Regardless of Mandela’s past activism, his legacy to South Africa speaks for itself.
Nelson Mandela is a unique contemporary political figure insofar as anyone that believes in democracy and equality before the law should admire him irrespective of their political allegiances.
Often his legacy is smeared through the shutting down of discussion about Mandela by dismissing him as nothing more than a terrorist. It should sadden anyone who believes in the equality of people regardless of race that the legacy of Nelson Mandela and the subsequent end of Apartheid is still seen as debatable and even as negative to some.
The definition of a terrorist is always subjective and the word is always used pejoratively. In South Africa, Mandela alongside communist sympathisers, helped co-found Umkhonto we Sizwe (‘MK’) and became its chairman soon after. The group is infamous for its bombing campaigns against the Apartheid government that consequently also led to the deaths of innocent civilians.
When using ‘terrorist’ by its literal definition, “a person who uses violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims,” the evidence is clear; Mandela did establish an organisation that is guilty of committing acts of terrorism. However it is important to remember that Mandela was imprisoned for life one year after the group’s founding and he was incarcerated throughout the period when the MK committed their most notorious attacks.
It is easy to slur Mandela from ivory towers when devoid of a real understanding of the situation in South Africa. The Apartheid government had taken away all forms of political representation for black people in South Africa and aggressively discriminated against them through legislation. When you leave people without democracy or even the basic of rights then you leave them with no choice but to resort to extreme, non-protest methods to achieve liberation.
Mandela outlined the reasoning behind the formation of the MK: “It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle… We did so not because we desired such a course, but solely because the government had left us with no other choice.”
Reducing discussions about Mandela to a dispute of definition is fruitless. It implies a disdain for him that does not objectively view him within the historical context and ignores the rightful cause he stood for. It should speak volumes that someone like Nick Griffin recently described Mandela as a “murdering old terrorist”.
The real enemy of freedom and democracy in this scenario was always the Apartheid South African government that was guilty of state terrorism and its actions are wholly indefensible.
Mandela was an enemy of the worst kind of state and this should never be forgotten. The National Party governments that ruled South Africa throughout the latter half of the 20th century pursued racial segregation enforced by legislation. It actively disenfranchised an entire race of people by creating two classes of citizen and restricted freedoms of all its citizens with the implementation of illiberal policies, influenced by restrictive, socially conservative values. The horrifying repression that Mandela was fighting against should never be ignored.
Mandela’s struggle and the rights he fought for embody the values that we hold dear as the fundamentals of a liberal democracy in the west. Mandela envisioned a South Africa based upon western democracies; he was not a tainted revolutionary like Castro that wanted to impose a dictatorship or like Che Guevara who was a racist homophobe. He held views that are constants across the political spectrum in liberal democracies and he should be applauded for his efforts to change South Africa.
Another charge against Mandela points to the economic decline and relative instability in South Africa since the fall of apartheid. Mandela liberated an entire race of people from a vulgarly constructed, over powerful state and laid the foundations of democracy in the country. To imply the world would have been a better place without Mandela suggests that what he fought for is wrong. What has happened since he stepped back from politics is irrelevant to his legacy and it is lazy to blame him for the failings of his successors.
With his condition worsening it is likely that Nelson Mandela will pass away soon. He should, however, be remembered for his achievements in bringing freedom and democracy to South Africa. The world could do with more individuals like Mandela that are able to unite people from across the political spectrum.
Although a huge cliché, the phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” could not be truer when applied to Nelson Mandela and I know which man I would rather be.