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How Nelson Mandela Walked Away From Violence and Hate

An outpouring of sympathy from the world over is being felt at the moment for Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, South Africa's first post-apartheid president. As he lies in a hospital bed, which is likely to be his deathbed, the chances are he will not live to see his 95th birthday later this month on the 18th — also celebrated as "Mandela Day." I do not wish to speak ill of the dying, but the recent media coverage of Mandela portrays the man in an almost deified fashion, which to me and many other South Africans leaves a slight lump in our throats.

In the 2009 Clint Eastwood-directed film, Invictus, the film chronicles the unifying power that the 1995 Rugby World Cup had on bringing South Africans together in a post-apartheid world; starting Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as the South African rugby team captain François Pienaar that led South Africa to win the tournament despite the odds. There is a scene in the film where Damon's character reflects on how impressed he is with Mandela after having visited his cell on Robben Island, the very cell that Mandela spent 18 years of his 27 years behind bars. Damon's character refers to that despite all that was done to Mandela the man never turned towards hate of his captures. Like much of the media coverage surrounding Mandela, the film portrays him as a saintly, peace-loving man, but the truth is more complicated than that.

Nelson Mandela was born into the Thembu tribe in 1918 — Thembu royalty in fact — and was educated as a lawyer at the prestigious University of Witwatersrand in 1944. He became heavily involved with the African National Congress (ANC) and a vocal activist against South Africa's racist apartheid policies to the point that his marriage to his first wife Evelyn Mase fell apart and he abandoned her and his two children in 1957 in favor of his second wife Winnie Mandela, who was equally as vocal in their campaign against apartheid.

In 1961, Mandela founded Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), meaning "Spear of the Nation," a militarized arm of the ANC. The mission of MK was to conduct acts of sabotage against key South African government targets in the hopes of motivating the people into violent revolution. Failing this they agreed they would adopt tactics of outright terrorism. Whatever their intentions were, the results of the "acts of sabotage" lead to over 200 bombing campaigns starting in 1961, all together resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths and the maiming of thousands more, both white and black, including women and children. Similar to another militarized independence organization, the IRA (which provided a lot of logistical support and training for MK), MK "warriors" as they were known used torture and coercion to achieve their goals regardless of race. Winnie Mandela had her own personal goon squad known as the Mandela United Football Club who rounded up people she suspected of being police informants and had them beaten. In one case she had her goons to abduct, beat and kill 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi. A crime, for which she was tried and convicted in 1997, resulting only in a fine equivalent of $8,000.

Under Nelson Mandela's leadership, though not officially sanctioned, the MK condoned deaths amongst their own warriors and the rape of countless women. Emboldened by the call to liberate their country from white priority rule, many young South African blacks made their way north to the South African-Zimbabwean border where MK had set up training camps to train soldiers to fight their cause. The training was gruesome and cruel, with hundreds of people dying from exhaustion and starvation, having been made to march until they collapsed. The sentiment within the MK was that there was no need for the weak.

In 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested on charges of terrorism and evidence obtained linking Mandela to several bombings conducted by MK led to his 27-year conviction during the Rivonia Trials in 1963. Whilst in prison, Mandela continued to be a symbol for armed conflict against the white South African government. In 1985 in effort to bring violence to an end, South African president P W Botha offered Mandela release in exchange that he "renounce violence, and violent protests, as a means to bring about change in South Africa." Mandela refused. Up to this point Mandela was a man full of hate and violence, rightly or wrongly, after all he was fighting for what he saw was a war of freedom for his people. However, the Mandela that left Robben Island was not the man that entered.

As time in prison continued, Mandela began studying the teachings of another disfranchised man — Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi's teachings of pacifism helped reshape Mandela's political views and the man that left prison was no longer a young man consumed by hate, but a man with a mission to unify people for the greater good of all. He knew that if South Africa were to survive we all needed to come together as a people, or we’d risk destroying everything. This is the Mandela that the world has come to love as a leader of peace, the Mandela that I too love for saving South Africa from itself, appeasing the fears of the white minority that despite the atrocities committed under apartheid there was room for forgiveness on both sides. 

After decades of shame and embarrassment Mandela has made it OK to be proud to be South African again. However, just like the white apartheid leaders, we must never forget that Mandela too has the blood of innocents on his hands, that he is not a god, but a man, flawed and imperfect, but a man who had the strength to walk away from a path of violence and not be consumed by it like so many others. To me this is Mandela's greatest legacy. Not the one-dimensional view that he was a man immune to humanities baser instincts, but something far more powerful, something very human that we should all strive to achieve in ourselves. The power to change and the strength of forgiveness from those we have wronged and for those that have wronged us. In closing I say this to Nelson Mandela, I hope your last days on this earth are painless and peaceful, you have my respect, admiration and love. But most importantly you have my forgiveness.

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