Recently, Nelson Mandela, one of the most highly regarded figures in the world, passed away. It may seem cruel, but I didn’t feel that sad. But, I realized why. I really don’t know anything about Nelson Mandela. Most of what I know about him is from the movie Invictus. In all seriousness though, I know he helped bring South Africa out from its apartheid government, but that’s about it. I used to think he was a peace advocate, until I read this article on Medium. I realize that he is a controversial figure, so this blog post is my attempt to understand him and who he was. I have a problem with people who are regarded as divine. Call me pessimistic or cynical, but I do believe you can only truly respect someone once you are aware of their flaws and not only their accomplishments.
From very early in his life, Mandela attempted to gain rights for the black majority in South Africa. But he did not have success with peaceful protests. As a result of this failure, he co-founded a militant wing of the African National Congress called the Umkhonto we Sizwe. Mandela was fed up with the lack of progress being made with peaceful methods, and thus he turned to violent means to achieve quicker results.
In his “I am prepared to die” speech, he stated
I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force.
Now I’m not trying to attack Mandela here. I simply want bring light to the fact that he wasn’t a peace advocate (which was my previous, uneducated impression of him). He explicitly says violence is necessary to bring change. His reason is reasonable as well – if the government is using brute force, he should be able to fight back.
But also think of society today. What would happen if we as citizens display violence to the police officers when they have to use force? How would the press react? What about be the eventual outcome of those who participated in the violence? Who would be considered the antagonists?
In a manifesto, he stated:
Our men are armed and trained freedom fighters not terrorists.
This quotation brings to mind the famous saying about one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. It is definitely the case here. Hell, the United States labeled the African National Congress as a terrorist organization (and Mandela was leading their militant movement!). Mandela was absolutely hated in the U.S. by my understanding, which is why I get frustrated when now he is treated as a messiah here.
Sure he is believing that is is liberating a group of people. Many people do, yet few are successful. But I think we should understand why the South African government arrested him. Yes apartheid was wrong, but the government saw a terrorist in Mandela and therefore imprisoned him for life. Would you not do the same if you were the government?
You can compare what he says to Middle Eastern terrorists today. The only difference is the success and global backing Mandela achieved. After all, history is written by the victors.
Mandela’s whole legacy brings the question of do the ends justify the means?
He was a significant reason for the downfall of the apartheid government in South Africa, and he eventually used his influence to promote philanthropic causes.
None of this success would have been possible without him forming a militant group and being imprisoned (which is said to have changed him to a more peaceful man).
So yes, one could argue that the ends did justify the means.
But then the question is can we always take this risk? Should we really promote revolutions against governments because it’s what is “right”? Yes, there’s a small change that it will work. But there’s also the chance it will turn into something disastrous. After all, there is a very fine line between what is considered freedom and what is considered terrorism. Should we push for this line to be approached? If yes, what are the possible consequences? If no, is what Mandela did actually right? Would we really want others to follow his footsteps?
Now you may think I’m very anti-Mandela by what I have written above. I would argue the opposite, however. If anything, what I wrote has made me respect Mandela even more. The acknowledgement of his “flaws” helps me understand who he was.
He was a black-skinned boy born in a society where the white minority unjustifiably discriminated against his “kind.” Naturally, he defended himself. However, he eventually did do this through violence as a result of frustration and became arrested. In prison, his goal of reform didn’t change. His views on how to did. He was eventually able to peacefully come to terms with the government and end the apartheid. A communist, he didn’t seize complete control over the country when he had the chance (like most other historical communists). He ruled for one term and willingly stepped down afterwards. A legacy was thus created for him, fueled by his success of the movement and the story of his imprisonment (though the reasons behind his imprisonment are often left out). He used this influence to promote noble causes.
I respect Mandela, I really do. I just disagree with the fact many people believe we should worship him as a godlike figure without really knowing what went on. This belief may just be prevalent among my generation, who wasn’t alive during the main years of his life. But I think this can be applied to more situations. Everyone has their pros and cons; nobody is perfect. And pretending people are so is detrimental.
What frustrates me the most is the importance of success in Mandela’s life. Had he not been successful and had the backing of other countries to end the apartheid, he would have gone down as a terrorist in history books. I can’t help but relate this to terrorism we experience today. I’ve recently read Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala, which discusses her life growing up in a Taliban environment. Some aspects of the logic behind the Taliban can be seen as very similar to what Mandela said. Just remember, the United States used to consider Nelson Mandela as a terrorist.
There is this huge risk in revolutionary movements. A portion of the world will most likely consider revolutionaries as terrorists. They all start out very similarly. But their success eventually defines whether they are regarded as a hero or villain.
Like I said before, there is a very fine line between freedom and terrorism. Do we continue to push this line or not?