My Nelson Mandela Moment

(By Professor W. Andy Knight )

When Nelson Mandela died on the 5 December 2013, I found myself glued to the television set for hours watching tribute after tribute about this great man, this towering figure of South Africa’s struggle against racism. He was 95 years old when he passed, and while the world knew that moment was coming, it still came as a shock to realise that this great light had finally dimmed.

My heart was heavy with sadness when I heard the news, but my mind was racing back to my Nelson Mandela moment. I was a student at York University twenty three years ago when Mandela, and his then-wife Winnie, visited the city of Toronto.

It was a bright, hot summer day on 19 June 1990 when Mandela arrived in Canada. He had been out of prison for only four months. But Mandela had decided that Canada would be one of the first countries he would visit because it was one of the few countries in the Western world that supported the international campaign that lobbied for his release from prison.

I left my university dorm early that morning to head downtown because I had heard a rumour that Mandela would not be speaking at Nathan Phillips Square (which was closer to York University), as initially planned, but would address a large crowd on the legislative grounds at Queen’s Park in downtown Toronto.

I managed to get a front row space, separated from the stage by phalanx of Toronto police and members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). It seemed like an interminably long period before Nelson Mandela finally took to the stage. He didn’t look like a prisoner or terrorist to me. He was tall with stately bearing and salt and pepper hair. He reminded me of my grandfather.

In a strong, distinctive voice and a slightly staccato delivery, Mandela thanked Canadians for their unwavering support of him and the African National Congress (ANC) during the struggle against the apartheid regime of South Africa. He asked the crowd to walk the last mile with him in his fight to put an end to the racist laws that permeated almost every aspect of life in his country. Throughout his speech, I felt a sense of pride to be Canadian. As someone born in the West Indies, I felt a sense of empathy with the plight of the South African black people. My father used to tell us stories about the time in Barbados when black kids could not walk through certain areas like Belleville. Those were the days of racial segregation in Barbados, not unlike the situation in South Africa.

This feeling of empathy made me consider how difficult it must have been for Mandela to live under the conditions of segregation in his own country. Mandela wanted to eliminate apartheid, but was stymied by the racist government of that country which used legislation between 1948 and 1994 to curtail the rights of the black majority. In 1970 black people in South Africa were denied the right to citizenship and segregation was practiced in educational institutions, in medical centres, on the beaches, and in public services.

Listening to Mandela on the lawns of the Ontario legislature, I could not help but reflect on the debate about whether or not Nelson Mandela was a terrorist or freedom fighter. While there is no internationally-agreed upon definition of terrorism, that term is generally reserved for the commission of premeditated violence, or the threat to commit such violence, aimed at destroying human lives and/or inflicting serious material damage that will disrupt social, economic and political processes and inculcate fear amongst a general population (i.e. beyond the immediate victims of the violence) with the view of forcing changes in society and/ or influencing political decision-making. For some, there are clearly problems with this definition – perhaps best encapsulated in the well-worn adage that “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.”

When the African National Congress (ANC) planted bombs indiscriminately during the 1980s in trash cans in Johannesburg, South Africa, was this organisation engaged in terrorism or freedom fighting? Nelson Mandela actually admitted to signing off on some of these violent acts.

The American right-winger, Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, asserts that the members of the ANC “were no freedom fighters.” He claims that Mandela and the ANC were nothing but terrorists whose real history was “bleached” by Western journalists. He claims that the ANC killed more civilians than did the members of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

However, a compelling case can be made that Mandela and the ANC resorted to this kind of extremism only because there was no other avenue within apartheid South Africa for opposition groups to express dissent. Prior to the founding of the ANC, blacks in South Africa had struggled with the British and Boar colonizers in an attempt to regain control over their land and resources. The many wars between the locals and foreigners ended in 1878 with the colonial power’s resounding victory over the indigenous people of South Africa.

By the 1900, the British had broken the backs of the African kingdoms and for the first fifty years of the ANC’s existence that organisation was, for all intents and purposes, a non-violent movement for national liberation. However by the 1960s, out of frustration, the ANC decided to take up arms against the racist South African government because blacks were being systematically discriminated against, marginalised and, in some cases, deliberately massacred (note the Sharpeville incident).

In a leaflet – the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) — issued by the military wing of the ANC in December 1961, one can deduce, clearly, the ANC’s frustration with the Nationalist government of South Africa. Part of that document reads:

“The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom. The government has interpreted the peacefulness of the movement as weakness; the people’s non-violent policies have been taken as a green light for government violence. Refusal to resort to force has been interpreted by the government as an invitation to use armed force against the people without any fear of reprisals. The methods of Umkhonto we Sizwe mark a break with that past.”

It is at this point that the radical arm of the ANC, led by Nelson Mandela, made a conscious decision to embrace extremism. In his autobiography, Mandela explained what he thought were the various violent options available to the ANC at the time. He wrote:

“ We considered four types of violent activities: Sabotage, guerrilla warfare, terrorism and open revolution. For a small and fledgling army, open revolution was inconceivable. Terrorism inevitably reflected poorly on those who used it, undermining public support it might otherwise garner. Guerrilla warfare was a possibility, but since the ANC had been reluctant to embrace violence at all, it made sense to start with the form of violence that inflicted the least harm against individuals: sabotage.”

Despite Mandela’s attempt to provide a nuanced explanation for the nature of the ANC’s resistance against the immoral South African government, at that time the US government (as did the Government of South Africa), and many within academia, labelled him “a terrorist” and the ANC organisation was viewed as a radicalized extremist (terrorist) group.

Nelson Mandela spent a good chunk of his productive years in prison for sabotage because of his role in the ANC’s armed struggle. Eighteen of those years were spent on the former leper colony called Robben Island. Then he was later transferred to Pollsmoor Prison and then to Victor Verster Prison. All told, Mandela was deprived of his freedom for 27 years, six months and six days.

In retrospect, many in the West came to view Nelson Mandela as a hero, a freedom fighter, and a cultural icon comparable to Mahatma Gandhi. He even went on, at the age of 75, to become the first President of his country to be elected (1994-1999) in a multi-racial, democratic vote, and he won the Nobel Peace prize in 1993.

Even if one considered Nelson Mandela a terrorist in his heyday, once out of prison he became an elder statesman who denounced terrorism and – a far cry from his days as co-founder of an organisation that was forced to use violence as a means to get the racist apartheid regime in South Africa to end the discrimination against the non-white majority. What this clearly shows is that someone who was considered a radical extremist and terrorist one day can be viewed completely differently the next.

Apart from Mandela, other examples of individuals who made that personal transformation include Menachem Begin, Gerry Adams, and Yasser Arafat. Since radical extremism can be reversed, is it possible then that, someday, some of the same people who are being labelled as “terrorists” today by the US may one day be viewed as national liberators and statespersons?

The difference between the revolutionary and the terrorist lies in the reason for which each fights. For whoever stands by a just cause and fights for the freedom and liberation of his land … cannot possibly be called terrorist.

During my Nelson Mandela moment, that distinction became clearer to me.



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