One of the landmark events of my Gen X youth was the 11-hour, internationally televised “Free Nelson Mandela” concert in 1988.
Because, come on: how could you not be anti-apartheid?
It was a no-brainer, risk-free cause, the type you could support without having to think about it too much or inviting unpopularity or controversy, right?
Lots of big-name musicians who now boast of being on that concert roster were hesitant to sign on the dotted line unless other bands came on board first.
In fact, most of the backstage machinations and politicking are unedifying tales of cowardice and egomania.
During that concert and the massive publicity surrounding it, Nelson Mandela was presented to millions of young people around the world as a wrongly imprisoned, peace-loving freedom fighter, detained for decades by the evil, crazy, stupid white South Africans, who kept the rest of the country’s majority black population enslaved to various degrees, too.
(Speaking of enslavement, did you know that the term “concentration camp” originated, not in Nazi Germany, but in South Africa, to describe the disease-ridden camps in which South Africans were held by the British during the Second Boer War [1899-1902]?)
Idealistic kids eagerly embraced Mandela as the Gandhi they never had, a Martin Luther King of their very own.
Of course, the real Nelson Mandela was, like those two men, flawed. Arguably more so.
At least Gandhi and King had preached and practiced non-violence.
During my youth, Mandela’s criminal past was, if you’ll pardon the expression, whitewashed.
In those pre-internet times, it was obviously harder to quickly access “counter-cultural” facts about anyone or anything.
When it comes to learning about Nelson Mandela’s past these days, however, we might as well still be living in that far-away, unplugged era.
Today, googling “Nelson Mandela terrorist” brings up either mocking, preemptive apologias for Mandela’s criminal activities — whatever would we do without Nicholas Kristof? — plus a few shaky looking anti-Mandela websites that probably haven’t been updated since the Tripod era.
(You know you’re in a bad internet neighborhood when you see the words “Illuminati” and “Zionist.”)
However, few would characterize PBS as a “white supremacist” organization (although you’re free to insert your own Juan Williams jokes in the comments).
And sure enough, at their pages devoted to a sprawling Frontline documentary about Mandela, there it is at the top of the page:
During the 1950s Mandela was banned, arrested and imprisoned for challenging apartheid. He was one of the accused in the massive Treason Trial at the end of the decade and, following the 1960 banning of the ANC, he went underground, adopting a number of disguises–sometimes a laborer, other times a chauffeur. The press dubbed him “the Black Pimpernel” because of his ability to evade police.
During this time, he and other ANC leaders formed its armed wing–Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).
Mandela was secretly appointed its commander in chief.
That “armed wing” carried out terror attacks at shopping centers, movie theaters and other civilian targets, not just “establishment” ones like courts and banks.
These attacks blew many innocent whites and blacks to bits.
(Note: some of these crime scene photos are disturbing.)
And when Mandela was arrested, the authorities claimed to have uncovered “210,000 hand grenades, 48,000 anti-personnel mines, 1,500 time devices, 144 tons of ammonium nitrate, 21.6 tons of aluminium powder and 1 ton of black powder.”
Governments around the world, such as the ones in the U.S. and Great Britain, placed the ANC on their terror lists, along with the PLO, the IRA and the FLQ.
So when the Left adopted the destruction of apartheid as its new fashionable cause in the late 1980s, the organizer of that “Free Nelson Mandela” concert, Tony Hollingsworth, knew he needed to “personalize” the cause, and give that particular person a big makeover, pronto.
Hollingsworth now admits that the all-star extravaganza “had everything to do with ridding Mandela of his terrorist tag and ensuring his release. (…) Mandela and the movement should be seen as something positive, confident, something you would like to be in your living room with.”
Mandela danced out of prison less than two years after the concert.
Oh, and not long after that, he was filmed singing an ANC song about killing white people:
Not everybody was willing to go along with what they perceived as the Left’s whitewashing of history, even for a cause as appealing as the abolition of apartheid.
Take Canadian MP Rob Anders.
He was the only member of Parliament who voted against a 2001 motion to make Nelson Mandela an hono(u)rary Canadian citizen, and earned highly vocal, passionate and enduring scorn for doing so.
“I think it’s horrible, absolutely horrible to call Nelson Mandela. … I will not repeat the term used,” sputtered then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien, the hopelessly corrupt leader of the hopelessly corrupt Liberal Party.
The “term” Anders used was “a terrorist and a Communist.”
Now, the long, storied anti-apartheid battle in South Africa itself was populated with white communists and black communists and black anti-communists and factions of factions within factions.
Mandela matter-of-factly admits to reading Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro — and Menachem Begin.
This is apartheid South Africa we’re talking about, not the Thirteen Colonies or the British Raj.
However, I think I understand the impulse that drove Anders to, shall we say, put on that political suicide vest.
(Which failed to go off, by the way. For what it’s worth, his constituents keep on re-electing him.)
The manufacturing of heroes is a strange and often ugly business.
So is the promotion of “good causes.”
What happens when the whitewash washes away, revealing things we’d hoped would stay hidden forever?
These revelations breed cynicism, disillusionment and resentment among those who’d joined the cause in good faith, and now feel conned and used.
Are we grown up enough to “do the right thing,” even when the cause is more complicated than we’d wish, and its “heroes” more human?