Nelson Mandela: Terrorist turned Santa Claus or Liberator of the Oppressed?

Photo by Adrian Steirn/Nelson Mandela Foundation/Getty Images via Huffington Post

Despite his lifelong commitment to Non-Violence (except briefly against unmanned institutions such as power stations) Mandela was proclaimed a Terrorist by President Reagan, and remained on the Terrorist Watch List under successive Presidents till 2008.

Mandela was released from prison in 1990, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and was elected President of South Africa in 1994 while yet on the Terrorist Watch List.  In the mean time a process described  by former Harvard Professor Cornel West as Santa Clausification was on. That he bore no hatred to his oppressors and their allies is a tribute to his extra ordinary character. Some of the rich and powerful may have gained from the law and order, peace and stability in South Africa under Mandela, but that was incidental. His primary objective and main achievement was the liberation of the oppressed in South Africa and his secondary objective was to support liberation struggles elsewhere. As Robin Kelley and Erica Williams in “Madiba in Palestine, December 10, 2013” have put it, “In the end, Apartheid died on the sharp edge of principles, struggle and solidarity, not forgiveness, apologetics and compromises. This was Madiba’s (Mandela’s) gift and the gift of the movement”.

A few decades ago, when Mandela was yet incarcerated in Robben Island, Bishop Tutu (later Archbishop) was touring the West to drum up support for the liberation of South Africa. He made little progress. Mandela, Tutu and the entire ANC were denounced by the leaders of the USA and many other countries of the West as Terrorists. Bishop Tutu was denied access to many institutions that he sought to address, and the pulpit in many churches in which he wished to preach his message. Central to that message was a request to dis-invest in South Africa so as to weaken the economic infrastructure sustaining Apartheid. Even the ebullient Tutu was frustrated by the blank wall he came up against, especially in the USA. Those who invested massively in South Africa, including elite institution such as Harvard University, made the palpably false claim that such dis-investment would hurt the Blacks more than the Whites, thus weakening the struggle.

Among the few churches that allowed Tutu access to their pulpits was Christ Church Cambridge(in Massachusetts), then led by Rev. Murray Kenney. Situated among the magnificent Harvard buildings, that church had an upper class character temporarily undermined by Rev. Murray Kenney during his tenure as its Pastor. Tutu’s refrain was that however hopeless the prospects may appear to be, the people of South Africa would eventually triumph, and when that happens they will remember who helped them in the hour of need and who did not.  In the event Apartheid was overthrown earlier than many expected. In those years, South Africa’s closest friends included many in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Socialist Bloc considered dis-reputable by leaders of the USA and many other affluent countries.

Post Apartheid, old enemies have suddenly become friends. Many of them even attended his funeral, seeing it as a photo and media opportunity not to be missed. This new found backing is plentiful but cheap.  Mandela is being praised for forgiving his enemies and their colleagues rather than for overthrowing Apartheid. He was essentially a modest, self effacing team person who never claimed exclusive credit for such achievements. We are reminded of Bertolt Brecht’s great poem “Questions from a Worker who Reads”, in which we find the following reference to the construction of Thebes, an ancient and magnificent city surrounded by a wall with seven imposing gates. “Who built Thebes of the seven gates? / In the books you will read the names of Kings / Did the Kings haul up the lumps of rock?”  Mandela never forgot and constantly asserted that the overthrow of Apartheid was the result of a concerted team effort. He was a part of the leadership but that achievement required the power of the most down trodden – the workers, the poor in the community working closely with women and youth, within South Africa and outside.

Mandela also emphasized that the leadership was collective and included several diverse others including Walter Sisulu (Black), Joe Slovo (White) and Ahamed Katurada (Indian, who gave the eulogy at the family part of Mandela’s funeral).

Mandela was ever loyal to his old allies.  On his release from prison in 1990 he met Yasser Arafat in Zambia and endorsed him as a “fellow freedom fighter”.  Later he told a Los Angeles Times reporter that, “We [the ANC] identify, with the PLO because, just like us, they are fighting for the right to self-determination. Speaking in Seattle, USA during the late 1990s, Mandela said, “American leaders wanted me always to distance myself from my politics, from people who stood next to me and when we were struggling against Apartheid. They want me to distance myself from Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi. Well, these are the people who stood with us.  It was not you, and who are you to tell me who to be friends with?”

