Nelson the Terrorist

4 July 2006

Nelson the Terrorist

By Gwynne Dyer

The oddest bit of news this week has been the tale of the hunt for Nelson Mandela’s pistol, buried on a farm near Johannesburg 43 years ago. It was a Soviet-made Makarov automatic pistol, given to Mandela when he was undergoing military training in Ethiopia. (He also went to Algeria, to learn from the revolutionaries who had just fought a savage eight-year war of independence to drive out their French colonial rulers.) A week after he buried the gun, he was arrested by the apartheid regime’s police as a terrorist and jailed for life.

It’s very hard now to imagine Nelson Mandela as a terrorist. He is the most universally admired living human being, almost a secular saint, and the idea that he had a gun and was prepared to shoot people with it just doesn’t fit our picture of him.. But that just shows how naive and conflicted our attitudes towards terrorism are.

Nelson Mandela never did kill anybody personally. He spent the next 27 years in jail, and only emerged as an old man to negotiate South Africa’s transition to democracy with the very regime that had jailed him. But he was a founder and commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the military wing of the African National Congress, and MK, as it was known, was a terrorist outfit. Well, a revolutionary movement that was willing to use terrorist tactics, to be precise, but that kind of fine distinction is not permissible in polite company today.

As terrorist outfits go, MK was at the more responsible end of the spectrum. For a long time, it only attacked symbols and servants of the apartheid state, shunning random attacks on white civilians even though they were the main beneficiaries of that regime. By the time it did start bombing bars and the like in the 1980s, Mandela had been in prison for twenty years and bore no direct responsibility for the MK’s acts — but neither he nor the ANC ever disowned the organisation. Indeed, after the transition to majority rule in 1994, MK’s cadres were integrated into the new South African Defence Force alongside the former regime’s troops.

There’s nothing unusual about all this. Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, Archbishop Makarios in Cyprus, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and a dozen other national leaders emerged from prison to negotiate independence after “terrorist” organisations loyal to them had worn down the imperial forces that occupied their countries. In the era of decolonisation, terrorism was a widely accepted technique for driving the occupiers out. South Africa was lucky to see so little of it, but terrorism WAS part of the struggle there too.

Terrorism is a tool, not an ideology. Its great attraction is that it offers small or weak groups a means of imposing great changes on their societies. Some of those changes you might support, even if you don’t like the chosen means; others you would detest. But the technique itself is just one more way of effecting political change by violence — a nasty but relatively cheap way to force a society to change course, and not intrinsically a more wicked technique than dropping bombs on civilians from warplanes to make them change their behaviour.

Neither terrorism nor military force has a very high success rate these days: most people will not let themselves be bullied into changing their fundamental views by a few bombs. Even in South Africa’s case, MK’s bombs had far less influence on the outcome than the economic and moral pressures that were brought to bear on the apartheid regime. But that is not to say that all right-thinking people everywhere reject terrorist methods. They don’t.

What determines most people’s views about the legitimacy of terrorist violence is how they feel about the specific political context in which force is being used. Most Irish Catholics felt at least a sneaking sympathy for the IRA’s attacks in Northern Ireland. Most non-white South Africans approved of MK’s attacks, even if they ran some slight risk of being hurt in them themselves. Most Tamils both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere support the cause of the Tamil Tigers, and many accept its methods as necessary. Americans understandably see all terrorist attacks on the United States and its forces overseas as irredeemably wicked, but most Arabs and many other Muslims are ambivalent about them, or even approve of them.

We may deplore these brutal truths, but we would be foolish to deny them. Yet in much of the world at the moment it is regarded as heretical or even obscene to say these things out loud, mainly because the United States, having been suffered a major attack by Arab terrorists in 2001, has declared a “global war on terror.” Rational discussion of why so many Arabs are willing to die in order to hurt the United States is suppressed by treating it as support for terrorism, and so the whole phenomenon comes to be seen by most people as irrational and inexplicable.

And meanwhile, on a former farm near Johannesburg that was long ago subdivided for suburban housing, they have torn down all the new houses and are systematically digging up the ground with a back-hoe in search of the pistol that Saint Nelson Mandela, would-be terrorist leader, buried there in 1963. If they find it, it will be treated with as much reverence as the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. The passage of time changes many things.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“As terrorist…troops”; and “Neither…don’t”)