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Nelson Mandela salutes the members of the ANC’s armed wing at their 32nd anniversary celebrations. (Kevin Carter/Reuters)
Nelson Mandela salutes the members of the ANC’s armed wing at their 32nd anniversary celebrations. (Kevin Carter/Reuters)

Nelson Mandela: the warrior peacemaker Add to ...

As he waited for the Nelson Mandela memorial to begin, Aubrey September thought back to the apartheid era and tried to explain its racial classification system.

There was the pencil-in-the-hair test to see if your hair was curly or straight; if the pencil stuck in your hair, you weren’t white. There was the measure-the-height-of-your-cheekbones test. There was the skin-and-hair-colour test for newborn babies.

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Then he simply gave up explaining, threw back his head and laughed uproariously. It all seemed so absurd now, so bizarre, so impossible to imagine, as he stood in a soccer stadium to celebrate Mr. Mandela’s triumphant life.

But those humiliations occurred as recently as the 1980s in this country, and beneath the laughter he still remembered the terrible pain that apartheid brought to the country’s people.

Even as a member of the Khoisan indigenous group, one of South Africa’s original people, he was arbitrarily placed into a racial classification (“coloured”) under a system that determined his status and limited his rights. “It was degrading,” he said.

It was this system that Nelson Mandela fought – and eventually took up arms against, after long agonizing debates with his comrades, believing finally that violence was the only way to defeat a brutally racist regime.

And it is this Mandela – the radical leader of an armed struggle – who has almost disappeared in the sentimental eulogies of this week, with their romantic portraits of him as a peacemaker and a Jesus-like dispenser of forgiveness and saintliness.

‘Spear of the Nation’

At the memorial service for Mr. Mandela, there was soaring oratory and saccharine rhetoric in the speeches of U.S. President Barack Obama and other politicians. But for thousands of South Africans in the crowd, the pain of apartheid was not just an abstract evil. It had been a savage reality in their daily lives, and they believed that it had to be resisted with arms.

Florence Kganye, a 55-year-old school principal in a Johannesburg suburb, still suffers back pains from the beatings that she endured from the apartheid police. “It was terrible,” she says. “If you were even caught with a photo of Nelson Mandela, you would be arrested.”

Ms. Kganye was a teenager in 1976 when the Soweto uprising erupted, soon spreading across the country, and she joined the revolt. The police clubbed her with their batons, covered her head with a plastic bag and threw her into prison, where she spent a month without charges. The accusation was that she’d organized bomb attacks. The reality? She admits the truth: yes, she was plotting a bombing. She and her comrades believed it was the only hope of defeating apartheid.

The question of whether to turn to violence is a moral dilemma that confronts rebels and freedom fighters around the world, just as it confronted Mr. Mandela in the early 1960s. It is the same dilemma that Canadian Mohawks wrestled with in 1990 when many of them took up weapons, deciding there was no other way to defend their traditional land from the police-enforced expansion of a golf course at Oka. It is the dilemma that faces rebels in Egypt and Syria, in Muslim regions of western China, in dictatorial regimes in Africa, and in separatist-minded regions of Russia.

Mr. Mandela was tough-minded enough to know that there is never an easy answer to this dilemma. It meant that he would be condemned as a terrorist by many right-wing politicians in the U.S., Britain and Canada for the rest of his life, but that glib accusation ignored the seemingly immutable horrors of the system that Mr. Mandela fought.

The theme of armed struggle still resonates for veteran members of the ruling African National Congress. The first speaker at the Mandela memorial this week, 87-year-old Andrew Mlangeni, is one of the last surviving original leaders of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, the “Spear of the Nation”). His prominent place at the memorial was a symbolic nod to MK, which was founded under Mr. Mandela’s leadership after the notorious Sharpeville massacre of 1960 where apartheid police killed 69 protestors.

Mr. Mlangeni, his health frail but his memory still sharp, talked to a small group of journalists on the day before the memorial. He returned, over and over, to the great issue of his life, and one of the turning points in South African history: the issue that he and Mr. Mandela faced in the early 1960s of whether to choose the path of pacifism or the path of violence. He remembers the long all-night discussions in which Mr. Mandela patiently won over his comrades, one by one.

“Madiba was very persuasive in getting the ANC to accept the idea that we should take up arms to defend our people,” he said. “Ultimately the ANC accepted this suggestion, that we should take up arms now that our organizations were banned and the doors to peaceful demonstration were barred. There was no way of us folding our arms, like the liberals were saying.”

Mr. Mlangeni was one of MK’s first six recruits, and soon became one of its commanders. He was sent to China for military training. “We had to take up arms to defend ourselves, to defend our people who were not armed. We were attempting to overthrow apartheid, which had the policy of oppressing and exploiting and killing our people.”

The guerrillas of MK planted bombs and sabotaged power stations, and Mr. Mandela himself went to Ethiopia to learn how to use pistols, automatic rifles, mortars and bombs. “A single bullet is surprisingly heavy,” he marveled in his autobiography.

But the armed campaign was ineffective and soon fell apart. Mr. Mandela and Mr. Mlangeni were arrested and prosecuted at the famous Rivonia trial in 1964. They were sentenced to life imprisonment, and Mr. Mlangeni spent the next 16 years in a cell next to Mr. Mandela’s cell at Robben Island.

During his 27 years of imprisonment, Mr. Mandela was repeatedly offered a chance at freedom if he agreed to renounce violence and accept other conditions. He always refused.

Today, after Mr. Mandela’s death, Mr. Mlangeni is one of only three survivors from those who stood in the dock at the Rivonia trial, the most significant trial in South African history.

“When you’re sitting in your prison cell alone, you reflect,” he said. “Did I do the right thing? Did I ever hope to overthrow such a powerful government? They had everything, every weapon, and we didn’t have a thing except stones. But if we did not take up arms, what were we expected to do as leaders of an organization that claims to be leading the oppressed people of South Africa? All those questions arise in your mind, and you go over these questions, over and over, for years.”

In the end, he felt that the decision was right. “Otherwise there was never any hope of bringing change in South Africa. I lost hope that I would come out of prison alive, but I was hopeful that the struggle would continue until we achieved what we were fighting for. We were saying to ourselves, ‘We might not see the freedom that we were fighting for, we will probably die in prison, but the next generation will continue from where we left off.’ And today we are saying, ‘Let us all continue from where Madiba left off. We haven’t achieved much over this last period of almost 20 years. Let us take over and continue, comrades, from where he left off.’”

Choosing reconciliation

While most South African blacks remember that Mr. Mandela was willing to use violence, most South African whites remember that after 1994 he chose not to. And this was another theme of the memories this week: Mr. Mandela’s decision to renounce weapons and choose reconciliation when he became South Africa’s first democratically elected president.

“After he got elected, he didn’t take revenge,” said Walter Eriksen, a 25-year-old accountant in the small mining town of Fochville, a stronghold of the white Afrikaners who supported apartheid for many years.

“He was a terrorist. People don’t talk about it, but he still did violence. But I wouldn’t say he was bad. Because of the circumstances that he lived in, he had to do certain things.”

Marten Coetzee, a 40-year-old technician in Fochville, said he was “heartsore” when Mr. Mandela died. “He was a great leader. He saved our country from apartheid.”

The true heroism of Mr. Mandela’s peacemaking is that it was a choice. He could have chosen the easier path of revenge. There was enough anger and bitterness on both sides that it could have easily tipped over into war. He knew bullets and he knew peace. And in the end, he chose peace.

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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