To my mind, Mandela is by far the greatest statesman of our generation, covering the second half of the 20th Century and extending to this year(2013). Sadly, 27 of those years were spent by Mandela in prison in Robben Island. Unavoidably, there is comparison with Mahathma Gandhi and his Indian colleagues for whom he had great admiration. But such comparison is inappropriate. Gandhi was half a century senior to Mandela, and in my opinion the greatest statesman of his time(mostly early 20th Century). In the words of Mandela, “Gandhi rejects the Adam Smith notion of human nature as motivated by self- interest and brute needs, and returns us to our spiritual dimension with its impulse for Non –Violence, Justice and Equality.  He exposes the claim that everyone can be rich and successful, provided that they work hard. He points to many who work themselves to the bone and still remain hungry.

Gandhi initially went to South Africa as a lawyer recruited by wealthy Indian Buisnessmen, but events politicized him.  He cut his political teeth in South Africa over two decades but left for India before Mandela was born. Much later, Mandela paid a visit to India and met Indira Gandhi, a fellow champion of the oppressed, who was then Prime Minister.  She reminded him that India had lent Mahathma Gandhi to South Africa for two decades. Mandela corrected her and said India had lent Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to South Africa and, two decades later, South Africa had returned to India Mahathma Gandhi. Mandela’s and Gandhi’s circumstances and culture were very different. In South Africa Gandhi’s political work was mostly with Indians domiciled in South Africa. His ascetic, vegetarian, ahimsaic, kadhar wearing culture would not have had the same political resonance or cultural traction in the African community in South Africa. But Mandela has learnt much from Gandhi’s legacy including the use of Non- Violence as a political strategy.

Another fundamental difference is that Mandela was a more private person than Gandhi.

Gandhi’s thoughts and action have been widely disseminated both by Gandhi himself in his autobiographical “My Experiments with Truth”, his journal titled “Harijan” and many other writings by Gandhi as well as by his colleagues and by journalists. In contrast, Mandela spent many years underground or in prison and much of what we know of him is of the years after his release from prison late in his life. Gandhi was expert at using the media to gain public attention to good effect, eg: his actions (and those of the Magistrate) captured in the rivetingly theatrical documentary titled 100 minutes. In contrast, Mandela is much more reticent about his public and private life. The document that bears the evolution of his thinking over the decades in the face of sustained oppression is his statement from the dock at the opening of the Defence Case in the Rivonia Trial, Pretoria Supreme Court, South Africa on April 20 1964. Its inspiration is not from Gandhi but from Castro’s celebrated ‘History will Absolve Me’ in Castro’s trial by the Batista Government in relation to the attack on Moncado Barracks in Cuba. At the conclusion of the Rivonia Trial, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison.

The fifteen-page Rivonia Trial statement of Mandela is a coldly rational, meticulously argued classic that deserves to be widely read and appreciated. Its 50th Anniversary will be on April 20th, 2014, and it is hoped that some way will be found to celebrate that statement in April 2014. The statement is much too long (15 pages) to reproduce in this presentation, but I will underline some highlights. The ANC was founded in 1912 and for 37 years it was unconditionally committed to a constitutional struggle. Mandela quotes from Chief Lutuli, then Head of ANC,who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and who declared in 1952:

“Who would deny that thirty years of my life have been spent knocking in vain patiently, moderately and modestly at a closed and barred door? What have been the fruits of moderation? Those past thirty years have seen the greatest number of laws restricting our progress, until today we have reached a stage where we have almost no rights at all.”

Even after 1949, the commitment to non-violence remained but not the commitment to exclusively constitutional means of protests. Accordingly, 8500 persons defied apartheid laws and went to jail. 20 of them, including Mandela, were also convicted of organizing their campaigns but their sentences for the latter offence were suspended by the judge who found that discipline and non-violence were conscientiously enforced. When the ANC was declared to be an unlawful organization in 1960, the ANC refused to dissolve but went underground. In the same year, there was a referendum among South African Whites to establish a White republic. Mandela helped to organize protests but every protest was ruthlessly and violently crushed.

