By December 10, 2013 2 Comments Read More →

Was Mandela A ‘Terrorist’ Or ‘Freedom Fighter’?


In the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s death last week, a lot of opinions have been circulating throughout social media. These views have been relayed unfiltered by the anxieties racists often have in face-to-face engagements with the perceived “other.” Many who might have held negative, or even derogatory views of Mandela, used to keep their mouths shut in public during the 90s. But the Internet has changed all of that.

Following Mandela’s release from 27 years behind bars in 1990, any holding negative ideas about the man, largely shared them in private (unless, of course, they were Dick Cheney). Now, everyone and their grandma with a Facebook account has let their opinions be known about the anti-apartheid leader, regardless of whether those ideas are positive, negative, informed or based on assumptions, ignorance and bigotry.

Some of the liveliest discussions I have noticed, surrounding the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, have taken place on the walls of two Facebook friends of my own: Cynthia McKinney – a colleague of mine, the former Green Party Presidential candidate – and Tim Wise, the “white” anti-racism author, who focuses on topics relating to white privilege. One topic that I saw come up repeatedly was the idea of legitimate resistance versus “terrorism”. Many have taken to denigrating the memory of Mandela by calling him a “terrorist.”

Like most people, I absolutely detest terrorism and terrorist. I want nothing to do with either, and I whole-heartedly oppose both. But saying that one opposes terrorism is not enough. Ultimately, whether to rebut or agree with this claim that “Mandela was a terrorist,” one must answer a simple question: “What is terrorism?”

There are two primary arguments that I have seen mounted against Mandela, all related to this claim that he was a “terrorist.” In answering these, our questions about “What is terrorism” and whether Mandela was himself a terrorist or not, will be answered.

The first claim I have seen circulating about Mandela is the most obviously slanderous: “He was racist,” “hated white people,” called for a “White Genocide,” and so on.

It might surprise many to hear that such ignorant comments are permeating the “blogosphere” and social media, but these ideas have become all-too-common, especially amongst younger people, too young to remember the “Free Nelson Mandela” campaign. Others spreading these ideas are those who were simply too politically disinterested in those years of their lives to have an accurate recollection or assessment of what Mandela was fighting for, or what the African National Congress (ANC) was all about.

There were many “white” members of the ANC, including a leading member, Joe Slovo. This fact alone squashes such lies about the ANC and Mandela. Their fight was against apartheid and oppression, not against Europeans, or even the presence of Europeans in South Africa for that matter. End of story. Case closed.

The second claim made against Mandela is that “He was a terrorist saboteur.”

This cuts to the heart of the matter. Mandela was a saboteur, engaged in clearly illegal behavior. That much is agreed upon by all. But was Mandela a “terrorist” or a “freedom fighter”?

The United States seems to like terming those using violence to achieve political ends “freedom fighters” when they are fighting the enemies of the United States. But when they are fighting our “friends” suddenly, they become “terrorists” (even if they are the same people, once deemed legitimate). Was Mandela a terrorist? If he was, then the Founding Fathers of the United States were as well, as they were engaged in precisely the same sort of activity.

With this understanding, the flippant designation of anyone using violence, guns and bombs, to change the political landscape in their nation or another, as a “terrorist” simply will not do. “Terrorist” must mean something concrete. It must not change with the U.S. presidential administration. It must not be applied with a double-standard that gives our “allies” a free pass to engage in the same behavior.

Put simply, the most appropriate and consistent definition of a “terrorist” is someone deliberately targeting civilian populations to put pressure on the public of that nation, in order to influence political change. A person fighting an invading military force is not a “terrorist”, but they might not necessarily be a “freedom fighter” either. In Mandela’s case, the fact that he was fighting for freedom seems clear enough. The question only remains whether or not he targeted civilian populations.

The claim that is usually made is that civilians who were killed in ANC attacks by the Umkhonto we Sizwe (or MK), translated “Spear of the Nation” – the military wing of the ANC – were killed on the orders of Mandela himself.

