By Simon Hooper
Nelson Mandela will be celebrated primarily for the dignity with which he emerged onto the world stage after decades in prison and for the forgiveness that he displayed toward his former enemies in forging a democratic, multiracial South Africa from the poisoned legacy of apartheid.
As a global statesman of grace and humility, he was long courted by Western leaders drawn by his irresistible story of triumph over tyranny. Yet Mandela, who died on Dec. 5 at 95, was also a more radical and politically complex figure than has been commonly acknowledged by his admirers in the West.
As a young man, he had close ties to the South African Communist Party and plotted an armed uprising inspired by Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution in Cuba.
For many who followed his life closely, that commitment to socialist values and instinctive solidarity with those he saw as fellow strugglers against oppression, colonialism and imperialism continued to burn strongly even in the years after his release from prison and the end of apartheid.
“He came out of prison a senior statesman-in-waiting. He went into prison as a militant revolutionary leader,” said Peter Hain, a veteran anti-apartheid campaigner and friend of Mandela’s.
“He was seen as a burly freedom fighter, learning how to shoot in Ethiopia and traveling to revolutionary Algeria and other countries while he was underground. We must never forget he was a freedom fighter.”
Stephen Ellis, a professor of African history at Free University and the African Studies Center in the Netherlands, believes that many people with only a vague awareness of Mandela’s struggle against apartheid are simply not aware of his youthful radicalism and commitment to violent means.
Mandela always denied being a card-carrying convert to communism. But Ellis, in his most recent book, “External Mission: The ANC in Exile,” claims to have uncovered documentary proof suggesting otherwise, though also suggesting that Mandela was more interested in securing support from Moscow or Beijing than in being a “heart and soul believer.”
“If you talk to many American liberals, they think Mandela was Martin Luther King,” Ellis said. “If you say, ‘No, Mandela started a guerrilla army, he was a communist, he did this, he did that,’ they just don’t get it. They don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Yet even later, as South African president from 1994 to 1999, Mandela would irk his friends in the West by expressing solidarity with leaders such as Cuba’s Castro and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, as well as finding common cause with the Palestinians in their struggle for statehood.
At a banquet in 1998 honoring Yasser Arafat, the then-Palestinian president, Mandela said: “You come as a leader of a people who have shared with us the experience of struggle for justice. Now that we have achieved our freedom, we have not forgotten our friends and allies who helped us liberate ourselves.”