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

The issue of who and what is a terrorist remains a hotly contested one. Nelson Mandela’s success and emergence as a global icon has not changed that.

Madiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela by Danny Schechter was published on November 26, 2013 by Seven Stories Press. Reprinted with Permission. 

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.

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