Let’s Remember—Mandela Was a Revolutionary

Nelson Mandela’s role as a statesman was vital. So was his role as a revolutionary.

A statue of Nelson Mandela outside the South African Embassy on Dec. 6, 2013, in Washington, D.C.
A statue of Nelson Mandela outside the South African Embassy on Dec. 6, 2013, in Washington, D.C. Pete Marovich/Getty Images

Watching the world mourn the loss of Nelson Mandela is an experience at turns uplifting and incredibly odd.

In the first few hours of coverage after his death at age 95 on Thursday, there were the obligatory references to Mandela having “gone home” after leading his nation to a “unified” and higher state. Here, said the early tributes, was a hero who made the world a better and “more egalitarian” place. And, of course, there were the mentions of Mandela, grand champion of peace and reconciliation, presumably not embittered by spending 27 years in a political prison.

Notably absent from many public remembrances was the story of the patrician but “fire-breathing revolutionary” described by the New York Times’ Zakes Mda; the man described by Danny Schechter, author of Mandiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela, as so unsure that peaceful protests alone would bring change to South Africa that as late as 1994, he refused to renounce violence as a condition of his prison release.

Early on, Mandela did not rule out violent revolution as a means of achieving universal enfranchisement, economic inclusion and constitutional equality—a collection of both means and ends that at one time were considered radical. Later on, he made political compromises that he considered pragmatic but some questioned or even described as subtle betrayals of the African liberation cause.

Today, even the most ardent proponents of big business and enemies of organized labor profess a commitment to Mandela’s peace-centered ideas around voting and social inclusion. They describe their well-documented support for voter-ID laws that limit minority participation as efforts to protect, rather than restrict, democracy.

And all but the most vocal and extreme advocates of Second Amendment rights generally shudder at the idea of mingling political change with violence.

Mandela’s ideas have gone mainstream—but this wasn’t always the case.

We tend to forget that in Reagan-era America, the majority of Republican members of the House of Representatives—including then-Rep. Dick Cheney and 32 Democrats—voted against a nonbinding resolution calling on the South African government to free Mandela.

The ANC was then viewed as a terrorist organization,” Cheney said on ABC’s This Week during his vice presidential run in 2000. “I don’t have any problems at all with the vote I cast 20 years ago.”