Rightly so, the world has all but united this week in celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela, the father of South Africa and a man who forged a peace that could just as easily have become a bloody nightmare after the fall of apartheid. All week I’ve heard tales of the man of peace, the stalwart gentleman, the humble leader who stepped out of the limelight when he just as easily could have stayed in power (see Washington, George).
And while I’m glad to hear the tales of Mandela life post prison and about his struggles while imprisoned I feel that the world is also being shortchanged. The story of Mandela isn’t simply a story of peace. If you took cable news’ word for it, Mandela was a Ghandi or MLK like figure imprisoned for the simple act of defying the status quo in the name of racial equality. But, he wasn’t. Mandela, prior to imprisonment, was a man preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. As a member of Youth League of the ANC he actively took part in forming the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”, abbreviated MK). He took part in two months guerilla warfare training in Ethiopia. He and the ANC sought and received help from both the USSR and Communist (VERY communist) China in order to further their goals. It’s clear that Mandela was, at least for a time, a Communist of some conviction. It’s also a matter of history that the MK committed what the South African government labelled as “acts of terrorism” against state infrastructure. As years went by the MK turned its sights onto members of the military and killed, whether by accident or as a matter of purpose, civilians.
So, what are we to make of this early Mandela, this Mandela who is far less endearingly wrinkled and far more impulsively passionate? We should be doing what the wise men and women of history have always done and asking the question “was his cause just?” Was his approach tempered? Were his hopes and struggles familiar? We in the West have done this simple math for centuries and it’s why I bring up George Washington the traitor, the general who attacked and killed British troops while they slept on Christmas morning, the man who sought the assistance of the French, an absolute act of treason against the British crown, and who, in his own wisdom, stepped down from the Presidency when his presence was inhibiting the growth of the nation he’d helped make both as a symbol and a man of action and decision.
There is a time and a place for violence and acting in that time and place is a virtue, not a vice. It’s not something to be shamed or hidden. It isn’t a sign of weakness or wickedness to stand up with your brothers and sisters and take your rights in your own homeland, in the place where 100 generations of your family lived and died. There is no shame in aligning yourself with greater powers that can help you achieve that freedom. No, the shame would have been if Mandela had never been willing to even consider such a thing, if he’d clung so tightly to peace that he’d put his own fear above the needs of his people. When your people are under the heel then violence is no vice and peace no virtue. There’s only what can be done and the best way to get there. In this, Mandela was practical and wise even as a young man and that’s a lesson we should be allowed to take from his life.
Mandela was willing to do what needed to be done when it needed to be done and there is nothing more that any man can do than that.