Three Myths about Mandela Worth Busting

I sometimes feel Nelson Mandela is in need of rescuing, trapped in some pretty bizarre narratives that have nothing to do with his own story or politics. Full disclosure: I freely admit that Nelson Mandela is the only politician for whom I’ve ever voted; that I celebrate him as a moral giant of our age, and that I proclaimed him my leader (usually at the top of my tuneless voice, in badly sung Xhosa songs) during my decade in the liberation movement in South Africa. That’s maybe why the “Mandela” I’ve encountered in so much American mythology is so unrecognizable. Herewith, the three most egregious versions:

Mythical Mandela #1: The Pacifist

“Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela…” How many times haven’t you heard that phrase to describe some politician, somewhere, opting for pacificism in the face of a nasty regime. Don’t take it from me, try a google search on that exact phrase.

I understand the compulsion to link figures of great moral authority, but this is a little misleading. Nelson Mandela was never a pacifist. When the Gandhi route of non-violent civil disobedience brought only violence from the state, Mandela declared: “The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom.”

He played a leading role in setting up the ANC’s guerrilla wing, and traveled abroad to gather support, even undergoing guerrilla training himself in Algeria, from the commanders of the FLN who had recently ejected the French colonials.

Mandela was no terrorist, however. Under his leadership, the movement’s armed wing targeted symbols and structures of minority rule, and combatants of its security forces; never white civilians or any other non-combatants. And most importantly, he saw it as always, immediately and ultimately, subordinated to the political leadership.

In these beliefs he remained consistent and proud. Even as the mass non-violent opposition reasserted itself, under ANC guidance, in the 1980s, he reiterated its connection with the armed wing, writing in a smuggled message from prison that “between the hammer of armed struggle and the anvil of united mass action, the enemy will be crushed.” (Of course it didn’t ever work that way– the armed struggle was never particularly effective, and mass action combined with international sanctions did more to topple the regime.) And he, like the rest of the movement’s leadership, never hesitated to take the opportunity to find a political solution for the greatest benefit of all South Africans — but that was the same spirit with which he’d embarked on his armed struggle, telling the court, “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela and his organization suspended the armed struggle only once the apartheid regime conceded to democracy. He was no pacifist; on the contrary, he never hesitated to pick up arms when he perceived his people were confronted with the choice between submission to tyranny and armed resistance. But nor was he a militarist: He never hesitated to take the political path when that presented itself. And in that example, he has much to teach the world.

Myth #2: The “Mandela Miracle”

Google “Mandela” and “Miracle” together, and there are over 3 million citations. This idea has entered American shorthand as follows: South Africa would have exploded in a racial war, and white people would have been driven into the sea, had it not been for the “miraculous” generosity of spirit of Nelson Mandela, who supposedly restrained the vengeful hordes.

Oy, where to begin?

The assumption that black people would seek violent revenge for the violence they had suffered at the hands of white people is racist. (Remember Gandhi’s arch put-down when asked by a journalist what he thought of Western civilization: “That would be a fine idea,” or words to that effect.)

But let’s not even go there. This myth ignores the political culture of the ANC, which Mandela helped form, and which also formed him, and was never dependent on his own, or any other individual’s strength of character. The basic political architecture of the process of reconciliation always inscribed the internal politics of the ANC which was always a non-racial movement that had substantial white membership, and whose policies distinguished between white minority rule and white people. It would be remiss of any historian to understate the role of the South African Communist Party in nurturing this culture. I’ve written some pretty nasty things about the SACP in the past, but nobody can deny that not only were they the first, and for a long time the only organization in South Africa advocating black majority rule; inside the ANC they played the leading role in shaping the analysis and strategy based on non-racialism and drawing whites into the struggle against colonial-style minority rule. When some angry youths who had left to join the guerrilla forces wanted to respond to the regime’s rampant bloodletting in the townships in the 1980s by targeting white civilians with terror strikes, it was the communists — led by Chris Hani, the commander of the ANC’s military wing and later leader of the SACP, who walked the ANC back from the brink.

And, paradoxical as it may sound, it was the Leninist realpolitik of the ANC’s communist intellectuals that led the movement to embrace the path of a negotiated, compromise solution with negligible “rejectionist” backlash.

