teaching is the joy of my life,” he said. From Cape Town to Washington, D.C., he encourages young people to remember the history of apartheid and to continue fighting against injustice.  “Our challenge as educators is to help our students see politics, freedom and justice as global concepts,” he said. “We have to get our students to think and know more about the world—because knowledge leads to action.”

‘A Sense of Possibility’

Mangcu, 53, remembers apartheid—the Afrikaans word for “separateness”—as “an incredibly psychologically traumatic moment.” For 50 years, South Africa's white-ruled Nationalist Party reined over a notorious system of institutionalized racial segregation. The white-minority government enacted laws controlling every aspect of the majority black population’s lives, from where they lived and who they married to the jobs they held and the schools they attended.

Still, Mangcu stressed that growing up in the Eastern Cape Township wasn’t continuous misery. His parents—teachers and music composers—tried to give their children the semblance of a normal life. “We had weddings. We played sports and music,” he recalled. “In the midst of this horror, we lived life to the fullest.“

Eastern Cape was also home to Biko, already a leading anti-apartheid activist and local hero when Mangcu was a child. Mangcu was drawn to Biko’s “black consciousness” concept of celebrating African dignity and self-worth, rather than Mandela’s more moderate “color blindness” approach. “If Mandela was our Martin Luther King, then Biko was our Malcolm X,” he explained.

Biko’s death in 1977 from a brutal police beating shook the township and spurred many, including Mangcu, to become more involved in the nation’s black consciousness student movements. He was arrested several times for his political activism, but was lucky to escape official charges that might have landed him in harsh state prisons. While on a fellowship at MIT and earning his PhD from Cornell University, Mangcu cheered with the rest of world as apartheid crumbled and, in 1990, Mandela was released from prison after 27 years. “It was a moment of jubilation and euphoria,” he said. Apartheid officially ended with the formation of a democratic government and the election of Mandela as president in 1994. After earning degrees in public policy and city planning, Mangcu returned to South Africa in 1999 to help rebuild his country. “There was a great sense of possibility,” he recalled.

As an academic and a journalist in the new South Africa, Mangcu frequently met with Mandela, even as he often found himself in opposition to the new president’s reconciliatory policies. “I thought he was denying the importance of race in history. To me, his mantra was: ‘The past is past.’ But I was saying: ‘No, the past is present.’” Still, Mangcu respected Mandela’s position as “as a metaphor for global human rights.” At Mangcu’s urging, Mandela memorialized Biko at a 2004 lecture as “a proud representative of the reawakening of a people.”

“As time went on, I became less and less ideological myself and I began to look at [Mandela] differently—not as an abstraction but as a person who had made historic sacrifices,” he said. “He had this magnanimity that softened me and turned me into the fan I am now.” Still, Mangcu says he won’t shy away from criticism in his upcoming Mandela biography. “The first obligation of the biographer is to the truth,” he said.

After Apartheid

Twenty-five years after apartheid, Mangcu says he’s gravely disappointed with the direction South Africa has taken as it struggles with challenges from HIV to unemployment to widespread corruption. “There is not only a financial collapse but a collapse of the soul,” he said. “A disenchantment has gripped us.”

Indeed, more than 6 million young South Africans did not register to vote in the 2019 elections—a shocking statistic in a country where youth have historically been at the front of political change. With unemployment running at 27 percent—more than half of it among young people—Mangcu accuses leaders of “betraying our youth.”

Still, with newly elected President Cyril Ramaphosa promising to reform the government, Mangcu hasn’t lost hope for his country. South Africa’s future—and, he says, the future of democracies around the world—once again depends on young activists inspired to action. “It's incumbent that young people themselves take up the political agency like we did during our time,” he said. The next generation of Biko’s and Mandela’s “need to make their voices heard.”