Many of us have heard about the dichotomy between terrorist and freedom fighter; and it is often the subject of intense debate.
Nelson Mandela is revered as an anti-apartheid revolutionary amongst millennials and the older generation, yet unknown to most under-30’s, Mandela was considered a terrorist by the Reagan and Thatcher governments of the 1980’s. Conversely, governments of communist regimes and the ‘global south’ saw him as a revolutionary and a freedom fighter against the forces of both capitalism and racism. The debate (or contemporary non-debate) over Nelson Mandela’s intentions is clouded by the complex, colourful and fascinating history of South Africa. Archbishop Desmond Tutu described his country as a “rainbow nation”; referring to diverse range of ethnicities in the country ranging from Afrikaner to Zulu, proposing that a multiracial democracy could and would be successful; an ideal shared by Nelson Mandela, but not by the Apartheid government at the time.
In the eyes of the Apartheid government, Mandela was a threat to their white minority hold on power. They viewed him as a communist, an agitator directed by Moscow in the midst of the Cold War. It was thought that South Africa would soon turn into how the Congo did during the Congo Crisis of 1960, or towards the end of the Cold War, it would follow the way of what was Rhodesia and bring in a radical left-wing government similar to that of Mugabe.
The rationale of the white minority government was an interesting one, yet it was going against the grain of decolonisation and progressivism. In sending Nelson Mandela to prison, the government did not shut away a problem for decades on end; it fuelled cause célèbre movement that strengthened the case against the former settler colony. This movement called for an equal franchise, racial harmony, and the belief that South Africa was a nation for all that live in it, whether black, white or in between. This progressive agenda however, was challenged and question in the early 1990s.
At this point, international communism was collapsing and the recently unbanned African National Congress’ apparently alignment with the Eastern bloc was disappeared. Whilst this might have seemed like a victory on the part of a right-wing capitalist Apartheid regime, it was actually their demise; as are the paradoxes of the Cold War era. Just like the foreign policy of the United States during the post-Cold War, pre-9/11 era, there was no global ‘other’. No enemy to scapegoat, no evil commies or socialist agitators. The white minority Apartheid regime was truly on it’s own this time, and given the enlightened leadership of FW De Klerk compared to his hostile predecessors, he knew the game was up and the National Party could no longer attempt to justify it’s own existence.
Nelson Mandela on the other hand, being released in 1990, had left prison into a country disintegrating before his eyes. Some of the Apartheid-era “bantustans” ran by kleptocrats (such as Bophuthatswana) were undergoing a volatile power struggle, right-wing Afrikaner groups like the AWB were attempting to preserve Apartheid through the now deceased Eugene Terre’blanche, and rival ethno-political groups in the disenfranchised parts of the nation such as the Inkatha Freedom Party were calling for a Zulu homeland. But did Mandela live up to his terrorist namesake and call for a violent struggle? No. He called for reconciliation and his valiant pursuit for equality amongst all of South Africa’s diverse population and for that he is most worthy is a day in his honour.
So what thoughts are we left with for Nelson Mandela Day 2017? The struggle may be necessary but one of black and white anymore. But it is about rich and poor or good governance versus kleptocracy; sometime that a post-Mandela state has struggled to contemplate. I urge South Africans to hold true to the reconciliatory values of Nelson Mandela, as I can assure that if there is ever a Jacob Zuma Day 2027, it will be a state sanctioned holiday rather than one of real admiration.
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