In the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela, there has been an extensive (and not particularly surprising) attempt by American media outlets and the American political class to sanitize and defang the late ANC leader. As a public service—as we here at Say a Prayer for the Octopus value education—here are a few popular misconceptions about Mandela, cleared up for your edification.First, there is the myth that Mandela came from humble beginnings. Although it is true that he was born in rural, white-ruled South Africa, which I suppose is its own form of humble, he is in fact descended from King Ngubengcuka of the Thembu nation of Xhosa-speakers. This makes him royalty. There is nothing particularly humble about that.
After he got his law degree, Mandela became active in the African National Congress (ANC), the largest of the anti-Apartheid political parties in South Africa, which was allied with the South African Communist Party of Joe Slovo, which was the only significant majority-white South African party to support the ANC’s militancy. Because the ANC was a militant organization. Perhaps the greatest misconception about Mandela is that he was a Gandhian. He was nothing of the sort. He famously said that non-violence is a tactic, not a principle. And when the ANC’s non-violence got them nowhere in the fifties, they turned to armed insurrection in the sixties, and Mandela briefly became the head of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and led a guerilla campaign against the government. He wasn’t a particularly good guerilla commander, and was shortly thereafter arrested and commenced upon his twenty-seven years in prison.
In the late eighties, with the South African economy crippled by foreign sanctions, Mandela began negotiations with the white minority government to end Apartheid, dealing first with the hard-line Afrikaner nationalist P. W. Botha and then with the more congenial F W de Klerk. It has been said in the American media that the end of Apartheid was peaceful, but it came amidst considerable violence between the ANC and their fellow black Africans in the Bantustans. These were the ghetto-statelets invented by the Apartheid regime so that they could claim they were granting black people self determination. The reality of the Bantustans was that they were puppet states, but their leaders liked the idea of having their own states and fought viciously against reintegration into South Africa in the early ‘90’s. It should also be noted that the end of Apartheid came after the bloody war in Angola, where South African troops were soundly defeated by the communist forces of the MPLA and their Cuban allies. When Mandela was released from prison, the first foreign leader he met with was Fidel Castro, whose friendship he would never forget. He was also close with Muammar Gaddafi, who had supported the ANC when the U.S. and British governments were still calling it a terrorist organization (and Mandela would not, in fact, be removed from U.S. terror watch-lists until 2008).
Now, Mandela is often praised in the U.S. for seeking reconciliation with the Afrikaner establishment rather than reprisal, but what did this reconciliation consist of? Mandela essentially said to the Afrikaners, “If you give up your political power, we’ll allow you to preserve your economic power.” I’ve always thought that the end of Apartheid was something of an economic boon for Afrikaners, as it brought an end to the sanctions regime and brought to power a regime that was willing to let white South Africans retain their grip on the economy. Now, in Mandela’s defense, his conciliatory attitude towards the white establishment prevented a mass exodus of white people from the country (although South Africa did lose about a sixth of its white population) and they probably would have taken with them their wealth and their technical and administrative know-how, which would have crashed the South African economy (as we have seen in similar flights of white people from neighboring countries like Angola and Zimbabwe). Furthermore, there was the very real possibility of civil war in the early ‘90’s, and Mandela deserves praise for averting it. But he likely gave up too much, as the economic inequalities of the Apartheid era largely remain to this day, where nearly eighty percent of the land in South Africa is white-owned.
I don’t say any of this to diminish Mandela’s legacy. I think it’s quite possible that he was the last person of our time whose global moral stature rivaled that of Martin Luther King or Mohandas Gandhi. But knowing and stating the truth about Mandela isn’t the same as denigrating him. People of all political backgrounds are going to try to exploit Mandela’s memory in the coming days (hell, Ted Cruz has found something nice to say about Mandela, even though American conservatives hated him in the ‘80’s) and it’s important that we establish what the facts are before the American myth-and-mystification machine goes to work on him.