Washington, DC–(Updated 12/10/2013) — Graciousness. Kindness. Forgiveness. Commentators have heaped these adjectives on Nelson Mandela as they reflect on his passing. Most emphasize Mandela’s role as a kind and generous conciliator, comparing him to Gandhi, King and other larger-than-life figures of our times.
Pacifist he was not.
Canonized for his magnanimous spirit, Mandela was more than an affable guy who forgave his enemies and drew admiration from his friends. Mandela the revolutionary, the freedom fighter and steadfast adherent to armed struggle, also deserves a place in the annals of history. Strategically targeting the apparatus of power was an essential tool in liberating his people from the abhorrent tyranny of white minority rule. This shaped Mandela’s philosophy.
Mandela’s African National Congress proudly embraced a guerilla army that was lock-stepped with the movements and people throughout the southern African region. Angola. Mozambique. Zimbabwe. Namibia. The moral force of the freedom cause was an important weapon in the liberation arsenal. Like all change movements, justice is won by overthrowing the old order — sometimes at the barrel of a gun.
Strong stuff to swallow in a 21st century world order. Perhaps it is easier to remember Mandela for reconciliation since radical overthrow of a repressive system doesn’t read warm and fuzzy. But without armed struggle and the guerilla movement, Mandela would not have triumphed.
Like many of the antiapartheid advocates of the period before Mandela’s release, I understood that South Africa’s fate was largely tied to tactics and politics regarded as unacceptably radical. But as an advocacy journalist, I also realized that speaking to U.S. audiences with a softer voice was critical to being heard.
Reaching audiences through the power of the media was in many ways as mighty as the sword! Add to that the daily demonstrations at the South African embassy, the cultural boycott, vibrant South African freedom songs, and the passage of U.S. economic sanctions. These separate but related measures helped to careen Mandela and the movement into the political, social and cultural mainstream.
Like Mandela and the countless legions of antiapartheid activists, I too have morphed to the mainstream. After his release, the demands of the day changed from destroying a decaying, evil system to building a bold, new one.
Lest we embrace rosy idealism, that challenge remains unfinished business for South Africa and the world. But just after Mandela’s release in the early 1990s, it seemed all things were within the grasp of our Amandla! battle cry.
Fast-forward to Mandela’s first state visit to the United States in October 1994, shortly after the historic elections that installed him as the country’s first democratically elected president. I was enlisted by the ANC leadership in Washington to manage media activities here. Among a range of busy public encounters — absent social media assets — I coordinated Mandela’s appearance at the National Press Club. That appearance is here for posterity.
More than an honor, it was my duty, giving enduring meaning to my firm’s credo of public relations with a conscience. That visit was also a reminder of the fruits of remaining true to your beliefs. My fleeting moments with Mandela, like those of millions who celebrate his life, are cherished gems.
To paraphrase the profound reflections of President Barack Obama: Yesterday Mandela belonged to all of us. Today he is claimed by the ages.
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Gwen McKinney is president of McKinney & Associates and a former publicist for the antiapartheid movement.