By 1961, it was clear that violence was unavoidable. This was the decision taken by an organization called Umkhonto we zizese (which translates into spear of the nation)headed my Mandela, and formed in Novemeber 1959 by some ANC activists. But, ANC itself remained wedded to non-violence and retained overall political control. Umkhonto decided that sabotage, not involving the taking of life would be the only form of violence resorted to, excluding guerilla warfare, terrorism and open revolution, Even sabotage would be limited to destruction of unmanned economic infrastructure and symbols of apartheid. Umkhonto activists would go into action unarmed, at great risks to themselves, so as to avoid any possibility of taking the life of others.  The response of the state was violent and repressive, with heavy loss of life among Umkhonto activists and other Blacks. It was therefore decided that while limiting action within South Africa to sabotage without the taking of life, preparation should be made, in locations outside South Africa, for eventual escalation to guerilla warfare. This required some military training abroad to prepare for that eventuality.

Running through the Rivonia statement is a persistent attempt, on the part of Mandela, to dissociate himself, Umkhonto and the ANC from Communism. This may seem to many as unnecessary. But in the context of the obsessive anti-Communism of the South African government this dissociation makes sense. Mandela repeatedly asserted that he is an African nationalist and not a Communist and that his objective does not include a restructuring of the economy on Socialist lines.

The most revealing part of the statement comes at the end where he provides some details the racism of the Apartheid state and the terrible toll on the lives of Africans from infancy onwards. The impact was not only on infant mortality but also on the physical and mental development of children. In their schools they were denied school feeding, which was provided even to affluent children in White schools, further handicapping the development of Black children. These were deliberate measures taken to retard the mental development of Black children. The Prime Minister said in the Debate on the Bantu Education Bill in 1953:

‘When I have control over Native education, I will reform it so that natives will be taught from childhood that equality with Europeans is not for them . . . People who believe in equality are not desirable teachers for Natives. When my Department controls Native education I will reform it so that it will know for what class of higher education a Native is fitted, and whether he will have a chance in life to use his knowledge.’

These sentiments relate to the education sector. Similar sentiments were embodied in rules applicable to every other sector and all life under Apartheid. This was the system that Mandela and the people of South Africa over threw. It is surely one of the greatest political achievements of all time. Nelson Mandela and the people of South Africa deserve to be remembered more for the overthrow of Apartheid than for extending peace and goodwill to those who had worked to sustain it.

  • Jayalath

    African kingdoms and empires have had slaves, majority slaves were working as warriors , they just were slaves within a kingdom or empires .
    Therefore the slavery wasn’t just some thing new to Africans . ,eventually, European like Dutch, Portuguese , Spanish and English invaders scrambled to colonise Africa .in the book of civilisation of Kenneth Clark exposes the cruelty of African slavery during this period and it says itself that the horrors it involved were far more horrible in 17 and 18 centuries .
    It has been estimated that over 9 million slaves died from heat and suffocation on their way from Africa to America , it is a remarkable figure .
    However the anti slavery movements became the first communal expression of awakened conscience . And it took long time to work out as there were huge vested interests involved . The slavery regarded as a property at that time. Finally it came to end 1807 . . These unfortunate incidents were happened after 15 the century since European colonised Africa .
    These Europeans were oppressors , and invaders. I call them simply thieves,and murderers. By the way South African Whites descend from Dutch And English .they robbed them competitively .non stop. And it was called legal invasion . Not like today , there weren’t things as human right violations or terrorism to invade countries . They invade and stay as long as they require .
    This is just a speck of tearful world history, which I brought you to remember what happened to the Africans under the white invaders . It was a ruthless and barbaric mass murder ,honestly I cannot wait to see when will the Europeans punish for what they did to Africa .
    However , This poor mandela was one of many Africans who felt about the mass robbery . Also we must not forget the phase When he was in jail he and other political prisoners were imposed on restrictions on speaking , writing and reading among 30 strong political prisoner group .you have no idea of the cruelty of man against man in prisons .
    Despite the hard ships and despair at time , he firmly believe he would one day step out into the sunshine and walk with firm feet . He was freed on 1990 after 27 years of prison sentence . So, it is still a puzzle to whole world that
    How he felt to forgive for people who entirely annihilated whole continent and their culture . i still cannot comprehend . It wasn’t a story alone South Africa ,it is all about whole Africa . Thus , No doubt of him that he wanted to liberate his people from invaders , and strengthen the reconciliation in the country , of course he wisely did it .where would his legacy be tomorrow ? Why did he choose to stay on middle route ? Was he threaten by unknown world?

    Nevertheless ,I just mentioned about African slavery to imagine the scale of problems Africans face in that time , because some of us tries to get advantage from mandela which was clear from one of Sunanda deshapriya ‘s bizarre article on this site .