Of course communist discourse had a downside: I remember cringing when freed Robben Island prisoners would tell me things like “In Moscow, comrade, when you come out of the subway, there’s just piles of fruit there, really good fruit, and it’s just there for anyone to take, free, for everyone…” And I nearly fell off my chair when reading a statement Mandela released to the media in Cape Town from prison late in 1989 proclaiming German reunification such a spectacularly bad idea that if released from prison, he would personally fly to Germany to try and stop it. Let’s just say he was a product of a different age.

But the broader point here is that it was not some epiphany on the part of Nelson Mandela that led South Africa to its inspiring outcome. There were no angry hordes baying for revenge. Everyone understood what freedom meant, and it had nothing to do with revenge. To imagine otherwise is to insult the millions of ordinary South Africans who struggled and sacrificed to free Mandela, and bring him to power.

Myth #3 Marcus, Malcolm, Mandela and Me — It’s a Black Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand

When I first saw that on a T-shirt being sold in Chinatown, Manhattan, in 1991, I laughed out loud. And actually, when watching Spike Lee’s Malcolm X movie at an ANC fundraising premiere in Cape Town, I’ll never forget how the audience of Mandela loyalists erupted in raucous laughter when their good-natured leader appeared in the final “Spartacus” scene, intoning “I am Malcolm X.” The implication that their leader was inspired by a figure entirely unknown in the South African liberation movement discourse was pretty funny.

Louis Farrakhan was probably a little surprised when he visited South Africa in 1995, and received a verbal dressing down from Mandela over his separatist politics.

My own favorite encounter with the Marcus-Malcolm-Mandela myth came one night in 1997, at a media party where I was chatting with a well known hip-hop scribe and his girlfriend, who ended up giving me a ride home in their rented limo. I should have known trouble was coming when girlfriend said to me “So, what was it like coming to America and meeting FREE black people?” I told her that I had worked in the struggle, and although the black people I met there were viciously oppressed by a colonial regime, their minds were always free.

But the scribe and his girlfriend simply could not accept that I, a white boy — a Jew, to boot — had been in the ANC. “Mandela didn’t work with white people,” he insisted. Uh, actually, of the eight men on trial with Mandela in 1964, three were white (all of them Jewish, actually). By the time the regime fell, there were thousands of whites in the broad liberation movement led by the ANC. A minority of the white community, to be sure, but a consistent presence in the ANC. Neil Aggett was killed in security police detention, just like Steve Biko. David Webster was murdered by a police assassin, just like Matthew Goniwe. Of course the vast majority of the people waging the struggle and bearing its sacrifices were black. But there were always a handful of whites alongside them. And so I went on, but none of this was making any impression.

Finally, the limo driver turned around, exasperated. He was Palestinian, he informed us. From Ramallah, where he’d been active in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist faction of the PLO. “And we always had Israeli Jews in our organization,” he said. “Not many, but always a few. Because we were against Zionism, not against Jews.”

And so it went on. The South African Jew and the Palestinian leftist trying, in vain, to explain Mandela’s basic non-racialism to the hip-hop philosopher who preferred the Mandela of his own fantasies. Only in New York.

This article first appeared some years ago on “Rootless Cosmopolitan” and is republished here with permission of the author.



  1. “the movement’s armed wing targeted symbols and structures of minority rule, and combatants of its security forces; never white civilians or any other non-combatants”
    Magoos bar, on the Durban beachfront was bombed, three women died and 75 people were wounded. It was neither a symbol or structure of minority rule. Its patrons were tourists and holiday-makers – not members of security forces – they were civilians.

  2. way to put your Jewish stamp on another great man of another culture, I think we should all be reminded that it actually the Jew who enriches the world and makes it a better place

  3. No doubt that there was a a lot of Tiny pushes from all over tge world and as Madiba said once he was not a saint, something hás to be done. But to complete the puzzle someone give a face In order for the tiny pushes been seen as a all. So who did That? Thanks for the Nice try.

  4. “Mandela was no terrorist, however. Under his leadership, the movement’s armed wing targeted symbols and structures of minority rule, and combatants of its security forces; never white civilians or any other non-combatants. And most importantly, he saw it as always, immediately and ultimately, subordinated to the political leadership.”

