We tend to flatten the biographies of deceased heroes into tidy, tame packages. In the limelight of such adulation, Nelson Mandela appears to have been a universally-admired father figure, spreading love and peace around the world. But this was not always the popular perception. We must avoid a collective amnesia about the global opposition he faced and the true heroism of his deeds.
Mandela was no dove. In 1961, he co-founded the group Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation"), which was the militant wing of the African National Congress (ANC). Following the Sharpeville Massacre, in which scores of black demonstrators were gunned down by South African police, Mandela and the ANC felt they could no longer rely on solely non-violent strategies in opposition to Apartheid. Umkhonto we Sizwe led guerrilla-style attacks on the South African government and was subsequently labeled as a terrorist organization by both the South African and United States Governments.
Later in his 'Prepared to Die' speech at the opening of his 1964 trial, Mandela recalled that "[we] came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force."
In the wake of his death, commentators and politicians wax poetic about Mandela's legacy of peace and reconciliation, commoditizing and co-opting his name for their respective causes. But it is important not to gloss over his work with Umkhonto we Sizwe, and other acts of resistance, because they highlight desperate nature of the oppression he faced. It also gives context to other struggles for freedom today, both violent and nonviolent. Many such groups are also called 'radical' and 'terrorist,' labels that we may later find embarrassing:
The United States' Response
As a result of the ANC's continued resistance to the Apartheid rule of the South African government, both it and Mandela himself were placed on the United State's terrorism watch list in the 1980s.
Under the Reagan administration, State Department listed the ANC among "organizations that engage in terrorism." Shortly thereafter, President-elect George H.W. Bush wrote the forward to the Defense Department's "Terrorist Group Profiles," a list of 52 of the "world's more notorious terrorist groups," which also included the ANC.
In the midst of Cold War turmoil, it was the Soviet Union, not the United States, that quickly came to the aid of black South Africans. Preferring to back political ideology over the defense of human rights, Reagan vetoed the US-imposed sanctions on South Africa drafted in the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. Then-Congressman Dick Cheney also voted against the bill, and in 2000 defend his stance stating "I don't have any problems at all with the vote I cast 20 years ago.''
As Class Struggle notes, "News outlets around the Western world are hurrying to publish obituaries that celebrate his electoral victory while erasing the protracted and fierce guerrilla struggle that he and his party were forced to fight in order to make that victory possible...Nelson Mandela used peaceful means when he could, and violent means when he couldn’t. For this, during his life they called him a terrorist, and after his death they’ll call him a pacifist—all to neutralize the revolutionary potential of his legacy, and the lessons to be drawn from it."
Continue to part 2 for a discussion of Mandela's more recent controversies, and the importance of keeping all aspects of his biography alive.