Nelson Mandela has died. As the world reflects on his life and mourns his passing some people, not all of them vicious racists and/or rabid right-wingers, denounce Mandela as ‘a terrorist’ because of the violent actions of the armed wing of the ANC, and while I think it is right to condemn acts which led to innocent lives being lost, I think it is important to do so in context.
The context of course is that of a country divided by racial segregation officially brought into being in 1948 by the National Party that ruled ’til 1994. Apartheid denied many rights to non-white South Africans, such as the right to vote or the right to love freely. In 1960, after the ANC organised protests against the pass laws the South African government made the ANC illegal. Those peaceful protests turned into a massacre of unarmed civilians by the police. 69 deaths were recorded. 50 of whom were women and children. It was after this state sanctioned mass killing of civilians and the outlawing of the non-violent political party, that the MK, the armed wing of the ANC came into being.
“[I]t would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.”
Contextually we should remember that, as well as the assassinations and deaths in custody of ANC members like Joe Qgabi and Steve Biko, the South African government killed women, like Ruth First, and children, like six year old Katryn Schoon with letter bombs. To do so they employed people such as the South African secret policeman responsible for that child’s murder, Craig Williamson, and shotgun wielding hit men like Ferdi Barnard. Of course it is a stark truth that every government has its killers and thugs, but just because actions are state sanctioned does not mean that they should be accepted as just.
Bear in mind that the same police whose statistics we rely on to measure the violent actions of the MK, shot civilian men, women and children in the back as they fled. Bear in mind the government death squads, such as the sinisterly named The Civil Co-operation Bureau, and the campaigns of violence and murder they undertook.
I don’t condone violence, but I understand how it might become a desperate person’s or people’s seeming best option against impossible odds, against violence and repression.
To look at the comments barked out across the globe on social media, you might be forgiven for wondering whether Mandela was a saint or a terrorist, as if those are the only definitions possible. Whereas he was a man, a man who struggled in difficult times to bring equality to his people when they faced terrible injustice.
It’s easy, and facile, to impose black and white distinctions of absolute good or absolute evil to situations and the people therein. It is meaningless to do so. Reality is painted in many more colours. Pure white and pure black are actually very rare, if present at all, in nature, the same is true not just of human flesh, but also of human nature:
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” —Rivonia trial, 1964
RIP Nelson Mandela.