On our visit to South Africa, we visited Robben Island (the Alcatraz of Cape Town) and viewed the cell where Mandela was held for part of his 27 year prison sentence.
Our guide, like all guides on the island, had been one of the “political prisoners” on the island. Here he is, explaining about the 30-year sentence he had received as a “political prisoner”:
You might have noticed some scare quotes around the description of this guy as a “political prisoner.” Let me explain.
One of the tourists asked him what his purported offense was. The tourist prefaced his question with a statement saying that he understood that the guide, like many people on the island, had been a political prisoner. But, what was the offense that the government had claimed he had engaged in? It took a bit of polite insistence on the part of the questioner, but the answer that emerged was that the guide had received the sentence for firing rockets at a fuel depot. Our persistent questioner asked if he had actually done that — or had the charges been entirely made up? The tourist sounded a little confused, because the guide had described himself as a political prisoner, and this didn’t sound like an accusation of WrongThink. The guide said he had done it, to fight against the racist and repressive government. He hastened to add that there had been no people at the fuel depot. It was just a strategic target.
As I walked out of the prison building, I asked my wife if she was enjoying the tour we were receiving from the terrorist. I was half-joking, but there is an aspect to history in which the winners get to write it, and the history of the struggle against apartheid is no exception.
There is an image of Mandela as the sort of South African version of Martin Luther King, Jr., but he was no such thing. He was the head of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress, which carried out violent acts in which innocent people died. Then again, much of the violence occurred while he was in prison. He also fought against a repressive and racist government and won.
If people want to hail Mandela as a hero, I won’t waste energy arguing with them. That is debatable. I just ask that people not portray him as some icon of lifelong opposition to violence. That, he most certainly was not.