The day Mandela became a terrorist
By Andrew Beatty / June 26, 2013
JOHANNESBURG — Fifty-one years ago today a spry Nelson Mandela landed in Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia with one goal: to become a trained guerrilla commander.
It was 1962 and peaceful protests against the racist rule of South Africa’s apartheid government had achieved little beyond hardening attitudes on both sides.
The African National Congress had been banned and South Africa’s future president — and now global icon of peace and reconciliation — believed it was time to take to arms.
“This was a fateful step. For 50 years the ANC had treated non-violence as a core principle, beyond question or debate,” Mandela would later recall in his memoirs.
“I, who had never been a soldier, who had never fought in battle, who had never fired a gun at an enemy, had been given the task of starting an army.”
That army would be Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation.
Mandela initially took a characteristically academic approach to his task, reading the works of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Mao Zedong and Menachem Begin.
He immersed himself in the history of the Boer Wars, when his adversaries the Afrikaners — descendants of Dutch settlers — used guerrilla warfare with some success against the British.
But he soon realised study would never be enough. At some point Mandela would have to put aside words and get some practise.
Under the alias of David Motsamayi, between January and July 1962 he embarked on a grand tour to win over newly independent African countries and raise funds.
The journey took him to Bechuanaland (now Botswana), Tanganyika (Tanzania), Sudan, Ghana, Ethiopia, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Guinea again and Senegal.
After a stint in London, he returned to Ethiopia for eight weeks of military training.
There he learned to shoot an automatic rifle and a pistol, to use a mortar, to make bombs and mines — and how to avoid such weapons.
“Our programme was strenuous; we trained from 8:00am until 1:00pm, broke for a shower and lunch, and then again from 2:00 to 4:00pm. From 4:00pm into the evening I was lectured on military science.”
“I felt myself being moulded into a soldier and began to think as a soldier thinks — a far cry from the way a politician thinks.”
But the decision to take up armed struggle, as well as being a fateful decision for the ANC, proved to be a fateful decision for Mandela himself.
On August 5, 1962, shortly after his return to South Africa, he was arrested and charged with, among other things, leaving the country unlawfully.
While in custody he was presented with further charges of sabotage and plotting to violently overthrow the government.
He would spend 27 years in jail and would be branded a terrorist by the apartheid government and by leaders in the West.