Was Nelson Mandela a terrorist?

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This article was originally published March 15, 2018. It has been getting some good traffic, and it is important to keep this fact in the public eye.

If you’re a millennial like me, then growing up you were taught that Nelson Mandela was a bit of a secular saint. Pictures of his aged smiling face were plastered over the walls of the classrooms at my high school. My Vice Principal (whose office I had cause to visit frequently) had Mandela’s autobiography prominently displayed on his desk. On television his name became a byword for all that is good and noble about the human spirit.

Photo by garryknight

For my entire childhood the man was held up as the pinnacle of liberal morality, venerated by almost everyone including the members of my own family. I had absolutely no reason to doubt this narrative at all, no alternative view was ever presented.

Boy was I surprised to find out he was a terrorist.

Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 as the First World War was coming to a close. A Xhosa, Mandela was born into the Thembu royal family and so was technically some sort of aristocratic tribal prince. He studied law at the University of Fort Hare and the University of the Witwatersrand before working as a lawyer in Johannesburg.

He joined the African National Congress in the 40’s. The ANC or African National Congress was a group founded in 1912 under British rule to advocate for the rights of black Africans. Mandela founded their youth group and helped organise the 1952 “Defiance campaign” protests and the 1955 “Congress of the People”.

Mandela had originally opposed Communism and preferred a racially exclusive form of pan-African nationalism, but as the 50’s wore on he had a change of heart and joined the banned and multi-racial South African Communist Party (eventually becoming a Central Committee member). After the Sharpeville massacre in March 1961 where 69 people were killed after seven thousand Africans protesting the Apartheid passbook laws attacked a police station, Mandela joined with activists from both the ANC and the SACP to form the terrorist group MK (“Umkhonto we Sizwe” or “Spear of the nation”).

[This short documentary glosses over MK crimes.]

Mandela was named the leader of this new explicitly violent group and in June 1961 sent a letter in his own name to South African newspapers warning the government that a campaign of terrorism would be launched unless a national constitutional convention was called. Beginning on 16 December 1961 Mandela ordered the beginning of the MK terror campaign with bomb attacks on government targets.

MK began with 57 bombings on 16 December, followed by further attacks on New Year’s Eve. Most of these early targets were meant as sabotage rather than to inflict casualties but the fact that untrained terrorists were planting homemade improvised explosive devices around major cities did not go unnoticed.

In February 1962 Mandela left South Africa and publicly travelled to Tanganyika (now Tanzania) Ethiopia, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Senegal and England soliciting and receiving tens of thousands of pounds in funding for his new terrorist group. Returning to Ethiopia, he began a six-month course in guerrilla warfare but was only able to complete two months of it before being recalled to South Africa by the ANC leadership.

Considering that he had just founded a terrorist group, announced that he was the leader of the terrorist group to every newspaper in South Africa, ordered that terrorist group to carry out almost one hundred bombings, travelled around the world promoting the terrorist group and getting funding for the terrorist group, and then had undergone training in guerrilla warfare in a foreign country, it’s fair to say the South African government was interested in tracking Mr Mandela down to have a word with him.

Possibly a conversation about… oh… I dunno… terrorism?

Mandela and 10 others were arrested mostly at or near the Liliesleaf farm property in the wealthy Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia (although Mandela himself was apprehended elsewhere). The small property had been bought by members of the South African Communist Party the year before to serve as their underground headquarters.

The trial took its name from the suburb and became known as the Rivonia Trial. The prosecutors knew that the eyes of a hostile world were upon them and so took every care to be scrupulous in their case, even to the point where accusations against one of the accused were dismissed due to lack of evidence. Ultimately ten men including Mandela took the stand.

The full list of charges were:

  • Recruiting persons for training in the preparation and use of explosives and in guerrilla warfare for the purpose of violent revolution and committing acts of sabotage
  • Conspiring to commit the aforementioned acts and to aid foreign military units when they invaded the Republic
  • Acting in these ways to further the objects of communism
  • Soliciting and receiving money for these purposes from sympathizers in Algeria, Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria, Tunisia, and elsewhere.

All of which were one hundred per cent true. There was no unfair trial, no legal railroading here. Mandela and his associates were as guilty as sin and the prosecution could produce ream after ream of evidence to prove it.

They couldn’t even claim that the laws they were being charged with were unjust since “forming a terrorist group to commit acts of violence against the government” is pretty much a crime in every country on earth.

I never got taught any of this. No-one in my generation did. We were all told that the saintly Mandela was locked up for protesting against the evil white racist Apartheid and was kept in jail for 27 years because the whites were scared of letting him out to speak against their unspeakably evil racist unjust evilness.

The judge and the prosecution even let Mandela read out a THREE HOUR speech on the stand which he was then able to have printed and published afterwards. He was copying Fidel Castro who had made a speech of similar length as a defendant after his first failed attempt to take over Cuba in 1953 and who (along with Mao and Che Guevara) Mandela praised as an inspiration.

The maximum penalty for terrorism of this nature in 1962 South Africa was death. The trial was more than fair, and considering the actions of Mandela and his comrades the ultimate penalty would certainly have been justified, especially by world standards at the time. Instead the court took pity on him and sentenced him only to life in prison instead.

MK continued their terrorist campaign under new leadership and thanks to ever more sophisticated weapons smuggled in by sympathetic foreign governments, eventually moved from attacking infrastructure to attacking people.

In 1983 they carried out the Church Street bombing which killed 19 and wounded 217.

In 1985 they carried out the Amanzimtoti bombing which killed 5 and wounded 40.

In 1986 they carried out the Durban beach-front bombing which killed 3 and wounded 69.

In 1987 they carried out a bombing at the Johannesburg Magistrates Court which killed three and injured 15.

In the late 80’s numerous other bombing were carried out, particularly at banks, courthouses and fast food restaurants known to enforce the Apartheid laws. These attacks killed dozens more and injured hundreds. In July 1988 MK even attacked the Ellis Park rugby stadium in Johannesburg with a car bomb that killed two and injured 37.

From 1985 to 1987 MK conducted a campaign of planting landmines on rural roads which caused 50 explosions and 25 deaths, mostly of black labourers.

The post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that MK maintained clandestine prison camps both in South Africa and sympathetic neighbouring countries for any black person thought to be collaborating with the white authorities. In these camps torture and summary executions were (in the words of the commissioners) “Routine”. In the slums and shantytowns, ANC sympathisers (led by Mandela’s wife Winnie) usually didn’t bother with camps, they just “necklaced” suspected informers.

I was never told any of this. None of us were. So many people in the West today see the rhetoric, legislation and genocidal violence being directed at the White South Africans and wonder where the hell this came from.

It was always there. And Nelson Mandela started it. We were just encouraged to cheer the “Rainbow Nation” and imagine a world of peace and love without ever looking behind the curtain. We were taught to feel joy at the sight of a bent and frail old man smiling through squinted eyes. We were conditioned to cheer the new dawn without ever looking too closely.

We were lied to. And as in the near future we see mobs of machete wielding “freedom fighters” come for the painstakingly built farms and terrified families of the Boers, just remember that it was people like good old “Madiba” and his Western supporters who taught them violence against whites was acceptable.

We were lied to. They lied to our parents, our teachers and the people we trusted, and those people unwittingly passed the same lies down to us.

And we should be very angry about it.