More on Nelson Mandela

Now everyone (almost) sings the praises of Nelson Mandela. Sagar Jethani takes a walk down memory lane to see what some of them were saying back in the 1980’s when he was denounced as a Communist and terrorist and when the Republican party was split, with some opposing his release from prison or putting any pressure on South Africa.

Dick Cheney, on the wrong side of history as usual, was one of those who vigorously denounced Mandela, though he modified his views later.

It is shocking to realize that Mandela and the African Nation al Congress were on the US terror watch list until 2008, being removed from it by president George W. Bush just before his 90th birthday and long after he stepped down from the presidency of South Africa and had received the Nobel Prize.

I remember the day on February 11, 1990 when Mandela was released from prison. I sat waiting in front of the TV in the US and asked my two little daughters to come and watch with me because although they did not understand it then, I told them that this was an important moment in history and I wanted them to be able to say they saw it. As the time for his release got delayed, I wondered what this man who had not been seen in public for so long would look like. I remembered his iconic image as a young man that was on a large poster that hung on the wall of a student organization back when I was in Sri Lanka. I wondered whether 27 years in prison had broken him and that he would emerge a frail and pitiful figure, destroying the image of the doughty freedom fighter that we had carried with us for so long.

I still recall the rush of emotion when he stepped out, looking dignified and distinguished in a suit and tie, his gestures decisive and defiant, his voice strong and resonant, as if he had lived all his life as a free man. You can relive that moment in this video clip (it occurs at the 3:15 mark) about the events that led up to his release.

Ahmed Kathrada, an ANC member who was a so-called ‘colored’ person and was in prison with Mandela, describes to NPR how the apartheid system extended even to prison inmates and how Mandela dealt with it.


  1. says

    The thing that amazed me was Mandela’s willingness to seek reconciliation instead of revenge once he had power. He could have easily turned power against whites (see: Zimbabwe nee Rhodesia), prosecuted those in the Apartheid regime and had public support for trials and imprisonment. At the time, many people felt sold out because those guilty were simply forgiven instead of being prosecuted.

    Some might compare it to the lack of prosecutions in South American countries after fascist regimes were overthrown, but that’s erroneous. New South American leaders had to tiptoe around their militaries, many of whose leaders were the guilty ones and could have easily overthrown burgeoning democracies and returned the countries to fascism. Even today, the SA military leaders have never been prosecuted, and SA politicians are hesitant about doing it (e.g. it was Spain that tried Pinochet, not Chile). Mandela had near unchecked military and political power and chose forgiveness instead.

  2. mnb0 says

    “I wondered whether 27 years in prison had broken him”
    Mandela in a clandestine way had contact with the outer world during his stay in prison via The Netherlands.

    As I have made a tiny contribution to the ANC case back in 1980 I always have kept track. So I knew like many other Dutchies that Mandela wasn’t broken at all.
    Thanks for linking to the interview.

    “he refused to be released on condition”
    This was well known in The Netherlands as well.

  3. mnb0 says

    “Mandela’s willingness to seek reconciliation ”
    Yes, especially combined with

    “he refused to be released on condition”
    First you abandon apartheid, first you set me free and then we’ll seek reconciliation. And he stuck to it for 27 hard years.
    Some comments say that this shows that Mandela has become more mellow in prison. This is flatly wrong. His position always has been the same: “we take up arms because of apartheid; so as soon apartheid is over and the political prisoners are free we lay them down again”.
    That’s the very definition of a being a great human being. I don’t care about his flaws; as long as I live I will admire him for this.

  4. says

    He was an incredible human being, and for me personally, at 15 and a ska fan, the guide to my starting a life of working for social justice. I cried so hard the day he came out of that prison, I’d skipped all my third-year classes to stay by the TV and see him step out.

    Amandla awethu,

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