We have now had more than a week of unrelenting beatification of former South African president Nelson Mandela by exactly the kind of people who stood behind his jailers under apartheid.
Mandela was without question a towering historical figure and an outstanding hero of South Africa’s liberation struggle. So it would be tempting to imagine they had been won over by the scale of his achievement, courage and endurance.
For some, that may be true. For many others, in the Western world in particular, it reeks of the rankest hypocrisy. It is, after all, Mandela’s global moral authority and the manifest depravity of the system he and the African National Congress (ANC) brought to an end that now makes the hostility of an earlier time impossible to defend.
So history has had to be comprehensively rewritten, Mandela and the ANC appropriated and sanitized, and inconvenient facts minimized or ignored. The whitewashed narrative has been such a success that the former ANC leader has been reinvented and embraced as an all-purpose Kumbaya figure by politicians across the spectrum and aging celebrities alike.
However, it is a fiction that turns the world on its head and obscures the reality of global power then and now. In this fantasy, the racist apartheid tyranny was a weird aberration that came from nowhere, unconnected to the colonial system it grew out of or the world powers that kept it in place for decades.
In real life, it was not just former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher who branded Mandela a terrorist and resisted sanctions, or British Prime Minister David Cameron, who went on pro-apartheid lobby junkets. Almost the entire Western establishment effectively backed the South African regime until the bitter end.
Former US president Ronald Reagan described it as “essential to the free world.” The CIA gave South African security the tipoff that led to Mandela’s arrest and imprisonment for 27 years. Former British prime minister Harold Wilson’s government was still selling arms to the racist regime in the 1960s, and Mandela was not removed from the US terrorism watch list until 2008.
Airbrushed out of the Mandela media story has been the man who launched a three-decade-long armed struggle after non-violent avenues had been closed; who declared in his 1964 speech from the dock that the only social system he was tied to was socialism; who was reported by the ANC-allied South African Communist Party this week to have been a member of its central committee at the time of his arrest; and whose main international supporters for 30 years were the Soviet Union and Cuba.
It has barely been mentioned in the past few days, but Mandela supported the ANC’s armed campaign of sabotage, bombings and attacks on police and military targets throughout his time in prison. Veterans of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the ANC’s armed wing, emphasize that the military campaign was always subordinate to the political struggle and that civilians were never targeted (though there were civilian casualties).
However, as Ronnie Kasrils, MK’s former intelligence chief, told me on Dec. 11 that Mandela continued to back it after his release in 1990 when Kasrils was running arms into South Africa to defend ANC supporters against violent attacks. There is no doubt that under today’s US and British law, he and other ANC leaders would have been jailed as terrorists for supporting such a campaign.