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Nelson Mandela death: Examining the backlash

By Ben Brumfield, CNN
updated 10:02 AM EST, Fri December 6, 2013
  • A backlash poured in against Mandela's positive eulogies
  • Detractors accused him of being a Communist, terrorist, racist
  • There is some truth to some of the claims
  • Mandela had a close association with Communists and cofounded a militant group

Editor's note: Share your stories, memories and photographs of the Nobel Peace prize winner and former South African president.

(CNN) -- Within minutes of the news of his death, the backlash started.

In the comments section of his obituary, on Twitter feeds, in blog posts.

Nelson Mandela shouldn't be revered as a civil rights icon, the statements screamed: He should be exposed for what he is: A communist. A terrorist. A racist.

To be sure, Mandela can't be neatly grouped with Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. Unlike them, he wasn't always the pacifist he was known for in his later life.

But should that be grounds for such bile-spewing vitriol?

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Mourners sing outside the home of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg on Monday, December 9. The revered statesman, who emerged from prison to lead South Africa out of apartheid, died on Thursday, December 5. Mandela was 95. Mourners sing outside the home of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg on Monday, December 9. The revered statesman, who emerged from prison to lead South Africa out of apartheid, died on Thursday, December 5. Mandela was 95.
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We take a look at the three most common sentiments in these online accusations and put them in context.


Nelson Mandela was a communist

What they're saying:

"Before you go all wet and runny over Mandela, remember he was a communist, and he never changed his views."

"So Nelson Mandela was a communist who supported Saddam Hussein and befriended Gadaffi apparently...."

What's the basis:

Mandela was branded a communist by the white apartheid government, which made it a crime to be one. And it was a label the United States was all too content to accept.

The Cold War between the United States and the Russian Soviet Union was in full swing. The Soviets had constructed the Berlin Wall just months before, and the world was dividing up into opposing camps -- allies of the United States or allies of the Soviet Union and China.

This included many African nations.

South Africa's government came down on the side of the West -- and communist or not, Mandela was squarely on the other side.

What's the truth:

Mandela's close association with Marxists goes back at least to the 1940s, when he was enrolled in law school.

He began a life-long friendship with Joe Slovo, "an ardent communist," the anti-apartheid icon wrote in his autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom."

Mandela described Slovo as of the people, "without whom I would have accomplished very little."

A watershed moment tightly bonded Mandela to Slovo and other communist allies.

Police gunned down 69 unarmed protesters in the town of Sharpville in March 1960. Then the government banned the communist party and the African National Congress, which fought for the freedom of black South Africans.

With Slovo and other Marxists, he co-founded the militia movement Umkhonto we Sizwe. It's meaning: "Spear of the Nation."

On December 16, 1961, the group carried out its first attacks on government installations and handed out leaflets announcing its existence.

But was Mandela a dyed-in-the-wool communist?

Not really, believes South African historian Sampie Terreblanche.

"You must understand it all against the apartheid struggle."

Mandela found the ANC too tame and had begun to push for a violent struggle in the 1940s, when he headed its youth league, the former professor of economics at Stellenbosch University said. The communists were for the use of violence, and Terreblanche believes it led to the alliance.

After his release from prison, Mandela made some high-profile appearances with communist leaders. He visited Fidel Castro in Cuba.

And to commemorate the relaunch of South Africa's communist party in 1990, he gave a speech.

But he also made a point of distancing his own party. "The ANC is not a communist Party," he said.


Nelson Mandela was a terrorist

What they're saying:

"It's amazing we forget he was a terrorist"

"Please explain how it is racist to point out that biographical articles about Mandela are leaving out his terrorist actions pre-1991."

What's the basis:

The United States government placed Mandela on a terror watch list, where he stayed until 2008 -- long after his term as President of South Africa, and even longer after his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

He was placed on it because of his group's militant fight against apartheid.

At the time that Umkhonto we Sizwe carried out its first attacks, Mandela was at its helm.

The next year, in 1962, he left for Morocco and Ethiopia, where he secretly studied guerrilla warfare.

When Mandela returned home later that year, he was arrested and charged with illegal exit of the country and incitement to strike.

Undeterred, Umkhonto we Sizwe built a militia and in 1963 made plans to start a civil war.

Police intercepted the plan and arrested Mandela and other ANC leaders. Mandela received a sentence of life in prison.

What's the truth:

It's true that Mandela once believed that civil disobedience was not enough to vanquish racism and apartheid. He felt he had to decide between the better of two evils -- submit or fight.

He may not have been directly behind the attacks, said Hermann Giliomee, a historian from South Africa. "He was on the run, so I don't think he had time for the planning on this."

Giliomee finds the 1963 plan amateurish, not exactly the design of a master terrorist. "I think it's a very naïve plan with very little outlook for success," the former professor of political science at the University of Cape Town said.

Mandela changed his views on violence during his 27 years of incarceration.

The rebel transformed into a pacifist.

"As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison," Mandela said after he was freed.


Nelson Mandela was a racist

What they're saying:

"How convenient that we choose to ignore that he once sang, 'Kill white people'"

"If apartheid was racist toward blacks, Mandela was equally racist towards whites"

What's the basis:

Umkhonto we Sizwe beat the war drum against the "white supremacy" and "the white state." Its members often sang a song called "Bring Me My Machine Gun."

What's the truth:

Though he despised white minority rule that kept the black majority down, he didn't dislike whites.

"He was rather strong against racism," Terreblanche said. "The day before he was sent to Robben Island, he made a speech in parliament that he was against all forms of racism."

He was prepared to die for non-racialism, the historian said.

Joe Slovo, one of Mandela's best friends, was white -- as were many other revolutionaries who joined him in the militant group.

"Umkhonto we Sizwe is a new, independent body, formed by Africans, It includes in its ranks South Africans of all races," the group said in its manifesto.

Mandela has long espoused the way of reconciliation and called for there to be no racial violence in retribution for apartheid.

In transitioning from the segregationist regime to a non-racial democracy, he partnered closely with his white predecessor, former President Frederik Willem de Klerk, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with him.

At a sports match in 1995, as President, Mandela made a gesture of support to white South Africans that drew gasps.

Rugby was the dominant sport of white South Africans of Dutch heritage -- Afrikaners -- and was reviled by blacks.

During a world championship match against New Zealand, Mandela walked onto the pitch wearing the jersey of his team's captain. The scene inspired the 2009 Hollywood movie "Invictus" directed by Clint Eastwood.

The crowd began chanting his name. They were almost all white.

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