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How Right-Wingers Attempted to Defame Nelson Mandela As A Terrorist

By December 9, 2013No Comments

by Danny Schechter

What’s the difference between a liberation movement and a band of terrorists? The simple answer . . . is point of view. Consider the African National Congress (ANC). During the long struggle against apartheid, what the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) saw as a liberation movement the racist minority government of South Africa labeled as terrorists. Ask one person in Washington and another in Riyadh today about Al Qaeda and you’re bound to get the same diversity of opinion. —South African Institute of International Relations, 2004

Nelson Mandela was not always loved; for years, many right-wingers and defenders of apartheid defamed and detested him as a terrorist, and several politicians went on record expressing such views:

“This hero worship is very much misplaced.”—British Member of Parliament (MP) John Carlisle, on the BBC screening of the Free Nelson Mandela concert in 1990.

“The ANC is a typical terrorist organization. . . . Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land.”—Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, 1987

“How much longer will the Prime Minister allow herself to be kicked in the face by this black terrorist?”—British MP Terry Dicks, mid-1980s

“Nelson Mandela should be shot.”—British MP Teddy Taylor, mid-1980s


Under the terms of South Africa’s Suppression of Communism Act, and as a result of the conviction at the Rivonia Trial, Mandela was found guilty of sabotage, and the ANC was branded a terrorist organization.

Here are the charges Mandela faced:

  • One count under the South African Suppression of Communism Act No. 44 (1950), charging that the accused committed acts calculated to further the achievement of the objective of Communism;
  • One count of contravening the South African Criminal Law Act (1953), which prohibits any person from soliciting or receiving any money or articles for the purpose of achieving organized defiance of laws and country; and
  • Two counts of sabotage, committing or aiding or procuring the commission of the following acts:

1. The further recruitment of persons for instruction and training, both within and outside the Republic of South Africa, in:

a) the preparation, manufacture and use of explosives—for the purpose of committing acts of violence and destruction in the aforesaid Republic, (the preparation and manufacture of explosives, according to evidence submitted, included 210,000 hand grenades, 48,000 anti-personnel mines, 1,500 time devices, 144 tons of ammonium nitrate, 21.6 tons of aluminum powder and a ton of black powder); b) the art of warfare, including guerrilla warfare, and military training generally for the purpose in the aforesaid Republic;

2. Further acts of violence and destruction (these include 193 counts of terrorism committed between 1961 and 1963);

3. Acts of guerrilla warfare in the aforesaid Republic;

4. Acts of assistance to military units of foreign countries when involving the aforesaid Republic;

5. Acts of participation in a violent revolution in the aforesaid Republic, whereby the accused, injured, damaged, destroyed, rendered useless or unserviceable, put out of action, obstructed with or endangered: a) the health or safety of the public; b) the maintenance of law and order; c) the supply and distribution of light, power or fuel; d) postal, telephone or telegraph installations; e) the free movement of traffic on land; and f) the property, movable or immovable, of other persons or of the state.

Significantly, the people who worked with him then didn’t see themselves as terrorists, but as part of a liberation struggle.


Once the ANC was banned, there were internal struggles as the activists reimagined themselves as an underground organization. Nelson Mandela called for a new underground structure in what was known as the “M Plan.” In a 1986 book called Apartheid’s Rebels, Stephen M. Davis, who had been with the US State Department explained: “The M Plan’s intention was to wean the ANC away from dependence on characteristics of organization most vulnerable to governmental pressure. Mandela envisioned the construction of a discreet but firm cellular network at the grass roots level.”

“It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t always successful,” recalled ANC veteran Mac Maharaj, the former Robben Island prisoner turned government minister and spokesperson. “We were all amateurs. We were learning as infants do how to live as outlaws, and so we made a lot of mistakes. We were terribly trusting with our own colleagues. We assumed that if you were arrested and you were interrogated and you were tortured, you could withstand it. Kathy is perhaps one of those who helped to write the rules in the Communist Party that if you were an arrested comrade and a tortured comrade, don’t talk. This is not a sustainable thing under modern forms of torture. But when it comes to strategy, I think there is a lot of room, and I have not known a single struggle that has started off with a readymade strategy that went through [to the end]. Strategy has to change all the time. . . .

“We must not run ourselves down with criticisms of ourselves that we threw out the baby with the bathwater. All revolutions have this. Fidel Castro was asked whether if he was to live his life again, would he have carried the raid on the Moncada Barracks and he said, ‘No.’ But he also said, ‘At that time it was the right thing to do.’”


