Let’s stipulate that Mandela did mend his ways, to the extent of forgiving his enemies and striving fr unity in post-apartheid South Africa. It remains an incontestable fact that as a young man he was personally involved in acts of sabotage that cost the lives of presumptive innocents. He was outspoken about it at his trial. That demands that we ask the core question of all civil uprisings: Does the situation Mandela fought against justify his crimes?
It is perfectly legitimate to come down on either side of that question.
You can read more of his thoughts on the matter in his most recent blog post. Recommended.
In another comment, DiveMedic accuses Mr. Mandela of carrying out and condoning ‘necklacing‘. He was never guilty of that, as far as I’m aware, although his former wife did so. He spoke out strongly against such actions when he was finally able to do so after his release from prison. To ascribe to him guilt for the actions of others is simply untrue, and has no foundation in fact.
A great many people have never forgiven Nelson Mandela, or the African National Congress, or other revolutionaries in many other conflicts, for their acts of terrorism and violence. I’ve read many of their comments online since the news of Nelson Mandela’s death broke. To provide just one example (with which I emphatically disagree), see ‘A Good Communist‘ at Western Rifle Shooters Association and its associated comments. (The title, of course, is a misnomer, because Mr. Mandela denied being a communist. On the basis of my long experience of South Africa and study of his life, I believe him, despite the frothing-at-the-mouth one-sided ‘evidence’ produced by articles such as this one. I advise you to take a long, hard look at the sources it cites in support of its arguments, and judge it accordingly. Independent, balanced and scholarly, they ain’t.)
I encountered terrorism at first hand, many, many times. I’ve written about some of them before – in these blog articles, among others, particularly the last one:
If you haven’t read them before, I recommend that you do so – if only to establish my credentials to talk about this subject. I know far, far more about terrorism ‘up close and personal’ than most of my readers.
I agree, without hesitation, that in the early 1960’s Mr. Mandela was a terrorist. That’s undeniable – he admitted it himself. He outgrew that, and became first a political leader, then a statesman in the last years of his life. However, in calling him a terrorist, we have to ask why he became one. The answer is terrifying, because it shows how easily misuse of the law can create terrorism and violence – as it may yet do in these United States, and as it has done here before.
The problem in South Africa was the blind, obstinate refusal by the National Party government – and by many White persons who did not belong to that party – to even consider granting equal political status, and equal rights under the law, to all South Africans. They insisted that this would mean racial suicide – the domination of Whites by Blacks. (If the capitalization of the races bothers you, I apologize, but this is how such matters were expressed in South Africa at the time.) Instead, in a policy that became notorious under the name of apartheid, they came up with a fantastically grandiose scheme to grant ‘independence’ to each Black tribe in its own ‘Bantustan‘ or homeland. Within those homelands, they would enjoy all the rights they wished. Outside those homelands – in the 87% of South African territory reserved for the Whites, who constituted less than 10% of the country’s population – they would be ‘foreigners’, not entitled to equal rights or equal treatment, and subject to ignominious restrictions. In effect, they would be stripped of citizenship in the land of their birth.
To give expression to apartheid, the White government passed innumerable laws. Among the most notorious were the Population Registration Act, the Group Areas Act, the Pass Laws, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act, the Suppression of Communism Act and the Terrorism Act. There were many more, all of which effectively banned Black political, social and economic organization in ‘White’ South Africa. (For example, Black trades unions were banned along with political organizations, because the two were seen as feeding each other.) The Suppression of Communism Act became a particularly useful tool in the hands of the apartheid government to suppress any Black political opposition by labeling it and its instigators or protagonists as ‘Communist’. As Wikipedia correctly points out:
The act defined Communism and its aims so sweepingly that anyone seeking to change a law could be considered a Communist. Since the act specifically stated that one of the aims of Communism was to stir up conflict between the races, it was frequently used to legally gag critics of racial segregation and apartheid. Communism was so broadly defined in the act that even judge Franz Rumpff stated during the trial of African National Congress (ANC) president James Moroka that “[the charge] has nothing to do with Communism as it is commonly known”, and defendants were commonly convicted of “statutory Communism”.
