Nelson Mandela died peacefully at 8:50pm last Thursday, December 5, 2013, in his Johannesburg home. The South African President called him a son of Africa and father to the new nation of South Africa. Tributes are pouring in particularly from the western world so it is easy to forget what it thought of him even thirty years ago. He was the first Commander-in-Chief of ANC’s military wing, forced into this role by the South African government’s savage attacks on unarmed demonstrators engaged in peaceful acts of civil disobedience.
Long labeled a terrorist and his African National Congress outlawed, the Reagan administration insisted on promoting Zulu Chief Buthelezi as a partner for peace. Violence between the rival black groups delayed the outcome, but even that ploy failed and the ANC emerged as the major leader of the people. Chief Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party at first joined ANC in a unity government but now sits in opposition.
Yet in the days when the ANC had their backs to the wall with little in the way of material support from anywhere, least of all from the West where they were stamped terrorists, the man who stood by them was Muammar Gaddafi of Libya — a man though clearly not without faults, but who led his country to the top of the Human Development Index in Africa. It is now a shattered country, split into three, its infrastructure destroyed including an expensive and elaborate water project that led to the greening of Tripoli. Nelson Mandela abhorred the attack on Libya and the brutal and savage murder of Gaddafi, the man who supported the ANC in its time of need.
Whatever might be said of the South African government (and there is plenty) it did bring the eight ANC leaders to trial; it allowed Mandela to speak in his defense; and it did not sentence any of them to death. Although, it does make one wonder what might have happened had the ANC been operating in our present drone-crazed world, when the South African military was in hot pursuit of ANC fighters into neighboring countries. Would these leaders, in our present vocabulary have been subject to drone strikes?
And then there is Ahmed Kathrada, a Muslim and one of the eight ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela, sentenced to Robben Island for their role in leading the armed resistance. Would he have been (in the current vernacular) an Islamic terrorist targeted for instant droning? He said he considered Walter Sisulu his father and Nelson Mandela his older brother, adding he could always go to Sisulu if he needed advice and after he passed away to Mandela. Breaking down, he wondered where he would go now.
The media in its selective reporting also fail to mention Cuba’s contribution. Cuban troops blunted the Kissinger-developed UNITA rebels supported by South African forces in Angola weakening South Africa in both Angola and neighboring Namibia to the south, where they were engaged against the ANC military wing. Add all this to the bombings and violence in South Africa itself, the boycotts against it, and the South African government gambled on using Mandela as a pawn to quell the violence — not unlike Israel using the PLO. He, of course, turned the tables by asking for an election with full black participation at an opportune moment — the murder of Chris Hani, a former ANC armed wing commander, by extreme right-wing conservatives.
The rhetoric employed against the ANC was not dissimilar to that used against the PLO and Hamas. One cannot also fail to forget how the ANC remained on the U.S. terrorism list all the way until July 2008, when George W. Bush signed them out long after Mandela had been president (1994-1999), and ANC leaders could at last travel to the U.S. without a special waiver.
The Pollyanna-like views of Mandela prevailing in the media tributes omit a salient historical fact: power is seldom surrendered he and others discovered; it has to be taken.