In South Africa, the armed struggle was undermined by naïveté and a lack of security. The “high command” met at farm called Liliesleaf, now a tourist museum, but then operated by the Communist Party in the leafy suburb of Johannesburg called Rivonia. It was there that the plans were being made and even weapons assembled for a sabotage campaign. It was also there that the police raided on July 11, 1963, sweeping up top leaders who were prosecuted in what became known as the Rivonia Trial. Nelson Mandela was not arrested with the others but he had been there and later joined the defendants.

In his book, The Mission, one of the men convicted of sabotage in the Rivonia Trial, Denis Goldberg, reveals that even the intelligence wing of the ANC government that has access to old files doesn’t know or won’t say where the leak was. “To this day, we are not sure how the police found us,” he wrote. “We know that foreign agents were active because it is known that Nelson Mandela was betrayed by the American CIA in exchange for one of their South African operatives who had been arrested.”

Overseas, Mandela’s supporters rejected the terrorist designation, but not so his detractors. London’s Independentreported, “In his autobiography, Conflict of Loyalty, former foreign secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe says that even as late as October 1987, at a press conference following the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Vancouver, Mrs. Thatcher was quick to dismiss the African National Congress as “a typical terrorist organization.” Sir Geoffrey added sadly: “Absolutism still held sway.”

Years later, however, the BBC reported that when Ahmed Kathrada took Thatcher on a tour of Robben Island, he was surprised to hear her say that she believed her intervention had helped save his comrades’ lives. Kathy said: “She assured me that she had played a positive role during our trial. We were expecting a death sentence. We were well aware that there was all sorts of pressure both from within South Africa and from abroad—pressure from people not necessarily agreeing with the ANC’s policies, he said, but who didn’t want the defendants to be turned into martyrs of the revolution. At the time, Mrs. Thatcher was a frontbench MP in Harold Macmillan’s government. I’m not interested in whether she was prime minister or whatever. I have no reason to doubt what she was saying and it was good to hear she played a role.”

South African writer Alan Paton testified in court that if the defendants were executed then the South African government would have no one to negotiate with. On the night before the judge’s verdict, George Bizos was with Paton, who was staying at the home of British Consul General Leslie Minford, who had also been in British intelligence. Minford told them, after a night of hard drinking, that there would be no death sentence, according to the judge. Later, according to former Afrikaner government economist Sampie Terreblanche, British Ambassador Robin Renwick secretly pressed the government to release Mandela and his fellow ANC prisoners.

Nevertheless, Mandela’s name remained on the US terrorism list for years, until nearly at the end of his presidential term and eighteen years after his release from prison. On July 1, 2008, NBC reported:

This morning, President Bush signed into law a bill granting Secretary Rice the authority to waive travel restrictions on President Mandela and other members of the African National Congress (ANC). The bill was sponsored by Democratic Sens. John Kerry and Sheldon Whitehouse, along with Republican Sen. Bob Corker.

The senators say Mandela and ANC members remained on the list “for activities they conducted against South Africa’s apartheid regime decades ago.” They also said in their written statement that the removal “end[s] an embarrassing impediment to improving US–South Africa relations.

On the occasion of the ANC’s removal from the watch list rolls, New York Timescolumnist Nicholas Kristof commented:

Sometimes government officials become intoxicated by the counter-terrorism portfolio. Indeed, totally inebriated. To put it simply, they go nuts.

That’s one explanation for Guantánamo, for torture memos, for the Iraq invasion. But of all the ridiculous things we did in the name of protecting American security, putting Nelson Mandela on a terrorism watch list may be the most absurd. Mandela, the symbol of peaceful conciliation, the former president of South Africa, the 90-year-old hero—what did we think he would do, strap on a suicide vest?

Even still, the question comes up, such as at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference. Mother Jones magazine reported on one of the conference sponsors:

As Right Wing Watch notes, one of the sponsors at February’s conference [was] Youth For Western Civilization, a group dedicated to, as the name suggests, preventing the “extinction” of Western Civilization at the hands of multiculturalism. . . .

Among other things, the group is a passionate defender of South Africa’s white heritage. A recent blog post featured at the site accuses the African National Congress, the nation’s ruling party, of waging a “genocide” against Afrikaners, and pins much of the blame on revered former president Nelson Mandela.

So the issue of who and what is a terrorist remains a hotly contested and inflammatory one in the era of the war on terror. It does not belong to the past, but is still being debated today. Nelson Mandela’s success and emergence as a global icon has not changed that.


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.