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Different Perceptions of Nelson Mandela

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Human Rights
Wordcount: 2547 words Published: 18th May 2020

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There are many different interpretations about the former president of South Africa. Yes, he did reform the country and create the now Rainbow Nation, but where did it all begin. Being a black man in a very diverse nation it was hard for him to stand for what he believed in and this got to a point where he ended up in jail. This is what he was famous for, but he was once a terrorist, recognised as a terrorist by the United States of America until 2008 since he had been released from prison showing the world a very different view. The United States and United Kingdom leaders saw Mandela and the ANC as communists and terrorists and considered the anti-apartheid movement to be a Cold War ally. Nelson Mandela joined the ANC Youth League. This grouped called for violence which was widespread strikes and boycotts. The actions taken by the group resulted in the banishment of Nelson Mandela and other members from public and ANC meetings. “In response to the ANC ban, the underground group Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), The Spear of the Nation, was formed by Mandela and other nationalist leaders in 1961. They used sabotage as a method of resistance, striking only government targets and other official symbols of apartheid. Mandela travelled throughout Africa and Europe to rally support for MK ‘s cause, and to study guerrilla warfare tactics” (Ryan, James). F.W De Klerk famously led Nelson Mandela free from jail which caused significant outrage as a white man let a black man free.

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Mandela, sentenced to life imprisonment, was a striking symbol of resistance to movement of apartheid; he always refused to surrender their political views in exchange for freedom. Eventually, in February 1990 he was released from prison and was still fighting against oppression to achieve the goals that he and others had set themselves for almost four decades ago. May 1994, Mandela was inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa. He held this post for five years. During his presidency the country moved away from minority rule and apartheid, he earned the respect throughout the world for the work on conflict resolution both within the country and internationally. Mandela spent one-third of his live as a state criminal in prison because of the political views, according to which the black population of South Africa should have the same rights as white population. However, 27 years of imprisonment did not break his spirit and did not stop him from implementing his views in life. Mandela’s recognition started at the national level, he has been elected as president of South Africa, continued on the international level- the Nobel Peace Prize and ended on the global one – granting the status of World conciliator. Nelson Mandela’s philosophy can be expressed through the following words: if you talk to a man in a language he understands, you make him think. If you say to a person in his own language, you touch his heart. Nelson Mandela left a great political legacy and the country divided into supporters and opponents of his ideas.

From when he first became politically active till his 1962 imprisonment, Mandela, influenced by his early reading of Lenin and Guevara, described his position as anti-imperial, nationalist and pro-justice.  His role, he said, was that of a struggler and soldier for the African people, and his implacable opponent that particular form of imperialism that in South Africa expressed itself as white supremacy.[i]  Freedom and self-expression for black Africans were his overmastering goals.  If Mandela’s political career is viewed as a triptych — divided into the three periods of early radicalism, incarceration, and humanist reconciliation — it is this first third of the story which forms the primary though not exclusive focus here.  This period, in which he formulated his controversial position on armed struggle, was also the period, significantly, on which rested the high regard in which he, the spearhead of Umkhonto we Sizwe itself, was held among his primary supporters, black Africans. 

With this established, it is worth acknowledging that there are of course good reasons for disputing rightist definitions of Mandela’s support for political violence as terrorism, especially according to currently dominant definitions of terror as unannounced and calamitous violence inflicted upon civilians or soft targets.[ii]  Yet it is equally important to acknowledge that his support for armed resistance does conform to discussion of the use of explosives and assassinations during the period of radical, anti-colonial resistance in Bengal, defines terror as the ‘use of violence [in limited and controlled forms, against an oppressive state] … to bring about political, social or other change’.[iii]  This response was effective at the time of colonialism for several reasons: it demonstrated the vulnerability of the apparently unassailable enemy; it broadcast the aims of the anti-colonial cause; and it powerfully asserted historical agency in situations where this was suppressed or denied. 

Mandela is certainly convinced of the efficacy of terror in this early period, there are significant pathways along which he departs from and striates the conventional thinking, not only later in his career, but also in this first openly antinomian and combative phase.  Before examining the latter more closely, it is helpful to begin by touching on the post-1990 period, what might be termed the tough-talking but reconciliatory walk into freedom, which grew out of the time of incarceration, hiatus, and regrouping of political ideas and resources.  In this third period, in consequence probably of his changing responses to historical developments in the decolonizing world or ‘post colony’ which unraveled during the period of imprisonment, Mandela’s views on retaliation and violence in particular noticeably changed.[iv]  Encapsulated in the photograph in which he is pictured standing beside the prosecutor Percy Yutar who presided at the Rivonia Trial, the change is probably overaccentuated in the largely commemorative studies of the ANC in general and Mandela in particular published since 1990.[v]  Yet it is true that Mandela’s later ideas do shift markedly away from the Fanonist, and back towards what Robert Young amongst others calls his early Gandhism; from self-expression through polarization and destruction of the colonizer, to self-expression through incorporation.[vi]  This might also be seen, in similarly idealist terms, as his turn or return to other-centred, dialogic ethics, or to an embedded understanding of the good – of social responsibility and generosity – partially derived from his traditionalist Xhosa upbringing; in short, to elements that were latently present in the early politics.  Importantly, too, however, this late shift never involved a complete renunciation of political violence or of his burning focus on nationalist selfhood. 

