RIP Nelson Mandela, 18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013

Just one action made Nelson Mandela the titanic figure he became. Without that one step, he would have been a footnote in history. His triumph was that he refused to disown armed struggle (aka terrorism) in exchange for his personal freedom.

In January 1985 South African President P W Botha announced in parliament that Mandela would be released if he “unconditionally renounced violence as a political instrument.”

Nelson Mandela’s reply was read out by his daughter Zindzi in front of a cheering crowd:

“I am surprised at the conditions that the government wants to impose on me. I am not a violent man… It was only then, when all other forms of resistance were no longer open to us, that we turned to armed struggle. Let Botha show that he is different to Malan, Strijdom and Verwoerd. Let him renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle apartheid. Let him unban the people’s organization, the African National Congress. Let him free all who have been imprisoned. banished or exiled for their opposition to apartheid. …
Only free men can negotiate… I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.”

Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela

Had he replied differently, Mandela would have isolated himself from the ANC and weakened the anti-apartheid struggle. At best he would have become irrelevant. At worst he would have begun the negotiated surrender of part of the anti-apartheid movement, and prepared the way for the destruction of the movement by the South African state.

On 2 February 1990 President F W de Klerk unbanned the ANC and other illegal organisations and announced the freeing of some political prisoners (those jailed for non-violent offences). On 10 February Nelson Mandela was freed, unconditionally. It all happened exactly as Mandela had demanded five years earlier.

Nelson Mandela’s legacy is complex and flawed. South Africa is not the country that the opponents of apartheid fought for – not most of them, anyway. By 1990 the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. Capitalism’s enemies, as well as its friends, believed that capitalism had triumphed, and that no alternative was possible. They believed that that the triumph belonged not just to capitalism in general, but to neo-liberalism in particular. So in the moment of their victory, the leaders of the ANC believed they had no choice but to negotiate a neo-liberal future for South Africa. Ronnie Kasrils, at that time a member of the ANC’s National Executive Committee, wrote in June 2013:

“The ANC leadership needed to remain determined, united and free of corruption – and, above all, to hold on to its revolutionary will. Instead, we chickened out.”

South Africa is still a desperately unequal country, unable or unwilling to meet the needs of all of its people.

Across the world, it seems now to be considered virtually blasphemous to call Nelson Mandela a terrorist. But of course he was a terrorist. He had to be.

Whether or not he was guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted at the Rivonia trial in 1964 (“I am guilty of no crime,” he said in court, though he offered no defence but instead gave an hour-long speech in mitigation), he was undoubtedly a terrorist within the present-day meaning of the term in UK law. If that doesn’t seem quite right, the solution is to change the law, not to rewrite history. In the meantime, there’s no shame in being called a terrorist .

I’ll leave the last words to Benjamin Zephaniah:

Nobody did anything so no one is guilty,
Nobody banned de books
No one set up road blocks
Everybody waz supporting de Communists and Blacks
Everybody knew apartheid put in practice would not work
Yes, everybody waz protecting de Blacks from getting hurt,
Nobody done apartheid
Dey were all revolutionaries
Who Dun It? Benjamin Zephaniah, Propa Propaganda, Bloodaxe Books, 1996
Mandela Place, Glasgow
Nelson Mandela Place, Glasgow. Previously called St George’s Place, it was renamed Nelson Mandela Place in 1986. It was at that time the location of the South African consulate (they took to using a PO Box for their address)
Photo © Damien du Toit