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Editorial: Mandela, Obama both used violence

Published 10:52am Thursday, December 12, 2013

It’s been interesting to see the statements made for former South African President Nelson Mandela in the wake of his death this month.

One comment some U.S. pundits and political cartoonists have purported is how Mandela and President Barack Obama each won a Nobel Peace Prize. The comment is often with a contrast of Mandela as a saintly peacemaker and Obama as a drone-flying warmonger.

It’s an incorrect view.

They can depict Obama in whatever war-making capacity they wish, because he has led America in war, from Mideast drone strikes to NATO’s involvement in Libya to nabbing Osama bin Laden to the everlasting War in Afghanistan. Fine.

What is inaccurate is the Mandela part. It’s as if the pundits and cartoonists only know his life from the point he was released from prison in 1990. They don’t know the full story of Mandela.

Before Mandela helped end apartheid peacefully, before he led his nation away from a deep black-white divide, before he spent 27 years in prison, he was in favor of armed and violent resistance to the white-ruled government of South Africa. Mind you, it wasn’t the entire time, and it was in response to government violence, but some to this day still label him a terrorist. Others more politely call him a revolutionary. South Africa is a former British colony, so it was significant that even former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan opposed his release from prison. They favored the oppression of his political party, the African National Congress, an outlawed political party that sought to end apartheid. Mandela’s release came only after international pressure and internal South African strife. He could have been released in 1985 had he rejected violence as a political weapon.

Following new repressive measures by the South African government, Mandela in 1961 founded the paramilitary arm of the ANC, called Umkhonto we Sizwe or “Spear of the Nation.” He founded it because he had concluded peaceful means had failed. His advocacy of violence — he pleaded guilty to 156 acts of public violence at his trial — was why he was in prison in the first place. Many innocents were killed by his orders.

For Americans whitewashing the biography, let’s not forget Mandela had socialist and communist views, too, and he ended up disenfranchising some of his supporters by making good with major industries of his country after he became president. He knew the art of compromise. As president, he invested heavily in military weaponry and was friendly with dictators.

These facts are not necessarily judging the man as good or bad, but they are indeed facts about him. They are the political route he took. Mandela is a reminder that the politics of the world is not a two-sided coin. America’s two-party system sure makes it seem that way.

Mandela became a great man, who accomplished astonishing peaceful feats at a time when his country could have fallen prey to civil war. We just wish the portrayals of him stopped pretending he was the peace-loving Mahatma Gandhi of South Africa. Getting a Nobel Peace Prize sometimes goes to people who dedicate their lives to peace, such as the Dalai Lama, but sometimes it goes to people who committed an act that led their part of the world toward peace, such as former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson have won it for peaceful efforts, despite involvements in wars. So has Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, for helping bring about the end of the bloody Vietnam War.

Mandela won it for helping to bring a peaceful end to apartheid in South Africa. Obama won it for working to strengthen international diplomacy between the United States and the rest of the world at a time when much of the world had a dismal view of our country. Both men, it can be undoubtedly said, have advocated peace, but they also have used violence.

And even then, the circumstances both men faced during their political careers are far different, and comparisons are shoddy at best.