Nelson Mandela: Revolutionary to Statesman

When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island in June of 1964, he was a cause more than a man. Few people knew what he looked like.

Most were unable to recall his erudition or eloquence, but many remembered his leadership of the African National Congress’ (ANC) military wing, the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) or Spear of the Nation. The nationalist white South African apartheid regime, formed on NAZI racist ideology and as brutal as their inspiration, covertly incited Mandela’s negative image with Operation Babushka by funding The International Freedom Foundation (IFF), a think tank designed to sway conservative United States lawmakers toward minority white rule.

Cold War ideology was the overriding strategic concern of the age, and Mandela’s alliance with Fidel Castro didn’t help his relationship with United States’ conservatives. Ronald Reagan asked in a Walter Cronkite interview, “Can we abandon a country that has stood by us in every war we’ve fought, a country that is strategically essential to the free world?” He neglected to mention South Africa’s reliable uranium supplies for nuclear warheads.

By contrast, those who opposed apartheid were dismissed as communist sympathizers as or naïve ideologues who conveniently forgot the magnitude and multitude of failures of black African rule, from Liberia’s hopeful beginnings in the 1800s, atrocities in Uganda and later, Zimbabwe. Mandela’s communist leanings combined with his leadership of the MK harkened Castro’s firing squads and the despotic disasters of Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe. Between the bitter oppression of segregation and anti-communism, many politicians chose apartheid.

By the time Nelson Mandela was released on Feb. 11, 1990, the Soviet empire had collapsed and his tactical communist sympathies were no longer a strategic concern. Furthermore, the morally bankrupt white minority rule was financially insolvent with sanctions. Reagan had unsuccessfully vetoed those sanctions just a few years earlier, but Congress overrode him. After 27 years of isolation, Mandela had missed the protests of the 1960s, the women’s rights movement of the 1970s, and the arms buildup of the 1980s.

Nelson Mandela entered prison as a revolutionary and exited a statesman. He had spent 27 years attending the “University of Robben Island”. He studied and read on all subjects and exited prison a free thinking man. He showed us the South African government could imprison his body, but not his mind. He astonished everyone with his dignity and grace. He forgave his captors, and the world took note.

Had he not been the man he was, South Africa would have fallen into unrelenting violence. His anger was justified, and his forgiveness was unjustifiably extraordinary. By creating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he set a moral compass for his country, he set a much higher bar for humankind.

His kindness and humility are lessons for everyone, and with gratitude, I finish with some lines of Maya Angelou’s memorial poem to Nelson Mandela, His Day is Done, and the last quote from President Obama’s line Secretary of War Stanton said of Lincoln:

We will not forget you

We will not dishonor you

We will remember and be glad

That you lived among us

That you taught us

And that you loved us all


Stanton: “He belongs to the ages.”