Nelson Mandela was laid to rest in his home village of Qunu after a career of fighting racial oppression that saw him evolve from an organizer of non-violent resistance to the commander of a guerrilla army before leading negotiations to end South Africa’s apartheid system.
During more than a week of commemorations to mark Mandela’s life, world leaders such as U.S. President Barack Obama praised him as “the last great liberator of the 20th century,” while United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described him as “a giant for justice.” Few of his well-wishers dwelled on the period when Mandela decided that the repression carried out by the white minority government had to be met with armed violence.
“I was just thinking about the other side of Mandela, which some people prefer not to know more about -- the fact that he actually was the commander-in-chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe,” said Lindiwe Zulu, a former member of the guerrilla force known as MK and now President Jacob Zuma’s foreign affairs adviser. “He actually started it.”
Western nations such as the U.K. and the U.S. condemned MK, the military wing of the African National Congress whose name meant “spear of the nation.” Former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called the ANC “a typical terrorist organization” in 1987.
As recently as October, former Housing Minister Tokyo Sexwale was briefly detained at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport because he was on a watch list of terrorism suspects dating back to the apartheid era.
Mandela, who died on Dec. 5 at the age of 95, was buried in his childhood village of Qunu in Eastern Cape province yesterday. That capped 10 days of memorial events, some of which were marred by controversy, such as Zuma being booed by a crowd of tens of thousands at an official commemoration service on Dec. 10.
A 30-foot bronze statue of Mandela, widely known by his clan name Madiba, was unveiled today at the Union Buildings in Pretoria to mark the South African public holiday known as Reconciliation Day.
The event that convinced Mandela and other ANC leaders to take up arms against the government was the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when police opened fire on black protesters against pass laws, killing 69. The government banned the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress.
The view of militant ANC leaders such as Mandela was, “We keep on demonstrating, they keep on shooting,” Zulu said. “We need to respond, fight fire with fire.”
Mandela went public with his changing views in May 1960, provoking criticism from other ANC leaders, according to his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
“If the government reaction is to crush by naked force our non-violent struggle, we will have to reconsider our tactics,” Mandela told reporters at the time. “We are closing a chapter on this question of a non-violent policy.”
Mandela was arrested and tried with nine others on charges of recruiting people to carry out violent acts, planning attacks and supporting communism. He was convicted in 1964 and sentenced to life imprisonment.
“We were charged during the Rivonia treason trials by the apartheid government for attempting to overthrow the government through violent means,” said Andrew Mlangeni, one of three people who was in the dock with Mandela and is still alive. “We were actually trying to overthrow the apartheid system.”
While the ANC took up arms to intensify its fight against apartheid, that didn’t mean the party had abandoned a peaceful bid to end the political crisis, Zuma said on Dec. 14 at a memorial ceremony for Mandela.
Mandela was a “man of peace, but a revolutionary, who was not prepared to wait for peace one day to come,” said Zuma. “At times, people are mistaken that for the ANC to declare an armed struggle, it was becoming an organization that wasn’t interested in peace, but no.” Mandela “believed in unity, this is what he preached,” he said.
The armed campaign was subordinate to the ANC’s political program, Aubrey Matshiqi, a political analyst at the Helen Suzman Foundation, said in a Dec. 12 phone interview.
“The military struggle was not the most important arm; it was always subordinate to the political arm,” said Matshiqi.
Mandela and the ANC didn’t abandon support for armed resistance until after his release in 1990.
While in prison he took initial steps toward a negotiated settlement, holding informal talks with the government, meeting Justice Minister Kobie Coetzee in 1987 and then President P.W. Botha two years later. Not everyone in the ANC supported the idea of talks.
“In prison people grew up,” said Laloo Chiba, who spent 18 years with Mandela in prison on Robben Island. “Madiba stressed very much that we were at a point where we had to forgive, without forgetting the suffering that our people have gone through.”
The ANC took a decision to abandon the armed struggle in 1990 after Mandela was released from prison, provided that the government lift the state of emergency.
Negotiations led by Mandela reached a settlement with the government of President F.W. de Klerk, and four years after his release from prison, Mandela became South Africa’s first black president after multiracial elections.
“As time went by, before he became a global icon, he was the founding father of our democracy, the Gandhi of South Africa,” Chiba said. “Now he takes his rightful place next to world icons.”