Friday, December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela - The Ugly The Bad The Good

Who is Nelson Mandela?

Rolihlahla Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in a small village in South Africa, called Mvezo, to Xhosa parents.  The village is located about 2.5 hours north of a larger, perhaps more familiar coastal city - East London - which in turn is located on the east coast of South Africa, between Port Elizabeth and Durban.

English colonization of Southern Africa may be evident from the above, if only as a result of the city names mentioned.  These cities are dotted along the eastern coastline featuring beautiful beaches, spectacular fauna and flora, occasional great white shark sightings, and many other exciting things!  The Indian Ocean water along the eastern coast is warm, thanks to the northward flowing Benguela Current.

References to the English-named cities above may provide some superficial insight into the troubled and checkered history of this young country.  English (and other) influencers disrupted centuries of ongoing harmony and/or hostility between many African tribal peoples, or clans, over the last few centuries!

That name – Rolihlahla – colloquially translates to meaning "troublemaker" in local Xhosa tongue.  Later in life, Mandela became better known as Madiba, his Xhosa clan name.

Mandela was quoted as stating that his early life was dominated by "custom, ritual and taboo."  He grew up with two sisters in his mother's village (Qunu: can you click your tongue when you try to say this word?), and tended herds as a youngster.

Both Mandela’s parents were illiterate.  His mother was a devout Christian and she sent him to a Methodist school to begin his education, aged 7.  A teacher gave him the English forename "Nelson" during the time he was baptized a Methodist. 

His father died in Qunu when Nelson was about 9 years old.  Mandela believed the death, undiagnosed, to have been lung disease.   Later, Mandela would say that he had inherited his father's "proud rebelliousness," but also his "stubborn sense of fairness."

The Ugly

In 1961 Mandela co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation", or MK), launching the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC).  He had been inspired by the 26th of July Movement of the Cuban Revolution, of Fidel Castro.  He became chairman of the militant group, basing his ideas on illegal literature about guerrilla warfare, by Mao and Che Guevara.  At first MK was officially separate from the ANC, but in later years it became the group's armed wing.  Not the first political movement to feature its own army, one would guess?

Early members of MK were actually mostly white communists.  Mandela himself denied ever being a Communist Party member, but research suggests that he might have been - albeit for a short period - between the late '50s or early '60s.

At first, MK committed acts of sabotage aimed at exerting maximum pressure on the government, with minimum casualties.  They therefore resorted to bombing military installations, power plants, telephone lines and transport links at night, when civilians were typically not present.

As leader of MK, Mandela had decreed that should these tactics fail, MK would resort to "guerrilla warfare and terrorism."   Somewhat ironically, soon after (then) ANC leader Luthuli was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1961, MK publicly announced - or celebrated - its existence with 57 bombings on a single day, 16 Dec 1961... followed by even more bombings on New Year's Eve.

Landmark events in MK's military activity inside South Africa consisted of actions designed to intimidate the ruling power.   By way of one example, in 1983, a bomb was detonated in Pretoria inside a family restaurant near the South African Air Force Headquarters, resulting in 19 deaths and 217 injuries.  I personally had the misfortune of being assigned to Medical Ops "clean-up duty" following this event.  You can likely imagine this to have been at least a somewhat unsavory task for a 21 year old kid, delivering military service to his country.

During the next 10 years, bombings occurred all over South Africa, conducted mainly by MK, which was now shamelessly targeting civilians, and mostly in public places like restaurants and bars.  Not dissimilar to any other terrorist organization!

The Bad

On 11 July 1963, police raided Liliesleaf Farm, arresting those they found there and uncovering paperwork documenting MK's activities, several of which mentioned Mandela.

The now well-known Rivonia Trial began on 9 October 1963, with Mandela and his comrades charged with four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government.  The chief prosecutor called for the accused to receive the death penalty.  However, the judge soon threw out the prosecution's case due to insufficient evidence.  The prosecution simply reformulated the charges, calling 173 witnesses, and bringing thousands of documents and photographs to the trial as evidence, to support the charges filed.

Mandela and his co-accused admitted sabotage, but denied that they had ever agreed to initiate guerilla war against the government.  The trial garnered international attention with global calls for the release of the accused.  However, branding them as violent communist agitators, South Africa's government ignored all calls for clemency.  On 12 June 1964 the judge found Mandela and two of his co-accused guilty on four charges, and sentenced them to life imprisonment rather than death.

In 1948, a South African general election had preceded the events above.  Only whites were permitted to vote.  An Afrikaner-dominated political party under the leadership of Prime Minister D.F. Malan took power, shortly thereafter uniting with another Afrikaner party, forming the National Party.  Openly racist, the party codified and expanded racial segregation under a new system referred to as apartheid (Afrikaans for separatism, or separation).

Mandela had become increasing influential within the ANC.  His cadres began advocating more direct action against apartheid, such as boycotts and strikes, also influenced by the tactics of South Africa's large and increasingly vocal Indian community (at the time).

The Good

In 1989, current South African President P.W. Botha suffered a stroke.  He had initially retained the state presidency, but stepped down as leader of the National Party.  F.W. de Klerk replaced Botha as state president 6 weeks after his stroke.  De Klerk was the man ultimately responsible for freeing Mandela.

De Klerk had concluded - relatively quickly - that apartheid would be unsustainable in the future.  He unconditionally released all ANC prisoners, except Mandela.  However, following the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, de Klerk called his cabinet together to debate legalizing the ANC and freeing Mandela.

Mandela left Victor Verster prison on 11 February 1990.  The event was broadcast live across the world.  His first speech declared his commitment to peace and reconciliation with the white minority, but also made it clear that the ANC's armed struggle was not over, and would continue as "a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid."

He expressed hope that the government would agree to negotiations, so that "there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle", and insisted that his main focus was to bring peace to the black majority and give them the right to vote in national and local elections.

The ANC won 62% of the national vote in the first "free and fair" election held on 27 April 1994. His inauguration as first black president of the newly dubbed "rainbow nation," took place in Pretoria on 10 May 1994, televised to a more than a billion viewers globally.


Today - 20 years later - South Africa is still in somewhat of a state of turmoil, albeit perhaps less so than some neighboring countries.  The binary old adage “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist,” perhaps aptly describes the love-hate relationship many people experience when “Mandela” is raised as a topic for discussion and/or debate.

Regardless of one’s opinion, Mandela’s nation-building examples of forgiveness represent the foundations that legends are built upon, justifying his legacy as one of the greatest statesmen of our generation.


Historical events referenced above are deemed to be facts as stated, and the research included above is readily available to anyone via the Internet and many other sources.

I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1962.  While in South Africa, I lived in East London, Pretoria and Johannesburg.  I served 2 years as an Operations Medic (South African Army), under a mandatory military service conscription policy (‘82-’84).  MK was domestic public enemy # 1.

My myopic indoctrination experienced during the early part of my life was provided by the Nationalist Government in power during that time.  This was complemented by ongoing government propaganda via their education systems, military command, state-sponsored religious indoctrination (e.g. via schools), public news broadcasts, etc.

Thankfully, the latter have all successfully been replaced.  My domicile for the past two decades includes cities across Canada and the U.S.A.  These have - in my view - delivered new-found personal freedom of expression, a quest for more education, and greater tolerance… in turn, allowing forgiveness, the ability to remember the good, do good… and allow others to live and let live.

How fortunate we are today… and Mandela, by his example, helped to lead the way...!

Viva Madiba, Viva!