This led directly to the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe and the beginning of Black terrorism. As Nelson Mandela said in his justly famous ‘Speech From The Dock‘ in 1964, when he was convicted of terrorism:
I have already mentioned that I was one of the persons who helped to form Umkhonto. I, and the others who started the organization, did so for two reasons. Firstly, we believed that as a result of Government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalize and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of this country which is not produced even by war. Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the Government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the Government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.
There’s much more at the link. Bold, underlined text is my emphasis. I submit that this speech is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand Nelson Mandela or terrorism in South Africa. It’s indispensable material. Highly recommended.
What Mr. Mandela said in that extract, in the context of South Africa in 1964, is absolutely, incontrovertibly true. It cannot be denied. It’s simple fact. Every avenue of peaceful protest had been shut down, not just by legislation, but by force. The Sharpeville massacre was the most egregious example, but there were many others. Under the circumstances, he and many others came to believe that their only recourse was to violence . . . and I can’t argue with them. At that time, in that place and under those circumstances, they were almost certainly correct.
Does it seem that I’m condoning terrorism? I’m not . . . but the fact that I cannot and will never condone terrorism does not mean that I refuse to acknowledge the desperation that leads some to undertake it. That’s a reality these United States have confronted more than once in the past. The activities of so-called ‘guerrillas’ in Missouri and Kansas during the Civil War are perhaps the best-known examples. What student of that conflict has not heard of ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson, William Quantrill or Champ Ferguson on the Confederate side, or James Henry Lane, Blazer’s Scouts or the Loudon Rangers on the Union side?
If you close off every legal avenue of representation; if you use the machinery of the State to deny the rights and freedoms that we proclaim to be universal; if you force others to conform to the will of the political faction in power, including by misusing organs of State to oppress those who do not agree with or support that will; then you risk engendering terrorism as a response.
Right now, in these United States, we see a President allegedly trying to rule by executive fiat; using the IRS to intimidate political opponents; and seeking to ignore legal and constitutional restrictions on his powers.. He also arrogates to his Administration the right to kill American citizens without due legal process. There are many who argue that opposition to such an agenda – even armed resistance to it – is not terrorism, but patriotism. There are conflicting views on this. Some call it a threat; others consider it dissent, a legitimate response to what they see as political oppression. Isn’t it funny how terrorism, or the perceived threat of terrorism, appears different when viewed from one side or the other? Isn’t that precisely the same situation we confront in categorizing Nelson Mandela and the ANC? Were they terrorists, or patriots?
Mr. Mandela overcame his terrorist past to become, first a political leader, then a statesman. Others have done so in the past in various countries, including Ireland (consider Michael Collins and W. T. Cosgrave) and Israel (where Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin were all former ‘terrorists’ according to official definition). I daresay many of those who formed the first government of the United States after independence would also have been labeled as ‘terrorists’ by Britain at the time.
I think the word ‘terrorist’ has been so misused and abused over the years that it’s almost meaningless today. I prefer the word ‘criminal’. If one commits an act that is morally evil – murder, rape, whatever – there can never be any justification for it, legal, political, social, economic or otherwise. To call it ‘terrorism’ merely obscures its intrinsically evil nature.
Mr. Mandela was indisputably guilty of such actions at one time in his past. He moved on beyond that stage of his career, and strongly opposed terrorism by his followers and by other factions in the run-up to South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. To label him as a ‘terrorist’ forever is a travesty of justice and a deliberate denial of the truth. You might as well call me a ‘soldier’ today because once I wore a uniform and carried a gun (or, for that matter, because I shot terrorists). I haven’t been a soldier for decades . . . but if you want to pin that label on me, because of what I once was, go ahead – knock yourself out. It’s no skin off my nose. I don’t think it’ll affect Mr. Mandela’s legacy if the short-sighted and misguided among us do the same to him as a former terrorist, even though – like most of us – he ‘grew up’ and became far more than he once was, and a far better person.
He is now in the court of a far higher Judge than our opinions. May his sins be forgiven him, and may he rest in peace . . . and may the same mercy be extended to us. I know that I, for one, will most assuredly need it.