Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is being cast as a regal, gentle giant who used a humble, quiet disposition to put his critics at ease and usher in democratic rule in South Africa, all while keeping blacks, wanting retribution, and whites, fearing their demise, from engaging in a deadly clash that could have torn the nation apart.
But let’s be clear: Mandiba, the South African clan name of Mandela, was a fierce warrior who was willing to do anything and everything to ensure that his people would not be forever subjected to the degrading treatment as second-class citizens in a nation where they are the majority.
It is very easy to be lulled into a sense of complacency while watching the numerous tributes being paid to the 95-year-old father of modern-day South Africa who passed away on Thursday. It is something that we commonly do when titanic figures pass away in old age.
For most in the world, we only saw him as a 71-year-old man who walked out of prison in 1990 after serving 27 years of hard labor. I prefer visualizing the pre-prison Mandela — 46 years old and striking a fierce pose as a 245-pound man who desired to be heavyweight champion of the world.
Many only know of a South Africa that ended apartheid after two years of negotiations between Mandela and the white rulers of the country. Yet, the nation’s black constituents, who outnumbered their white counterparts, were slaughtered and oppressed by the racist and violent apartheid system.
Tanks rolled through black neighborhoods, followed by cops swinging sticks and beating black South Africans with a viciousness that would have made Alabama’s Bull Connor proud.
When peaceful protesters led massive funerals, the police turned their weapons on them, killing black South Africans at will.
That was too much for Mandela and the African National Congress.
“If you go to the farm outside of where he was, they were plotting to overthrow the government,” George Curry, columnist for the National Newspaper Publishers Association, told me on my daily TV One Cable Network show, “News One Now.”
We need to understand the degrading world of black South Africans, to understand the system Mandela and the ANC were up against.
And unfortunately, the United States wasn’t willing to help. Instead of condemning the racial hatred of white South Africans, our government was more than willing to condemn Mandela and the ANC, deciding that our hate of communism was more important than our hate of naked aggression and brutal segregation.
“The United States was on the wrong side of history,” retired professor, Cornel West, told me on TV One.
“Not just (President Ronald) Reagan but many Democrats from (President John F.) Kennedy, who refused to see that white supremacy, was just as evil as Nazism. Nelson Mandela reminds us that love cuts through it all.”
Understanding the brutality of apartheid is all the more reason to praise Mandela for showing a level of moral leadership and courage of which many of us could only dream.
We live in a world where retribution is praised by allies. But Mandela understood that had he allowed hate to drive his spirit, the freedom he desired for his people would have never been achieved.
He sought to extend a hand of friendship to his former oppressors, showing his supporters that doing so didn’t make them weak, but instead it proved they were stronger. That, too, is what defines a warrior. In the old days, battlefield adversaries respected one another and knew to allow them to surrender with their dignity.
By leading South Africa the way he did, Mandela allowed whites to maintain their dignity while moving them aside from power.
Radio talk show host Armstrong Williams, who spent Thanksgiving this year in Washington, D.C. with many of Mandela’s grandchildren, said by understanding his human frailties, Mandela was turned his warrior spirit inward to create lasting change.
The world will remember Mandela as the gentle giant. But had he not possessed the inner spirit of a warrior, we would not be singing his praises today as an iconic figure who was transformed from a wanted one to one of the most beloved figures of the 20th and 21st century.
Roland S. Martin is senior political analyst for TV One and author of the book “The First: President Barack Obama’s Road to the White House as Originally Reported by Roland S. Martin.”