Though Nelson Mandela is today remembered as a symbol of peace and conciliation, a look at how he acquired that image reveals much about false narratives. He was a controversial figure, Thatcher called the African National Convention a terrorist organization, Reagan actively worked against him, and he was on a US terrorist watch list until 2008.
These leaders and many other governments disapproved of Mandela because of his extreme methods of action to undermine the incumbent apartheid government. Following a massacre of peaceful protesters by the police, the ANC realized that when met with indiscriminate violence, non-violent movements had to react accordingly. Their armed wing staged several bombings against the apartheid government. They sought to minimize civilian deaths, but those still occurred. Mandela preached the message of love, peace and unity that is attached to his modern image but could only reach a position to do that after a long and brutal fight.
The narrative of Mandela’s struggle has been sterilised and whitewashed, a notable example of that being is that his socialist views go largely unmentioned. His crime has gone from ‘bombings’ to ‘sabotage’, a word which removes the necessary brutality of his actions. His struggle is implied to be an uncontroversial fight against an oppressive government.
This is an intentional and important change to an interpretation of his life. This has been done to remove legitimacy from methods of protests that involve civil disobedience and violence in self-defence. This creates a false idea that significant social change can come about with calm and civil discourse, or through voting, while delegitimising resistance groups fighting for their rights.
Similar transformations can be seen in other resistance leaders. Martin Luther King is universally lauded for his advancements in civil rights, but many weren’t supportive of him at the time. In the past the FBI treated him as an enemy of the state, even attempting to convince him to commit suicide. Again, his socialist views are ignored. His marches, often disruptive and aggressive enough to warrant arrests, are shown as serene and peaceful. His message of unity and non-violence became one of advocation of total civility and lack of conflict. King knew that real political change had to be fought for, even without violence, and wasn’t won with neither calm discussions nor presence at a ballot box.
Governments and media actively distort the image of militant leaders in history, as they are powerful inspirations of how individuals hold power to create change. Sometimes this is done by white-washing movements’ values and struggles, as with Mandela and King. Other times this is done by omitting key militant movements, such as the Black Panthers from history lessons. The reason for this is clear: governments don’t want to encourage
the public to undertake aggressive, militant and disruptive action. This is the only way change can come about, through the public rendering power unto themselves. This doesn’t mean violence; it can mean strikes, protests, marches and more. Change never comes from ‘civility’ or voting. Every right we have today came from struggle, fight, and disruption. Direct action is the ultimate expression of democracy.