Nelson Mandela did an excellent job as president of South Africa. He honored the notion of a limited constitutional republic, avoided wealth redistribution policies, kept the national budget close to balanced running a relatively small deficit despite extraordinary circumstances, and emphasized people coming together rather than pitting groups against each other. Mandela maintained a reasonable foreign policy and careful alliances with other countries.
A Changed Man
Despite Mandela’s early dedication to communist and socialist principles, when he took power he did not exercise them. He did not nationalize the banks and industries as he had proposed many years ago, because he realized that socialism is a noble-sounding idea that destroys economies in practice.
But Nelson Mandela, the revered patriarch of the new South Africa who passed away days ago, had gone through other changes as well. He gave up the idea of terrorism, and urged moderation of the militant, terrorist wing he co-founded as part of the African National Congress. While he was in active command of Umkhonto we Sizwe or “Spear of the Nation” (abbreviated in English as “MK” with manifesto here) it was named as a terrorist organization — by John F. Kennedy in 1961. This group, led by Mandela in conjunction with communists from other countries, called themselves freedom fighters of course.
Terrorism by the Spear
Initially, most of the terrorist activity of Mandela’s MK was directed against government facilities with relatively little loss of life. After Mandela was arrested in 1962, tried for these activities and sent to prison for life, MK ramped up its activities to attack public facilities, killing civilians as well as government and military personnel. No one seriously disputes these acts; even leftist Wikipedia lists highlights:
Landmark events in MK’s military activity inside South Africa consisted of actions designed to intimidate the ruling power. In 1983, the Church Street bomb was detonated in Pretoria near the South African Air Force Headquarters, resulting in 19 deaths and 217 injuries. During the next 10 years, a series of bombings occurred in South Africa, conducted mainly by the military wing of the African National Congress.
In the 1985 Amanzimtoti bomb on the Natal South Coast, five civilians were killed and 40 were injured when MK cadre Andrew Sibusiso Zondo detonated an explosive in a rubbish bin at a shopping centre shortly before Christmas. In a submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the ANC stated that Zondo acted on orders after a recent SADF raid in Lesotho.
In the 1986 Durban beach-front bombing, a bomb was detonated in a bar, killing three civilians and injuring 69. Robert McBride received the death penalty for this bombing which became known as the “Magoo’s Bar bombing”. Although the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Committee called the bombing a “gross violation of human rights”, McBride received amnesty and became a senior police officer.
In 1987, an explosion outside a Johannesburg court killed three people and injured 10; a court in Newcastle had been attacked in a similar way the previous year, injuring 24. In 1987, a bomb exploded at a military command centre in Johannesburg, killing one person and injuring 68 personnel.
The bombing campaign continued with attacks on a series of soft targets, including a bank in Roodepoort in 1988, in which four civilians were killed and 18 injured. Also in 1988, in a bomb detonation outside a magistrate’s court killed three. At the Ellis Park rugby stadium in Johannesburg, a car bomb killed two and injured 37 civilians. A multitude of bombs in “Wimpy Bar” fast food outlets and supermarkets occurred during the late 1980s, killing and wounding many people. Wimpy were specifically targeted because of their perceived rigid enforcements of many Apartheid-era laws, including excluding people of colour from their restaurants. Several other bombings occurred, with smaller numbers of casualties.
The Mandela Necklace
The practices got worse. Torture became routine, often using a grisly technique called “necklacing”: They forced a tire filled with fuel around the shoulders of a prisoner, and lit it. Death took many agonizing minutes. This practice was made most famous by Mandela’s wife Winnie Mandela — Google[necklacing] to turn up many accounts of the practice, including some horrific videos indeed that were being snuck out of the country in the 1980s.
While Mandela had initially proclaimed that the ANC and its terrorist wing were fighting for harmony between the races, this torture was usually aimed at any blacks who cooperated with whites, who were “too friendly.” Winnie made a speech on this torture practice that became rather famous:
(This practice was going on as recently as 2008, and jihadists used it against non-Muslims in response to the Danish Mohamed cartoons. Drug dealers and dictators found it useful as well.)
Back in South Africa, land mines were also employed by the African National Congress’s MK forces — again, killing mostly black workers.
This was going on during the 1970s and 1980s, while their leader’s husband Nelson Mandela sat in jail but was very visible. The communist involvement was large, and ANC received support and supplies from Communist countries, using these to kill people in South Africa.
The timeframe is important to keep in mind for some context on current news:
Cheney and Reagan
Many media hit pieces are now attacking Dick Cheney in relation to Nelson Mandela, and the central message of all of them is that Cheney was so cold, so evil, that he actually called Mandela a terrorist:
In Forbes, a left-winger writes that Reagan and Cheney and other conservatives were motivated by racism, and the writer tucks in “leading race-baiter” and “noted segregationist” phrases to describe conservatives.
In Huffington Post, the attack is focused directly on Cheney:
They link to this story from a progressive site in 2000 attacking Cheney for this vote:
We did not know then what we know now. We did not know that his statesmanship would be legendary, outstripped only by his forgiveness. We did not know he would be president, or that he could survive 27 years of imprisonment to walk free again. And in our nation, where athletes are superstars, we did not know that Americans would one day shower Nelson Mandela with ticker tape, like the Yankees fresh from winning the pennant.
