Why the West considered Mandela a terrorist?

Article published on Dec. 22, 2013
Article published on Dec. 22, 2013

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

It was amaz­ing how often after Nel­son Ma­dela's death peo­ple thought­lessly re­peated that he, the Nobel Peace Prize lau­re­ate, was, in fact, a com­mon ter­ror­ist. Yes, he was the cre­ator of the guer­rilla army which fought against the oppressive gov­ern­ment. So was Robin Hood, Zorro and the three Mus­ke­teers. Why we jus­tify their ac­tions and we can­not do the same with Man­dela?

A por­trait of Nel­son Man­dela as a young man

At the be­gin­ning let us dis­pel some myths. Man­dela was not a saint. In 1940s and 1950s he was angry young man who have seen a lot of in­jus­tice around him­self and that made him even angrier. Until March 1960 African Na­tional Con­gress used the method of pas­sive re­sis­tance ini­tiated in India by Ma­hatma Gandhi. It led them to strike in Sharpeville, where black min­ers wanted to de­stroy their passes that they needed to enter white neigh­bor­hoods. They were sure it would be a peace­ful demon­stra­tion, be­cause mine own­ers needed their work­ers. To tame defense­less min­ers, the white gov­ern­ment called on armed troops, which opened fire with ma­chine guns. Sixty-nine men died shot, most of them from be­hind when they have al­ready been run­ning away. It was the turn­ing point for the ANC which al­lowed Man­dela to cre­ate a guerilla army.

How­ever, Nel­son Man­dela was not Che Gue­vara and his com­rades were not real sodiers. They had no idea how to fight nor how to carry out mil­i­tary ac­tion. Most of their hand­made bombs did not ex­plode or fell apart. When we look at Man­dela as a guerilla sol­dier, his por­trait would be rather piti­ful. From 1961 to 1962, when he was the com­man­der, his sol­diers car­ried out one mil­i­tary ac­tion when they blew up power plants and high-volt­age lines. There was only one vic­tim - a sol­dier was killed, be­cause a bomb ex­ploed in his hands. This image of Man­dela as a blood­thirsty ter­ror­ist was rather the white gov­ern­ment pro­pa­ganda that jus­ti­fied the pol­icy of apartheid.

Hero or Vil­lian?

The judge­ment is not so easy when it comes to South Africa. Tsot­sis, young gang mem­bers, were con­sid­ered free, be­cause they op­posed the law of the white gov­ern­ment. This is a com­mon mo­tive in the West­ern cul­ture - out­casts and out­laws, Robin Hood, Zorro, the three Mus­ke­teers, Bon­nie and Clyde, cow­boys and pi­rates. Ro­man­tic fig­ures which we are able to for­give a lot, be­cause they re­mind us that a sin­gle in­di­vi­dual has a chance in the fight against op­pres­sive au­thor­ties. In the West­ern Cul­ture they are leg­ends. It was the same with the French Re­sis­tance and the War­saw Up­ris­ing dur­ing the World War II. But we do not call them ter­ror­ists. Why Man­dela is diffrent?

1984 in 2013 

There is a term 'dou­ble­think' in Nine­teen Eighty-Four by George Or­well. It is a process, often un­con­scious, of hold­ing two con­tra­dic­tory be­liefs in one's mind si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Like e.g. when we speak of the 'free world', we have in mind not only the United States and Eu­ro­pean Union, but we in­clude also un­de­mo­c­ra­tic regimes. What counts that they are agains Rus­sia and China. So it was South Africa dur­ing apartheid. Nel­son Man­dela was on the U.S. ter­ror­ism watch list, be­cause in the early 60s the United States did not dif­fer much from South Africa, when it comes to racial seg­re­ga­tion. In fact, The New York Times re­ported in 1990 that the C.I.A. played an im­por­tant role in Man­dela's ar­rest in 1962. He re­mained on the watch list until 2008, when he was al­ready re­garded as a sym­bol of peace and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. At the same time George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion jus­ti­fied tor­tures on pris­on­ers of war in Guan­tanamo.

What is wrong with the West­ern world that we judge so rashly? Man­dela was called a ter­ror­ist when, in fact, it was the white gov­ern­ment which first opened fire on un­armed civil­ians, like then dur­ing the Soweto Up­ris­ing in 1976 shoot­ing at de­fense­less chil­dren. Yes, Man­dela did not con­demn the use of vi­o­lence by AMC, but the white gov­ern­ment did not beat its breast nei­ther. When I think about Man­dela as a ter­ror­ist, there is only one de­f­i­n­i­tion which fits here - that a ter­ror­ist is a black/coloured/Arab man who fights armed against whites. And this is truly Or­wellian de­f­i­n­i­tion.