The “Black Jesus.” That’s what the late Nelson Mandela was called by many South Africans, who greeted his death last week with intense national mourning.
Mandela was a great man, and great leader. But he was no Jesus. I rather call him “mahatma,” meaning great spirit, the Hindu title conferred upon Gandhi.
Like Gandhi, Mandela, at least in his later years, was a combination of saintly, non-violent national leader and wily politician.
Having covered South Africa, and the bush wars in Southwest Africa (today’s Namibia), and Angola during the 1980’s, let me add my thoughts about Nelson Mandela.
I came very close to securing an interview with him while he was still in prison, but it was cancelled on the last minute. White-ruled South Africa was in a state of intense, nervous transition at the time - what the French call fin du regime - as the old apartheid order crumbled.
Contrary to popular belief, Mandela did not overthrow the apartheid system. A combination of fierce pressure and much violence from the African National Congress and Communist Party, foreign economic and military sanctions, and the fear of invasion by Cuban and East Bloc troops from Angola finally did in the white regime.
South Africa’s Boers, whose ancestors came to the Cape from Flanders in the 1600’s, wanted to fight on. But the nation’s English-speaking Anglos did not; many fled. Ironically, South Africa’s Boers had been there longer than the other two major tribes, the Xhosa and Zulu, both of whose ancestors had emigrated from the north. The Zulu had wiped out other local tribes in the notorious Mfakane massacres.
During the 1980’s, Mandela was both number two at the African National Congress and a senior leader of its ally, the Communist Party. Mandela also headed up the Umkhonto we Sizwe or Spear of the Nation, the violent fighting arm of the ANC. He was a hereditary prince of the Xhosa people.
In those days, the US and Britain branded Mandela and the ANC as “terrorists.” White civilians were killed, restaurants and bars bombed. I joined a special South African unit up on the Limpopo River trying to protect isolated, elderly white farmers from being murdered by gangs of ANC gunmen.
In fact, most of the ANC’s white victims were civilians. Hundreds of blacks accused of collaboration with the government were “necklaced” (burned to death by having gasoline-filled tires put around their necks). It was your typically brutal, dirty revolutionary war, the kind I’d covered in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Amazingly, Mandela remained on the notorious US terrorist black list until 2008. Today, America’s hard right and neoconservatives still call Mandela a terrorist for having called Israel a “colonialist apartheid state” and human rights violator. Mandela hailed Libya’s Muammar Khadaffi and Palestine’s Yasser Arafat as liberators.
As a result, Israel’s current rightwing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, boycotted Mandela’s funeral and unleashed his North American attack dogs on the memory of the great South African. Israel and apartheid South Africa were very close allies. Israel supplied Pretoria arms, US political support, and nuclear technology.
Remember others who brought peace to South Africa: the last white leader, F.W. deKlerk, a man of wisdom who read the writing on the wall. Zulu Chief Mangusutu Buthelezi who, with Mandela, prevented a Zulu-Xhosa conflict, and Foreign Minister Pik Botha. Their combined efforts resulted in a smooth transition to majority rule and allowed the whites to retreat with honor.
Most revolutions rarely produce happy outcomes. The ANC became all-powerful, a one-party government riddled with corruption and malfeasance. Crime has run rampant in post apartheid South Africa.
Many white farmers have been terrorized off their land by black gangs; white emigration continues to be high. Under white rule, South Africa accounted for almost half of Africa’s economic output; today, its economy is sagging, driven by the fall in gold and mineral prices.
The current ANC leader, President Jacob Zuma, was roundly booed at Mandela’s funeral. Which proves my dictum that every people has the basic right to be misruled by their own kind.
Compared to today’s world leaders, Mandela does looks like a saint. He was wise enough to serve only one term before failing health and grubby politics tarnished his renown. His memory will shine on.