In his recourse to a moral authority beyond that of the nation-as-culmination-of-the-self, Mandela’s post-1990 approach is interestingly reminiscent of remarks from the later Levinas, in the 1990s, on the ineffable responsibility for the other (whether mass, people, or even enemy).  In ‘Violence of the Face’, for example, an interview in which Levinas considers the implications of ‘the radical for the other’ for justice and violence in the state, he reaches for an understanding of such ‘dis-interestedness’, whether realized within or outside of social organization:

I don’t say that all is for the best, and the idea of progress doesn’t seem to me very reliable.  But I think that responsibility for the other man, or, if you like, the epiphany of the human face, constitutes a penetration of the crust, so to speak, of ‘being persevering in its being.[vii] 

Mandela’s emphasis through the 1990s, despite his tactical fighting talk and threatened recourse to violence should negotiation fail, was likewise consistently on such perseverance of being.  Perseverance for him, too, involved the recognition of the humanity even of the opposition; of what might be called the affirming moral power of the other.  If with strategic modifications he thus continued to develop implications rising from the rousing statement he issued in 1985 when refusing the apartheid government’s conditional offer of release: ‘Your freedom [that is, of the South African people] and mine cannot be separated’.[viii]  Derrida in his seminar Of Hospitality, strongly marked by Levinas’s influence, speaks in notably comparable ways of the testing obligations of hospitality that ‘the foreigner’ or other demands of the subject.[ix]

When in early 1962 following the collapse of the Treason Trials Mandela travelled around Africa, including Frantz Fanon’s adopted country Algeria, to canvas prevailing ideas on military resistance, he was already convinced that the only remaining recourse for the oppressed South African majority was violent retaliation.  The path towards this decision had been a difficult one, necessitating any number of delicate negotiations with more openly Gandhian and avowedly Christian ANC leaders, but after Sharpeville the previous year and various government repressions culminating in moves against the planned strike in May 1961, Mandela saw no alternative.[x]  Vis-à-vis the over-lordship of the supremacist state, the ANC’s Gandhian arsenal of non-cooperative responses had, he believed, been exhausted.  Indeed, its Gandhian agenda had never been sharply formulated whether as a derivative or an adaptive politics.  Moreover, as he, Walter Sisulu and others realized, in the wake of the formation of the Pan-African Congress a few years earlier, it was important, too, to offer leadership to the more militant and tear-away younger groupings within the ANC who might otherwise organize violently on their own.  In Mandela’s carefully coded words: ‘It is first and foremost by our own struggle and sacrifice inside South Africa itself that victory over White domination and apartheid can be won’.  And again:

The freedom movement in South Africa believes that hard and swift blows should be delivered with the full weight of the masses of the people, who alone furnish us with one absolute guarantee that the freedom flames now burning in the country shall never be extinguished.[xi]

For Mandela, in sum, even at his most fiery and romantic, the narrative of incremental terrorism operates on two fronts.  It resists or postpones the Fanonist commitment to immediate and utter change yet is also pitted against the vulgar fictions of the colonial state, as Mbembe, for one, has defined them.[xii]  This is what Mandela’s statements and speeches during this period, all at once epigraphic, telegraphic and empirical, keep insisting upon.  They open out and write into the discrete, successive moments of destructive violence of the colonial state, and also of its opposition, anti-colonial terrorism, the stochastic yet ongoing narrative of a movement, its complex motives of solidarity and rebellion.  They recount decisions agonizingly taken, reversed, revised, made again; they explore what is at stake for the parties involved, for families and communities when such decisions are taken.  They speak, too, of the overmastering hunger for freedom and justice and of the avenues of peace that continue to run alongside those of war. In conclusion to this essay it is clear to be shown that there were different interpretations of the way he was thought of as a leader or terrorist. Some may have thought that what he did leading to his jail sentence was in peace, but others thought that he took the violent retaliation to the white supremist. 

[i] See his speeches in the latter half of No Easy Walk to Freedom: Nelson Mandela in his own words [1965] (Oxford: Heinemann, 1965). 

[ii] To reinforce this point it is noteworthy that fundamentalist US preachers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson with impunity brand the Prophet Muhammed himself a terrorist.  See Malise Ruthven, ‘An Unnecessary Clash’, TLS 5339 (29 July 2005), p.25.

[iii] Peter Heehs, The Bomb in Bengal: The Rise of Revolutionary Terrorism in India 1900-1910, 2nd edition (New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2004), pp.xiv, xviii.

[iv] Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony, trans. A. M. Berrett et al (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

[v] See Anthony Sampson, Mandela: The Authorised Biography (London: Harper Collins, 1999), where the photograph appears between pp.484 and 485. See also, for example, James Barber, Mandela’s World (Oxford: James Currey, 2004); Jean Guiloineau, The Early Life of Rohihlahla Madiba Nelson Mandela (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2002);Fatima Meer, Higher than Hope (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1990), as well as the pre-release, ‘moving life story’ by Mary Benson, Nelson Mandela (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986).

[vi] Robert Young, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), pp.232, 249-50.

[vii] Emmanuel Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence, trans. Michael B. Smith(London: The Athlone Press, 1999), p.171.

[viii] Benson, Nelson Mandela, p.237.

[ix] Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality, trans. R. Bowlby(Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000), pp.3-4.

[x] Sampson, Mandela, pp.150-1.

[xi] Mandela, No Easy Walk to Freedom, p.118, 119.

[xii] Mbembe, ‘The Aesthetics of Vulgarity, On the Postcolony, pp.102-141.


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