You know me. Pretty much a patriotic South African. Proud of our history. And deeply affected by Madiba – Nelson Mandela. I think the guy did an incredible job starting us off on the right track. Oh, we had a few other great leaders as well. But Madiba was our big daddy. Our Patriot. The John Adams of South Africa. The man who fought so hard to bring freedom to our little country down South. Just like John Adams and the other Patriots did over here in the US. (Oh yes, just like with the US, most of our subsequent leaders have been less “patriotic”, loved, reputable and effective as leaders than those original Founding Fathers.) So, I read with interest the recent flood of opinions regarding Nelson Mandela needing a special waiver to enter the US because he is still classified as a terrorist. As a South African I will refrain from commenting on whether he is a terrorist or not. That should be obvious. I will also refrain from blaming President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney for this as that would be easy, but also opportunistic and a cheap shot. The fact is that President Mandela’s good friend President Bill Clinton had 8 years to undo this injustice. As did his partner Senator Clinton. I am more concerned with the policy behind this terror list and the message it sends to other “liberation” organizations and individuals across the world.
Nelson Mandela, and the African National Congress that he belonged to, were put on the list because the US government supported the Apartheid regime’s classification of the ANC as a terrorist organization. This indicated support of the Apartheid regime by the US government – both Republicans and Democrats. Again, I will refrain from discussing the Apartheid regime. I think we can all agree that it was a regime based on one of the most unjust and oppressive political systems in modern history. Really, take it from me and the people who suffered and died at the hands of that regime, they were not a nice bunch of guys to be associated with. Trust me, your mother will be most disappointed if you hung out with them.
On the other hand, the ANC was a peaceful organization for most of its history. It was established in 1912 in direct reaction to being excluded from having any political rights under the Union constitution of 1910. They remained an organization who believed in peaceful protest against the oppressive governments that gave no political rights to black South Africans. They did not even revert to violence when widows of black soldiers who died fighting in WWII received no pension whatsoever. It was only after 69 people were shot, mostly schoolchildren shot in the back, on 21 March 1960 in Sharpeville that the ANC got banned for calling a national stay-away campaign. Note, still no violence called for by the ANC – just a stay-away. It was only after more murdering by the Apartheid government and the arrest of more than 2,000 people that the ANC took up the armed struggle against the Apartheid government – while they were banned from South Africa. Their “military wing”, Umkhonto we Sizwe(Spear of the Nation), was only established in 1961. They officially took up arms when exiled. They took up arms when their people got murdered, arrested and taxed to death and they were banned from being in South Africa to represent the oppressed in even a peaceful way. Remember this bit – people being taxed, not represented in government, no ownership, murdered and arrested left, right and centre AND their “party” being banned even though they are promoting peaceful resistance.
In short, the ANC was a peaceful organization for 48 years before they took up arms. And only after they got banned and people were murdered in public did they take up arms. And they continued this armed struggle against the Apartheid regime for the next 30 years. So yes, they were peaceful for much longer than what they were in the armed struggle. But still the US and many other Western governments declared them a terrorist organization. And before you get on your high horse – they only started taking in money and support from the old USSR when all those Western governments refused to provide them with any support against the Apartheid regime. Many, many years after they got banned and classified as a terrorist organization. A case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend…”
Let me put this in language and context you might get. A bit closer to home. Imagine you live in the US. Peacefully. Oh, there is a colonial power in charge, but you don’t care much for them. But then they start shooting your people when they protest against the unjust laws and taxes these colonial powers instituted against your people. And, of course, you don’t have full representation – only token representation. So after many years of continued oppression you say “enough is enough” and you stand up and have a big old war for independence. And you take support from anyone – even those who also have oppressive systems in place in their own country. Let’s say like asking the French monarchy for support even though they did not give their own people the rights you were fighting for and who were an oppressiveregime to their own people. Oh, wait – that happened here right? Imagine that, those Patriots who stood up against the British rule would have been branded a terrorist group if the current US application of the term terrorist was used by the colonial master back then. See, the ANC was like the Patriots back when you fought for your independence… And I for one will defend John Adams and anyone else who dare call them terrorists. They were freedom fighters on the side of the good and the brave. On the side of the oppressed. They were the good guys. They were the brave guys. Full stop. Not terrorists.
But the problem they would face today is that there is no clear guidelines on what will constitute a terrorist organization in the eyes of the US government.
So, does the US classify organizations based on their opposition to legitimate governments? No. As the case in South Africa highlights, the US government supported an oppressive regime and not those seeking democracy. It did the same in Angola and in Mozambique. It supported the warlords in both those countries who fought the legitimate governments. Governments who continued to win the popular democratic votes in elections from before, during and after the wars that ravished these countries. And, of course, the US supported the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and many Latin American dictators who were as oppressive as these African and Middle Eastern dictators. Yes, it was during the Cold War, but it still… The US build their partnership in the same way the ANC did – not being picky, but just picking anyone who will fight against the injustice they believe their own people will or are facing. Both picked dirty friends. And neither of them can claim that the other one had “worse” friends than the other. You willing to make a call on whether you would prefer the Taliban or a Communist? Not an easy choice is it? A bit like a pan and a fire choice I think. Hello pot, cheers kettle.
But it still leaves the question open – does the US classify organizations as terrorist if they take up arms against any type of government then? No. The US government is not averse to supporting organizations who take up arms. As mentioned before, they supported violent groups in Mozambique and Angola. And they have continued to do so – who can forget the call to arms of Iraqi’s during the first Gulf War? And the direct or indirect support for those who take up arms against oppressive regimes.
So what is a terrorist in the eyes of the US government? Who knows? And that has been the problem with declassifying Nelson Mandela as terrorist. We have no clear guidelines. How can we declassify someone when we don’t know the classification in the first place? It’s a bit like just building a road and seeing where it takes us. Or a railroad. And remember the big railroad bubble of 1893? This road is just waiting to blow up in our face and create panic.
At the very least we need to know what a terrorist is. I don’t mean some global definition we can all agree on. I am not that naive. All I can ask is for the US to have a clear definition. But there isn’t. Do yourself a favour – try and find a clear definition anywhere in the US laws. Too vague and too many loopholes. How can we win a war against terrorism if we can’t even define who or what is a terrorist? So far we have been more or less lucky. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were relatively easy calls. Sadam not so easy. And the more we go into this “War Against Terrorism” the more fuzzy it will become. I would really like Nelson Mandela to not be classified as a terrorist. And I really don’t want us to start a war against the next John Adams and his group of Patriots. He was a Patriot. And so was Mandela. Let’s not shoot at anything that moves. Not every shadow is a threat. Let’s know who we fight. Because how else would we know when we have won?
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