Years ago, as a 10-year old in fourth grade, I recall sitting in class as a teacher told us of a political prisoner, incarcerated an ocean away. He had been there for a long time and there was little hope for his release. Despite my hazy recollection, there remains one sentence I remember with absolute clarity: “Il va sûrement mourir en prison.” Not two years later, the man who would surely die in prison—Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela—walked out of Victor Verster Prison a free man.
Mandela’s recent death has triggered a cavalcade of tributes to South Africa’s first black president, in which no praise seems too high. There is, however, another view of the man—one in which he is a communist, a terrorist, a racist and a generally despicable character. Although this current is sufficiently eccentric (to use a polite term) to pose no threat to Mandela’s legacy, it does appear to be more prevalent than usual among self-described “friends” of liberty. While Mandela was no saint, he was one of the twentieth century’s great champions of freedom—one who should be admired by anyone who believes in the supremacy of the individual over the collective.
To acknowledge the obvious, yes, Mandela was a terrorist. While the word has lost all objective meaning in our political discourse, in ordinary English it refers to “a person… who advocates terrorism,” which itself is “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.” On the plain meaning of those words, the leader of an organization that carries out acts of violence to effect political change can only be a terrorist. As for communism, his denials notwithstanding, it appears that Mandela was indeed a party member at one time. He was undeniably close to Fidel Castro and among the patrons of his movement was perhaps history’s most repressive regime: the Soviet Union. And so, as is normally the case, there a kernel of truth to the criticisms.
What the critics omit to mention is that Mandela was combatting a regime whose policy of apartheid was profoundly anti-freedom and indeed anti-human—a policy that made American segregation seem benign by comparison. Three of South Africa’s four official racial groups were disenfranchised, and interracial sex criminalized. Non-whites were herded into designated neighbourhoods and required internal passports to travel within their own country. White universities were forbidden to blacks, whose inferior educational institutions were designed to churn out labourers. Economic controls ensured racially-acceptable economic outcomes. An honest title for the Suppression of Communism Act would have been the Suppression of Political Opposition Act. And, of course, there was a hideous bureaucracy that devoted its efforts to such vital tasks as inserting pencils in people’s hair to determine their racial classification.
The regime’s violence culminated in a 1960 massacre of 69 protestors, which helped catalyze the founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress. Under Mandela, it launched a multi-year campaign, not of killing and vengeance but rather of “symbolic sabotage” against electrical installations, government buildings and so on. Under the circumstances, Mandela was a terrorist in the sense that Jean Valjean was a thief: literally true and wholly unfair. Such non-lethal actions can easily be described as self-defence against an aggressively violent state. And when arrested and put on trial, Mandela’s famous defence speech decried “black domination” in the same breath as its white equivalent before invoking “the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.” Not the typical ravings of an aspiring tyrant in the dock.
But it is Mandela’s actions following his release after 27 years in prison that are the true measure of the man. During his time behind bars, he contracted tuberculosis from the harsh conditions, was forced to perform hard labour in a limestone quarry (where the glare permanently damaged his eyes), was put in solitary confinement and even made to dig a trench and then lie in it so that his captors could urinate on him. Decades of this sort of treatment would be enough to embitter even the highest-minded among us. And yet, upon his release in 1990, Mandela called upon whites to “join us in the shaping of a new South Africa. The freedom movement is a political home for you too.”
Mandela was still no pacifist. In that same speech, while yearning for a day when “there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle,” he argued that “the factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today.” But if his commitment to a peaceful end to apartheid was ever in doubt, it could be no longer following the assassination of Chris Hani in 1993. Hani, a highly-prominent radical black activist, was shot by a Polish immigrant using a gun supplied by a sitting Member of Parliament. Their goal was to plunge the country into a racial civil war that would lead to a coup by the security forces.
All eyes turned to one of the few men with the stature and credibility to shape the aftermath: Nelson Mandela. It is easy to imagine the words that would have come from the mouth of a man bent on retribution, or a politician hoping to ride a wave of collectivist hatred into power. Such a speech would have begun something like this:
Such an address would have been in no way unusual, historically speaking. From Hitler to Lenin to Milosevic, fomenting hatred and division—no matter the human cost—is a classic political tactic of despots. And if ever a man had an excuse to lash out violently at his opponents, it was Nelson Mandela. But instead, he took another tack. Instead, the speech he gave began thus:
Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained the importance of those words: “What I
know is that if [Mandela] hadn’t been around, the country would, in
fact, have torn itself apart… Had he not gone on television and radio…
our country would have gone up in flames.” After the Chris Hani
assassination, only those immune to evidence could maintain that Nelson
Mandela was a violent fanatic.