Why we have to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s revolutionary past

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Nelson Mandela was a political prisoner turned statesman.  And he was a freedom fighter, too.  And we must celebrate it all.

Now with us only in spirit, Nelson Mandela has left an enduring legacy as a man who fought colonization and racial oppression in his native South Africa, and ushered in a new post-apartheid era of racial equality.

In the aftermath of his death at 95, he is praised for his greatness—greatness because he resisted the temptation to lash out at white South Africans when he came to power.  Payback is a you-know-what, and history is replete with stories of the subjugated coming to power in a given country, and not only retaliating against the evil overlords-turned-losers, but creating another system of oppression in their place.  Mandela did not do that, and for that he must be honored as a man of peace.  In fact he was, as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and that is no easy feat.

But wait a minute.  There is a tendency right now to overlook or at least downplay the other Mandela, the Mandela before he was imprisoned on Robben Island, Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verser Prison for 27 years.  That is, Mandela the more “controversial” rebel and the revolutionary, which we must also embrace.

After all, we must remember that Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) were designated as terrorists in the United States, and were only taken off Uncle Sam’s terrorist watch list in 2008 after pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus.  Ronald Reagan had labeled Mandela a terrorist, as had the South African apartheid regime, and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had refused to impose sanctions on the apartheid government.

Although Nelson Mandela was initially a nonviolent lawyer-activist who was committed to finding solutions through peaceful protest, things changed after the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960.  At Sharpeville, anti-apartheid protestors challenged the apartheid regime’s pass laws that dictated where blacks could and could not travel.  Police opened fire on the protestors and killed 69 protestors.  The government declared a state of emergency and banned the ANC.  Mandela and others were tried for treason and found not guilty.

At that point, the ANC committed itself to armed struggle.  Mandela went underground and in 1961 formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation), or MK.  The militant MK targeted government targets and symbols of apartheid through bombing campaigns.  And he left the country, traveled abroad throughout Africa and Europe, building support for his ANC and studying guerilla warfare.  In 1962, after returning home, he is arrested, convicted and sent to prison.

I will tell you that I am a pacifist, and believe in the resolution of conflict through peaceful negotiation and diplomacy.  I also understand that when people find themselves with their backs against the wall, they do what people do in such circumstances.  They find a solution to their back problem.  Sometimes the means by which this is achieved is not a subject for polite company.  And those who are not living under those cruel conditions might not be in a position to judge.

Some say that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.  And who does the labeling makes all the difference.

One group that stood with Mandela when he was labeled a terrorist was the National Lawyers Guild.  In a statement, the organization said, “As our longtime member Lennox Hinds – Mandela’s lawyer in the United States – reminds us, ‘Mandela was arrested by the South African forces with the support of the CIA.’”

Movements have different players who employ different tactics to get the job done.  Looking at American history, slavery was ended through the work of abolitionists such as Frederick Douglas.  At the same time, slavery was also resisted through the rescue missions of Harriet Tubman, the slave rebellions of Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser and others, and the insurrections carried out by figures such as John Brown.

In the civil rights era, there were litigators at the NAACP who helped ended segregation, and nonviolent protestors who marched in the streets and sustained water hoses and police dogs.  Yet, there were groups such as the Deacons for Defense and Justice and the Black Panther Party, who fought racial oppression through armed self-defense.

Meanwhile, people evolve.  Circumstances change, tactics change, and successful leaders learn to adapt to the changing times.  For example, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X seemed to converge later in their activist lives.  While King evolved from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Vietnam War and the Poor People’s Campaign, Malcolm evolved from the Nation of Islam to Pan-Africanism and a global perspective of international human rights.  Certainly, FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover considered both men terrorists, a common label used to discredit political activists and social change agents.

Similarly, Mandela evolved from pacifist to militant to pacifist. But all the while, those who feared the potency of his leadership branded him a terrorist because they feared his endgame—an end to apartheid and the source of their power—more than his tactics.

Without Mandela the revolutionary, there would be no Mandela the peacemaker.  You cannot take the statesman without embracing the militant.  They are one and the same.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove