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Monday, December 9, 2013

Mandela the 'Terrorist' (Part 1)

This week, we offer a special BTSF edition to explore Nelson Mandela's legacy, and the world's response to his work. Begin with part one:

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.
Sharpeville Massacre

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.''

This United States was not alone in its opposition to Mandela and his organization's cause. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stated that "the ANC is a typical terrorist organization ... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land."  Parliament Member Teddy Taylor said Mandela "should be shot." 

Prominent Christian leaders were also outspoken in their opposition to Mandela and his work. Both Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell defended the Apartheid regime. Falwell urged his followers to write congress to tell them to oppose the Anti-Apartheid Act stating that “the liberal media has for too long suppressed the other side of the story in South Africa.” (See also: The Cross and the Lynching Tree).

It is important to remember how recent these events are (see post: Recent History), and how many Americans and Christians now find themselves on the wrong side of history, even as they clamor invoke Mandela's name today. Apartheid ended in 1994 after over a half century of legally-mandated and government enforced racial segregation and oppression. Mandela wasn't removed from the terrorist watch list until 2008, by which point he was a 90-year-old man and recipient of the Nobel peace prize (15 years earlier!). Even as he served as president of South Africa, he was required to obtain special permissions from the US Secretary of State to enter the United States, a situation that Condoleezza Rice found "rather embarrassing."

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. 


  1. Replace "gorilla" with "guerrilla."

  2. There are still many American voices that want to reduce Mandela to a terrorist even now-- conservative organizations to which Mandela's socialism was actually his biggest crime. And right-wing Christians for whom he just wasn't capitalist enough to have his sins forgiven.

  3. Yes, indeed! Notice the begrudging, trite, or dry statement made from certain prominent politicians. I don't believe these tepid relationships suddenly changed overnight.

    Many chose, and still choose, ideology over basic human rights. Do they realize such a choice renders their ideology hollow and meaningless?

    It is interesting that communism makes Mandela look bad more than he making communism look good.

  4. Several conservative Christian friends of mine have been posting an article from New American Magazine which villainizes Mandela. None of the good things he did appear to matter at all.

  5. Smh. Exactly, these beliefs didn't just disappear.

    And then in the meantime, the Left pretends he was all puppy dogs and
    flowers, belittling the struggle and glossing over the horrors of black South
    Africa’s situation.

  6. Sadly they are completely ignoring the context. Several friends of mine posted about Mandela and communism - but they don't seem to acknowledge that he was not a) American or b) that the US government was backing apartheid. The context is really important to consider as its so far from an "Americanized" good/bad continuum that it must be considered in its own context in order to make sense!

    I am a little bothered at the rise of McCarthyism that seems to have come back in the last few years. The pope is a Marxist. Mandela is a Marxist. The president is a Marxist. What is going on?

    I spent four years in China. The modern PRC isn't even truly Marxist. This witch hunting going on in America now is bizarre!

  7. Awesome observation on ideology over human rights. And no - I don't think they realize it.

  8. We have the privilege of living in Cape Town currently. If you want to make an easy going, rooibos tea drinking South African angry, tell him there are still Americans who think Mandela is a terrorist. I'm pretty sure there's a bitterness there that's been brewing since the Reagan administration. Not only do we sound hypocritical ("has America never used violence to overthrow a regime?"), cowardly ("you didn't hate the human rights atrocities more than you feared socialism" and "the US funded the NP), unforgiving ("His entire life is a walking example of reconciliation and forgiveness. Do American Christians not see that? Isn't that what Christians are supposed to be about?") and rude ("Really? We respect and love Madiba. Without his leadership, we wouldn't be living in the new South Africa today...we wouldn't have the life we have now...what do you know...followed by some expletives") but if we truly saw the long walk to freedom this country endured together, we would see the offensiveness of this particular conversation. I am only just beginning to understand. Let's hope that the more we balance the propaganda of the past, the more we can appreciate the legacy.

  9. Great perspective! I noticed as well how very few actual South Africans were interviewed on American news media. Missing out on the main story!


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