First we must realize that civilians killed by the MK were unintentionally killed. Does that make it alright? Not in my book. To me that makes it a crime of negligent homicide at the very least. But when these attacks were carried out, the MK was not receiving orders from Mandela who was in prison. The Church Street Bombing was in 1983, and while many say that the MK had targeted civilians, by all accounts, the bomb went off 10 minutes early, killing those who were carrying it. As for the 1986 Magoo’s Bar bombing: the ANC denounced the act early on. It is quite likely that this was more a personal act carried out by officer Robert McBride, who was an ANC member. Either way, this happened while Mandela was in prison, with no connection or contact with the ANC, the MK or officer McBride. Still, I have seen people literally blaming Mandela for this attack and the civilians who died in it.

The MK had rebuilt their leadership from the ground up after earlier leaders had been locked away on Robben Island, and later in Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison. The MK had zero contact with him. He wasn’t giving anyone orders. The Apartheid Regime never afforded him such an opportunity.

So if one wishes to call the actions of the MK, while Mandela was in prison, “terrorism” that is an argument they may or may not chose to make. But to assign blame of actions carried out by MK members, under leadership that Mandela had no remaining connection to, is intellectually disingenuous and historically inaccurate.

Furthermore, the MK employed acts of sabotage to pressure the government with minimum – ideally no – casualties, bombing military installations, power plants, telephone lines and transport links at night, when they believed civilians would not be present. Mandela said that making sure to not target civilians was important for the MK “because it did not involve loss of life [and] it offered the best hope for reconciliation among the races afterward.”

In other words, Mandela was the opposite of a terrorist, because the object of his ideal sabotage actions was to not kill civilians.

Beyond this, I only wish to say one further thing, food for thought, as it were: every white person in South Africa owes Mandela a debt of gratitude for saving their lives. Mandela was a source of calm and reconciliation after his release from prison. The violence that had erupted in South Africa could have – and likely would have – easily erupted into a tidal wave that would have swept away all or most white Afrikaners. The reason it didn’t is because of the forgiving and peaceful heart of Nelson Mandela who very publicly called on both sides to lay down arms and stop the violence. What does he get in return? He gets under-informed bigots calling him a “terrorist” simply because they heard some pundit call him one, or read a blurb on an Internet meme that said so.

Do some home work. History can be fun. More importantly, it can help to ensure you don’t sound like racist when spouting disinformation about one of the most important activists and bridge-builders in modern history.

(Article by Micah Naziri; image from an ANC rally, via The African Communist)

2 Comments on "Was Mandela A ‘Terrorist’ Or ‘Freedom Fighter’?"

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  1. Linnea says:

    “Furthermore, the MK employed acts of sabotage to pressure the government with minimum – ideally no – casualties, bombing military installations, power plants, telephone lines and transport links at night, when they believed civilians would not be present. Mandela said that making sure to not target civilians was important for the MK ”because it did not involve loss of life [and] it offered the best hope for reconciliation among the races afterward.””

    Hmmm…I don’t know about that. OK, please excuse me from taking an example from an episode of Law & Order, but it was the first thing that came into my head when I read this (and all L&O episodes are based on real events, anyway).

    Say a public city park is torn down to construct a new apartment building. A group of environmentalists sets fire to the building in protest, believing it to be empty. Unfortunately, there was a person inside. This person wasn’t supposed to be there, but they were, and they were killed.

    These environmentalists may be fighting for a good cause, but they still killed somebody. The fact is, ANY act of arson or bombing has the potential to kill someone. Even if you do your best to avoid killing people, it can always happen.

    Does this make Mandela a terrorist? Honestly, I don’t know. But the idea that “they didn’t mean to kill anyone” just doesn’t sit well with me. Fine, so they didn’t mean to kill anyone. So what? They still planted a bomb, or set a fire, and anyone with a shred of common sense knows that’s dangerous. Even if they didn’t mean to kill anyone, they HAD to have known it could happen.

    • Copiosis says:

      It’s hard to say isn’t it? Living in an oppressive regime that has killed thousands of your kindred calls for actions beyond peaceful demonstrations. I think so long as they tried as best they could, they can’t be labeled terrorists.

      I think shows like L&O, like all mainstream TV as an establishment bias. It confirms the status quo so that we conform. So that show’s response to the apartment building scenario isn’t a 1:1 comparison.

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