Remembering Mandela, without Rose-Colored Glasses
The South African reality differs from the Western lore.

Nelson Mandela in 1990


Andrew C. McCarthy

‘Go safely Umkhonto. Umkhonto we Sizwe. We the members of the Umkhonto have pledged ourselves to kill them — kill the whites.” These are lyrics from the anthem of Umkhonto we Sizwe, or “Spear of the Nation.” The organization is better known as the MK, the military wing of the Marxist African National Congress (ANC). The MK was established by its commander, Nelson Mandela, to prosecute a terrorist war against South Africa’s racist apartheid regime.

Mandela had been out of prison for about two years in September 1992 when, fist clenched in the “black power” salute, he was filmed singing the anthem with a number of his comrades. Interestingly, but not ironically, as Mandela and others repeated the refrain about killing Boer farmers, it was a white man who stood next to him, similarly clench-fisted and singing. The man’s name is Ronnie Kasrils. A Soviet-trained terrorist who helped Mandela found the MK, Kasrils was a member of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party.


So was Mandela. No surprise there: Communism was, and remains, the animating ideology of the ANC. That makes it the enduring tragedy of South Africa.

I admit to finding this week’s Mandela hagiography tough to take. It was, to be sure, predictable. As we’ve observed time and again, once the culture and the institutions of opinion have been surrendered to the Left for two or three generations, you cannot be too surprised to wake up one day and find that the United States is no longer the country you’ve so confidently described as “right of center.” Still, while high-wattage fawning was to be expected in the mainstream media, the conservative press, too, tripped over itself to praise Mandela. That was disheartening.

Race, of course, is at the bottom of all this. We are all properly repulsed by the apartheid system of legally coerced racial segregation. Institutionalized racism is a thing of the past in the United States, but the blight lingers, overshadowing the heroic moral crusade to overcome it and become a nation that fully lives its founding ideals. An event like Nelson Mandela’s death, like the airbrushing of Mandela in life, becomes less about him than it is an occasion to reaffirm our historic, impersonal guilt — it being as facile to proclaim the ability to redeem other people’s sins as to exhibit charity with other people’s money.

Nevertheless, it is worth remembering — particularly here at National Review — that the modern conservative movement has never been about liberty as an abstraction. Its trailblazers, led by William F. Buckley Jr., championed liberty in the context of a death struggle against Communism — a “death struggle” precisely because Communists were committed to the destruction of liberty, typically posing as champions of “democracy” as they labored to divide and conquer societies.

In South Africa, the fissure to exploit was race — with the added advantage that apartheid was immoral because it rejected the equal human dignity of every citizen. The ANC, however, were no freedom fighters. The armed struggle Mandela led was not to give every South African an equal opportunity to enjoy the fruits of liberty. It was a will-to-power struggle to give the Communists dominion over the country.

As Ron Radosh recounts in the most clear-eyed Mandela remembrance to be found this week, Mandela fully accepted the positions of the South African Communist Party and used its strength to turn the ANC to terrorism. Western journalists want to bleach this history into a noble “people’s war” against an evil, murderous, racist regime. It was hardly that.

The MK led a terrorist insurgency that included bombings of public places. It killed many, many more civilians than it did members of the regime’s security forces — copiously including women and children. Indeed, it killed many more people than the approximately 7,000 black South Africans who, according to the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, were killed by the regime during the 46 years of apartheid. In fact, twice that number, over 14,000 people, were killed between 1990 and 1994 — the period during which the ANC was legalized and black-on-black violence became rampant, just as it is in South Africa today. The ANC systematically killed rivals for power and suspected regime informants — most notoriously, by the savage method of “necklacing,” in which a tire filled with gasoline was hung around the terrified victim’s neck and then set on fire.

As Ron Radosh further recounts, Mandela struck alliances with the world’s worst Communist thugs. A particular favorite was Fidel Castro, the leader of a Cuba that, Mandela brayed, “stands out head and shoulders above the rest . . . in its love for human rights and liberty.” He similarly courted Moammar Qaddafi, Yasser Arafat, and the totalitarian regimes of North Korea and Iran.

Mandela was thus, naturally, stinging in his rebukes of the United States. In 2002, President Bush — much like the press this week, preferring to see the Mandela of Western lore rather than of South African reality — presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A year later, after the American invasion of Iraq, Mandela ripped the U.S. as “a power with a president who has no foresight and cannot think properly,” who was “now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust. . . . If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America.”

He is deservedly lauded for not following the path of Zimbabwe’s monstrous Marxist dictator, Robert Mugabe. Nevertheless, the thunderous ovation Mugabe received upon arriving at the Soweto stadium for Mandela’s memorial service spoke volumes about “democratic” South Africa, and where it is headed.