Why was Mandela sent to prison? What were his “crimes”? It is very popular to present him as a “political” prisoner, to transform him from a mere terrorist into a prisoner-of-conscience. This is by no means the case.
He went to prison for crimes that would have earned him a stiff sentence, if not execution, in any country in the world. At his trial he freely acknowledged that “I planned sabotage… I planned it as a result of calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of my people by the Whites.”
The planning Mandela was discussing involved four stages of violence: sabotage, guerilla warfare, terrorism and open revolution, all this intended to lead to chaos and civil war. It was because of his admission and the planning involved that even so liberal a group as Amnesty International refused to classify him a “prisoner-of-conscience.” Any further argument about Mandela’s role as terrorist chieftain was answered years later by one of his main fellow conspirators. He wrote:
“That sabotage was to form only the opening phase in the unfolding of armed struggle is revealed by other steps which were taken at the same time. Before Umkhonto was formed, leading personalities had been sent out of the country to be trained in the art of guerilla struggle; an underground railway had been set up which carried hundreds of recruits abroad for guerilla-type instruction. Early in 1962, almost immediately after the beginning of sabotage, Nelson Mandela had toured Africa and Europe to obtain support for the armed struggle and training facilities for guerillas.”
That is a passage from “South Africa – No Middle Road,” a chapter of South Africa – the New Politics of Revolution (Pelican Books, 1976). The author? Joe Slovo, former “chief of staff” of Umkhonto, member of the ANC Revolutionary Council, secretary general of the SA Communist Party and an awardee of the Order of Lenin. If anyone should know about events leading to the Rivonia trial, that man is Slovo. Unfortunately, his book was banned in SA, so few in this country know of his disclosures: and the Government, with rare exceptions, has done little to propagate the true facts concerning the Rivonia treason trial; the background reports on why Mandela is in jail or what the ANC/SACP alliance really represents.
As for Mandela’s release, it is no secret that the Government has agonised and agonised over this. In 1984 there was serious discussion on releasing him, but the revolutionary climate that exploded on SA at that time put paid to that effort. His continued incarceration was an acute embarrassment to the Government, giving SA’s critics the opportunity to pretend that nothing had changed.
One sticking point earlier was that he would not renounce violence. People ask: “Why could he not do this?” The answer is simple. The point was not that Pretoria was asking him to renounce violence – we all have to do that, or face prosecution – but to repudiate the ANC policy decision which led to the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe. Many have urged that he, or the ANC, declare a temporary moratorium on violence, but seemingly even that is unacceptable.
The ANC, with the ready connivance of the world media, have built up these Messianic expectations of Mandela’s Second Coming. After all the hype and the build-up, there is a very real danger that his release will yet prove a morale-sapping anti-climax.