Yesterday was Mandela Day and around the world mainstream news outlets celebrated Nelson Mandela, a man that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan once labelled “terrorist” and an individual whose liberation movement embodied by the African National Congress and its allies was criminalised and its leaders imprisoned, some of them for the majority of their adult lives.
It is common knowledge especially among the youth of South Africa, that the current policies of the ANC in South Africa and the image created around Mandela by a neo-liberal “human rights” establishment belie his revolutionary past.
But it is worth revisiting some of this past, to understand the ironies rife today, when Mandela’s legacy is being reclaimed and whitewashed by individuals like Barack Obama, who delivered the annual Nelson Mandela lecture earlier this week, claiming to honour the fight for justice.
In 1961, Nelson Mandela, realising that non-violent struggle against white domination was not bearing any fruit, founded Umkhonto we Sizwe (‘Spear of the Nation’), also known as MK. “Only through hardship, sacrifice and militant action can freedom be won,” Mandela wrote from an unknown location in 1960. This militant movement, he said, was one he was prepared to die for.
Broad legislation that legalised preventative detention
Among other factors, it was the Internal Security Act of 1950, which defined communism as any doctrine that aimed at bringing about ‘any political, industrial, social or economic change in the Union by the promotion of disturbances or disorder, by unlawful acts or omissions or by the threat of such acts and omissions’, that forced Mandela and others to go underground.
Like the broad terms of UK and other countries’ current counter-terrorism legislation, this law was later amended to expand the definition of communism – then the enemy of the day, as opposed to “Islamism” today .
This definition was so broad it trapped even liberals in its net. It also extended the security state, allowed for more indiscriminate house raids and introduced a new detention clause, where criminality need not be proven. In short, it made allowance for “indefinite preventative detention”.
After 1961, MK embarked on a campaign of violent action, sabotaging infrastructure and laying explosives – what would commonly be referred to today as a “terrorist” campaign. Like white power today, apartheid South Africa made no attempt to understand the political underpinnings of this campaign or unlock and relieve the grievances that fuelled it.
Instead, the state responded violently – structurally, by enacting more discriminatory legislation, and overtly, through police brutality, torture, killings, entrapment and later a full-blown state of emergency. And so violence escalated.
As the ‘War on Terror’ grinds on, seizing in its grip social justice movements throughout Africa, even non-violent ones, in the name of destroying “Islamism”, it’s worth revisiting some of Mandela’s legacy. Indeed, some of his words that follow here have been lost in this era when histories are being rewritten to favour the status quo.
Mandela understood the subjective nature of the word “terrorist”
Perhaps Mandela’s most important quote for those of us who work for justice under the so-called ‘War on Terror’, is the one that went global in 2000, when on Larry King Live, Mandela said: “I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists. I tell them that I was also a terrorist yesterday, but, today, I am admired by the very people who said I was one.”
He has also repeatedly called for not only peace, but the liberation of Palestine, saying famously: “South Africa will not be free until Palestine is free”. He also spoke often of the right for people to fight for their self-determination, a struggle which can be applied to many movements currently labelled as “terrorist” in different parts of the world.
Mandela spoke up for Africa and for black people, but despite the injustices he suffered, he never hesitated to offer white people a chance to regain their humanity. He understood implicitly that this had been lost through an unjust system of privilege. He worked closely with Muslims in the anti-apartheid movement. His son, Mandla Mandela, converted to Islam two years ago.
Obama invited by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to speak about human rights
But perhaps the biggest irony of today, is that a man incarcerated for his beliefs and who understood deeply the need and right for people to rise up against colonisation and oppression, was saluted earlier this week by Barack Obama.
Here is a US president who supported governments who imprisoned Muslims for their beliefs, who never delivered on his promise to close down Guantanamo, who signed off a record number of drone attacks that killed innocent civilians including children, and who smooth-talked a 200 percent increase in military activity on the African continent in the name of “security” but which has in fact made societies less secure and more desperate. This can only be described as a new modern-day colonisation of Africa through the ‘War on Terror’.
In 2013, our outreach director Moazzam Begg travelled to South Africa to raise awareness about the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo Bay held under Obama’s watch.
Walking through the cells of Robben Island, where Mandela had been imprisoned, Begg reflected on the shared experiences of being prisoned for one’s belief, and afterwards he wrote: “To me Mandela will always be the man who simply stood up against the system and spent 27 years in prison for a cause certain countries did not support. Those same countries, albeit in different guises, now lead a new war – the war on terror on the Muslim world.”
But this irony – and all its associated hypocrisies – is not judged a fit topic for discussion among those who have usurped a “terrorist’s” legacy.
This fact should prompt us all to take a hard and honest look at oppression in the world today, and how this oppression is smoothed over by the very leaders that allow it to happen, through, among other things, laying claim to Mandela’s legacy.
But Mandela always stood against oppression, and he did so firmly, calling out hypocrisy and double standards when it was needed – this should provide an example to us all. He said: “When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of global crisis, or will it be recorded that we did the right thing?”
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