    Interesting. Under your definition, the IRA during the war of independence were not a terrorist organisation, and neither are the Taliban in Afghanistan since they’re fighting soldiers & officials of the occupying forces & not civilians.

    Personally I feel better not splitting hairs & say yes, Mandela was a terrorist when terrorism was his only available route. He made war when he had to & peace when he could.

    1. Mandela was never a terrorist. The problem comes when people confuse ‘terrorist’ and ‘insurgent’. Just because someone is fighting against an oppressive state, it doesn’t automatically make them a terrorist – except, of course, in the eyes of supporters of that state. Certainly in South Africa the organisation using terrorism as a weapon was the state, which used imprisonment, torture, starvation, murder, bannings, prevention of normal family life, oppression of free speech and free association, etc as weapons to terrorise the majority of the population into submission.

      The ANC responses were designed to make it impossible to govern the country using the racist apartheid laws – whether those responses were peaceful or armed struggle. Mandela, and the rest of the ANC leadership, were unique in that they kept their eyes resolutely on the end they wanted – a peaceful, fully democratic South Africa. They never allowed the tactics to become ends in themselves, which is where so many others have failed. Foregiveness and reconciliation were also tactics designed to achieve a peaceful and democratic outcome – just like the street protests and armed struggle. It depends entirely on what is required at that moment and whether the other side is resisting or cooperating.

        1. Yes. That is a good example of an organisation confusing ‘insurgency’ with ‘terrorism’. Nobody is saying that atrocities weren’t committed – or that there weren’t individuals in the ANC (and the other anti-government groups) for whom the means became more important than the end. But they weren’t trying to get what they wanted by putting terror into the hearts of their opponents (terrorism); they were however trying to make the country ungovernable by a racist minority (insurgency).

          It’s another debate to ask what would have happened had the majority of the ANC leadership not been put in prison, unable to exercise that leadership and control over day-to-day activities. Calling Mandela a terrorist is no more than an attempt to devalue what he dedicated his life to – including 27 years in prison.

      1. Also, from

        “By the mid-1980s MK was concentrating on propaganda of the deed – namely high profile attacks on prestige targets to demonstrate to the world the depth of resistance to apartheid as well as display to the majority population that resistance was possible (see below for a discussion of the controversies that followed) – and on building liberated zones inside the townships.[citation needed]
        Landmark events in MK’s military activity inside South Africa consisted of actions designed to intimidate the ruling power. In 1983, the Church Street bomb was detonated in Pretoria near the South African Air Force Headquarters, resulting in 19 deaths and 217 injuries. During the next 10 years, a series of bombings occurred in South Africa, conducted mainly by the military wing of the African National Congress.
        In the 1985 Amanzimtoti bomb on the Natal South Coast, five civilians were killed and 40 were injured when MK cadre Andrew Sibusiso Zondo detonated an explosive in a rubbish bin at a shopping centre shortly before Christmas. In a submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the ANC stated that Zondo acted on orders after a recent SADF raid in Lesotho.[9]
        In the 1986 Durban beach-front bombing, a bomb was detonated in a bar, killing three civilians and injuring 69. Robert McBride received the death penalty for this bombing which became known as the “Magoo’s Bar bombing”. Although the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Committee called the bombing a “gross violation of human rights”,[10] McBride received amnesty and became a senior police officer.
        In 1987, an explosion outside a Johannesburg court killed three people and injured 10; a court in Newcastle had been attacked in a similar way the previous year, injuring 24. In 1987, a bomb exploded at a military command centre in Johannesburg, killing one person and injuring 68 personnel.
        The bombing campaign continued with attacks on a series of soft targets, including a bank in Roodepoort in 1988, in which four civilians were killed and 18 injured. Also in 1988, in a bomb detonation outside a magistrate’s court killed three. At the Ellis Park rugby stadium in Johannesburg, a car bomb killed two and injured 37 civilians. A multitude[citation needed] of bombs in “Wimpy Bar” fast food outlets and supermarkets occurred during the late 1980s, killing and wounding many people. Wimpy were specifically targeted because of their perceived rigid enforcements of many Apartheid-era laws, including excluding people of colour from their restaurants. Several other bombings occurred, with smaller numbers of casualties.
        Landmine campaign[edit]
        From 1985 to 1987, there also was a campaign to place anti-tank mines in rural roads in what was then the Northern Transvaal. This tactic was abandoned due to the high rate of civilian casualties—especially amongst black labourers. The ANC estimated 30 landmine explosions resulting in 23 deaths, while the government submitted a figure of 57 explosions resulting in 25 deaths.[11]
        Torture and executions[edit]
        The TRC found that torture was “routine” and was official policy – as were executions “without due process” at ANC detention camps particularly in the period of 1979–1989.[12]”

        Not avoiding civilian casualties very well, it seems.