Despite this opening, the rest of that article attacks Cheney for not seeing this future:
Yet Republican vice presidential candidate Cheney still defends his vote, saying on ABC’s “This Week” that “the ANC was then viewed as a terrorist organization. . . . I don’t have any problems at all with the vote I cast 20 years ago.” What, then, does this tell us about what information Cheney considers before he takes a decision? And what the long-term consequences are likely to be, and on whom?
By no means were Mandela or the ANC universally viewed as “terrorists,” evidenced by the fact that the vote on the resolution was 245-177 in favor, but still shy of the two-thirds needed to override President Ronald Reagan’s veto.
Of course, the writer is wrong. The Democrat-sponsored legislation he mentions explicitly requires the ANC to renounce its practice of terrorism:
Declares that U.S. policy toward the African National Congress, the Pan African Congress, and their affiliates shall be designed to bring about a suspension of violence that will lead to the start of negotiations. Requires the United States to work toward this goal by encouraging such organizations, through diplomatic and political measures, to: (1) suspend terrorist activities; (2) make known their commitment to a free and democratic post-apartheid South Africa; (3) agree to enter into negotiations for the peaceful solution to South Africa’s problems; and (4) reexamine their ties to the South African Communist Party.
Later, it has in its official summary, threatening ANC if it continues:
Declares that U.S. policy toward violence in South Africa shall be designed to end such violence and to promote negotiations. Declares that the United States shall work through diplomatic and other measures, to isolate those who promote terrorist attacks on unarmed civilians and those who provide assistance to such individuals.
Emphasis added by me in all cases. So, the legislation itself calls ANC a terrorist organization, which is no surprise — remember that they’d been designated a terrorist operation by JFK a quarter-century before when Nelson Mandela was in charge. Now, they were much worse as noted above.
Excuses and Surprises
Cheney’s statement, that they were viewed as terrorists in 1986, was exactly correct. The article defending Mandela argues that it was unfortunate that Mandela had to do what he did, but he thought “deeply” before doing it — and other people did worse things:
Mandela and his longtime friend and colleague, ANC Secretary General Oliver Tambo, reflected deeply before advocating violence as even a limited tactic of the ANC. In a 1958 conversation with economist Winifred Armstrong, they reflected on their belief that “if you sow violence, you reap violence.” Armstrong, who has lived, traveled and written extensively about Africa, noted that “Mandela and colleagues thought ahead, and considered the impacts on all of the players, not just the home team.”
All of this was arguably true. Nevertheless, the terrorist label was correct. One could argue that Bin Laden “reflected deeply” before engaging in jihad; certainly he’s made arguments along those lines. Ghandi did as well — and reached the conclusion that violence must be avoided. That is true virtue.
Mandela, with Castro and Ghaddafi and others as allies, did not think that way at the time. Later, perhaps no one was more surprised than Mandela himself that he became a moderate, self-limiting leader of whites and blacks both in South Africa, renouncing the communist approach he had so strongly advocated. In the same 2000 interview, Cheney went on to say of Mandela that he had “mellowed” and “became a great leader” — which is certainly true.
Voting Against Releasing Mandela?
The Cheney attacks focus on the bill that would become the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986.
Did the 1986 law release Mandela? No. It suggested an eventual path to the “release of political prisoners,” in diplomatic language, that depended upon Mandela’s ANC (and other Communist groups) giving up terrorism:
Expresses the sense of the Congress that the achievement of such an agreement could be promoted if the United States and its major allies would meet to develop a plan to provide multilateral assistance for South Africa in return for South Africa implementing: (1) an end to the state of emergency and the release of political prisoners; (2) the unbanning of groups willing to suspend terrorism and to participate in negotiations and a democratic process;
Eventually, then, this could lead in a roundabout fashion to a prisoner release. Mandela is not mentioned specifically.
The New York Times, crowing about Reagan’s defeat when Congress overrode his veto in October 1986, outlined the provisions of the bill but did not even mention political prisoners. And the bill had been amended “to prevent any assistance to the African National Congress or any affiliated organization until the controlling body of the African National Congress no longer includes members of the South African Communist Party” which the New York Times also did not mention.
Reagan Speaks on South Africa
Reagan explained that the bill was misguided, and would cause great misery to South African blacks. Let him explain, in this speech in late June 1986, a few days after the ANC’s “Magoo Bar Bombing” attack on civilians:
Reagan was right, of course, and that misery lasted for years. Might it have been faster the other way, with less misery, if we continued our pressure rather than cutting them off? We don’t know, and we cannot know. But there are some things we know about what did happen.
When this bill was voted into law, overriding Reagan’s veto, did the ANC (now supported sort of by the US) give up their terrorist activities? No, they ramped up their terrorist attacks. In other words, the ANC themselves acted to pull the teeth out of the US law ostensibly passed to help them. Over the next few years, the ANC and the Pretoria government nearly destroyed each other.
While these terror campaigns raged, by the ANC and against him by the SA government, Mandela remained in prison. But he had grown, had “mellowed” as Dick Cheney said, and had become a spokesman for reason. He was almost the only one, and when a deal was cut releasing him from prison — ultimately to become president of South Africa and architect of a new constitution — his moderate and intelligent approach salvaged and largely healed the wounded nation.
Mandela truly deserves the honors he received for this, in my opinion. He became indeed a great man who accomplished great things. It does not change the early days, or the great evils done in his name (or indeed to him and to South African blacks) early on, but few indeed can come through the dramatic evolution that marks the life of Nelson Mandela.
May he rest in peace, with the well earned respect of the world. But let us not forget his evolution, so that we may understand better how to help others along that same journey.
===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle