As you probably know, Nelson Mandela, the anti-Apartheid leader, political prisoner, and post-Apartheid President of South Africa, is very sick, and has been been in a hospital since early June. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who will turn 95 next week, is described as being in a “critical but stable” condition.
This morning, I heard a story on NPR noting that today (July 11) is the 50th anniversary of a raid by South African police that seized “Nelson Mandela’s journals and incriminating papers.” At the time of the raid in 1963, Mandela was already under arrest, and he had asked some of his compatriots in the anti-Apartheid movement to hide his papers. (They didn’t do a very good job.) Mandela’s journals and papers were used as evidence against him and his co-defendants at their 1964 trial.
In the NPR story, the correspondent describes Mandela in 1963 as a “freedom fighter.” That is a…delicate way of describing Mandela’s activity in the early 60’s. There are other words that one could use, were one so inclined. See, for example, this old post by Jim Henley, which contrasts Mandela with Yasser Arafat (a contrast in which Mandela most certainly comes out ahead, having successfully made the “jump” to “statesman”).
For some background, here is an excerpt from Mandela’s Wikipedia page (citations omitted):
Disguising himself as a chauffeur, Mandela travelled the country incognito, organising the ANC’s new cell structure and a mass stay-at-home strike for 29 May. … Mandela held secret meetings with reporters, and after the government failed to prevent the strike, he warned them that many anti-apartheid activists would soon resort to violence through groups like the PAC’s Poqo. He believed that the ANC should form an armed group to channel some of this violence, convincing both ANC leader Albert Luthuli – who was morally opposed to violence – and allied activist groups of its necessity.
Inspired by Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement in the Cuban Revolution, in 1961 Mandela co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”, abbreviated MK) with Sisulu and the communist Joe Slovo. Becoming chairman of the militant group, he gained ideas from illegal literature on guerilla warfare by Mao and Che Guevara. Officially separate from the ANC, in later years MK became the group’s armed wing. Most early MK members were white communists; after hiding in communist Wolfie Kodesh’s flat in Berea, Mandela moved to the communist-owned Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, there joined by Raymond Mhlaba, Slovo and Bernstein, who put together the MK constitution. Although Mandela himself denied ever being a Communist Party member, historical research has suggested that he might have been for a short period, starting from the late 1950s or early 1960s. Operating through a cell structure, the MK agreed to acts of sabotage to exert maximum pressure on the government with minimum casualties, bombing military installations, power plants, telephone lines and transport links at night, when civilians were not present. Mandela noted that should these tactics fail, MK would resort to “guerilla warfare and terrorism.” Soon after ANC leader Luthuli was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the MK publicly announced its existence with 57 bombings on Dingane’s Day (16 December) 1961, followed by further attacks on New Year’s Eve.
(The “guerrilla warfare” quote is sourced to Volume II of Mandela’s 1994 memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, pp. 411-12.) Mandela was arrested in 1962, and he went on trial in Pretoria in October 1964:
Mandela and the accused admitted sabotage but denied that they had ever agreed to initiate guerilla war against the government. They used the trial to highlight their political cause; one of Mandela’s speeches – inspired by Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech – was widely reported in the press despite official censorship. The trial gained international attention, with global calls for the release of the accused from such institutions as the United Nations and World Peace Council. The University of London Union voted Mandela to its presidency, and nightly vigils for him were held in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. However, deeming them to be violent communist agitators, South Africa’s government ignored all calls for clemency, and on 12 June 1964 [Judge] de Wet found Mandela and two of his co-accused guilty on all four charges, sentencing them to life imprisonment rather than death.
At that point, Mandela began his 18-year period of imprisonment on Robben Island.
Perhaps this is quibbling. OK, this is definitely quibbling, but it was something that jumped out at me. Maybe it’s just one more data point for the way 9/11 has changed our language. (Once you start looking, you can see these changes just about everywhere. To use a trivial example, contrast the first Matrix movie  with the second Matrix movie .) NPR’s decision to use the term “freedom fighter” reminded me of a saying (that we have not heard as much in the past 12 years as we did before, I think), “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s…”
For more on how we define some of the terms we are contemplating here, see, for example, the first chapter of this book. It is important to note, as Wikipedia does, that the MK seems to have taken steps to avoid civilian casualties. This would certainly distinguish them from, say, the FLN in Algeria in the early 1960’s. And from the PLO, for that matter.
Lastly, I trust that we will all keep Mandela in our prayers and thoughts. Customarily, in these circumstances, it is normal and proper to pray for the recovery of the sick person — and I would be thrilled if Mandela recovers and lives another ten years. That being said, given that the Father of South Africa is almost 95 years old, it also makes sense to join with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in praying for Mandela’s “comfort and dignity.”