    2. All country’s have the right to self determination. Of course the Taliban and ANY Afghan have the right, indeed the moral need, to fight for the self-determination of their country. It is ridiculous to assert that the Taliban are “terrorists” but the U.S. military isn’t!

      And of course the U.S. is negotiating with the Taliban, despite their lies to the contrary.

      Only a negotiated political solution with all mass organizations in Afghanistan will stop the bloodshed. That and ALL OCCUPIERS OUT OF AFGHANISTAN!

  5. It’s a knee-jerk reaction that people of all colors will homogenize Mandela into the Black hero mixture of King, X, and others. They watch the white majority media elevate him to sainthood, so it must be the right thing to do. They do not want to be called racist by suggesting that his politics were more complex than Gandhi-style pacifism. However, in doing so, they appear to be just that by placing Mandela in a one dimensional box, almost stereotyping him.

  6. While the observation “the movement’s armed wing targeted symbols and structures of minority rule, and combatants of its security forces; never white civilians or any other non-combatants” is largely true there where exceptions the most infamous being the car bomb detonated out front of a hotel on the Durban Beachfront by ANC member Robert McBride. McBride claimed that he was targeting police officer who frequented the bar in the hotel while they where off duty. However all he succeeded in doing was blowing apart 3 innocent women pedestrians (none of them police officers) walking down the sidewalk at the wrong place at the wrong time and injuring another 69 people. To this day many South Africans still ostracize McBride and his accomplices for what they see as a cowardly act of violence. The atrocity played into the hands of the apartheid regime giving credibility to their efforts to demonize the ANC as a terrorist organization that targeted civilians rather than military and security force installations.

  7. When you search for a phrase on Google, you have to surround it with quotation marks. “Mandela miracle” produced only 13,000 hits for me (using Google U.S.), not 3 million.

    Enjoyed the article.

  8. Now you make me think that those who were behind the use of torture, bombs and executions in the ANC were in fact jewish communists? Wait Robert McBride wasn’t. Probably untrue then-

    The greatness of Mandela was his ability to change. Even in the face of all his unforgiving associates in the ANC. Even in the face of his own unchanging and unforgiving wife, he stood by the necessity for change. Still today we see a lot of unchanging and unforgiving people, like on this website.
    Mandela received the Nobel peace prize with his former enemy De Klerk. Another pair who received the prize were Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat. Rabin made the transformation from hawk to dove that Mandela did, and he paid the prize for it. Arafat proved unable to change; as some people can only exist in a state of conflict, peace is to them a threat of oblivion. Mandela more than anyone made the transformation, and so he will always be remembered.
    #1 untrue. And if you read the articles you are linking to, rarely is Mandela described as a pacifist.
    #2 things could have gone much worse in the 90’s; Mandela was instrumental in seeing to that they did not. Fair enough?
    #3 Lots of misconceptions of course, coming from ignorance, sloppy writing etcetera – so let’s do something by avoiding sloppy writing.

  9. Non-violent direct action is not the same as passivism. Ghandi and King were not passivists. They were activists practicing non-violence.

  10. mmmm, so there were white people working against apartheid, big deal? The reason I for one will not valorise that is because whiteness is always a norm, so no case to be made for that. It is an exhausting narrative, when one knows what it was like, and what it remains like, to live in a black body. I, and many I know find no need to defend, or explain the existence of “some” white people fighting against white oppression, like one would not have to do the same for men fighting women’s oppression. The threat of white-washing is why certain forms, and instances of white silence are sometimes a gift. One cannot always speak to claim space and history. Not white as in your skin or mine, but white as a way of seeing the world, and telling histories. Mandela is many things, to many people.

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