When the world mourns Nelson Mandela at one of the most-attended state funerals in modern history, few will recall a time when the father of the modern South African nation — its first post-apartheid president, a Nobel laureate, and apostle of reconciliation — was a frightening figure.
"In 1989, I thought that if Mandela came to power, he would rule like the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran and turn South Africa into a gulag," said Bruce Herschensohn, senior fellow at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy.
"But he certainly proved me wrong and many others wrong. In many ways, he surprised his critics pleasantly, much like Sadat in Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan, when he developed from a young man who sought permission of other Arab leaders but went on to become a mature leader who did what he felt was right," Herschensohn said.
Morris Amitay, former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Johannesburg from 1967-1969, recalled to Newsmax in July — when Mandela seemed on the brink of death — how "Mandela showed great statesmanship after he was released from prison."
"But he could have gone the other way and a lot of people would not have blamed him after the way the [white minority] government had treated him so badly all those years," Amitay said.
In 1990, as Mandela ended more than a quarter century behind bars in three different prisons, a number of American conservatives feared the re-emergence of the man who had not been heard or seen since convicted of sabotage in June of 1964.
Mandela founded and became co-chairman of the militant wing of the African National Congress known as Unkhtonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation. As a young man, he studied the guerrilla teachings of Mao Zedong and Che Guevara. Tactics of the South African faction included sabotage, bombing power plants, military installations, and transport lines when civilians were not present.
When those tactics failed, Mandela wrote, Spear of the Nation would resort to "guerrilla warfare and terrorism." Most of the authors of the manifesto of Spear of the Nation were white communists, including South African Communist Party General Secretary and close Mandela friend Joe Slovo.
Through the years Mandela was in prison, Amnesty International never adopted him as a "prisoner of conscience." Adotei Akwei, managing director of government relations for Amnesty International, recounted to Newsmax, "this decision was made because Mr. Mandela refused to renounce violence."
Akwei added that "two of the presidents of South Africa when it was under apartheid, P.W. Botha and F.W. deKlerk, made offers to release Mr. Mandela if he publicly rejected armed struggle. He refused the offers."
The African National Congress did officially suspend its armed struggle in September 1990, and in November 2006, Amnesty International honored Mandela as an "ambassador of conscience." In his acceptance speech, the former president of South Africa praised the group for its efforts against poverty and "to stop violence against women."
But in the same remarks, Mandela never addressed the major difference between himself and Amnesty International and did not renounce violence.
Upon his release, Mandela thanked Slovo and the South African Communist Party for its support. He later made trips to Cuba to thank Fidel Castro for his support, along with Col. Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Appearing on ABC-TV's "Nightline" during his first trip to the United States, Mandela defended all three to host Ted Koppel because, in his years in prison, Castro, Gadhafi, and Arafat all supported "our cause."
Following South Africa's transition to rule by its black majority and Mandela's election as president, he surprised those who feared his ascension to power. There was no retribution against past enemies. Mandela led by example, meeting with Percy Yutar, who had led the successful prosecution that sent him to prison for so long. He even hosted his former jailer at lunch!
He created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which people received amnesty for testifying about crimes committed during the apartheid regime. There were public shows of "reconciliation," in which anyone could renounce the past deeds of apartheid. There were no political "show trials."
He not only embraced the hated whites-dominated rugby club the Springboks, but when the team won the 1995 Rugby World Cup championship, Mandela wore its team shirt as he handed the trophy to Captain Francois Pienaar.
As a result, South Africa's white business community did not flee. The economy remained essentially free-market and there have been free elections and peaceful transitions for the two presidents following Mandela.
The ANC remains the dominant party, but even that is changing. Upset at what critics say is heavy-handed rule by President Jacob Zuma, political dissident Mamphela Ramphele recently launched an opposition party called Agang. To no one’s surprise, Ramphele invokes Mandela's name and image.
Those who feared the thought of a free Nelson Mandela pursuing power in South Africa have watched him lead, govern, and forgive. Today they mourn and salute him.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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