A Man of Rain, Thunder and Lightning: Freedom Required More than Reconciliation*

When Nelson Mandela died, most Americans remembered him as a saintly political leader with a beautiful smile: a man of reconciliation, who made friends with his prison guard and who enthusiastically supported the national rugby team, previously despised as a symbol of Afrikaner power. Mostly, of course, he is remembered for sitting down with the apartheid government in order to negotiate a peaceful end to race rule. Many people forget the long struggle that preceded freedom.

Nelson Mandela7654n6Stockholm, 20 March 1990

“I can hear his brain working, sharply like the edge of a knife.”
© Chester Higgins Jr./chesterhiggins.com
All Rights Reserved.

We misunderstand Mandela’s genius if we focus exclusively on the final period of his life, a time when he deliberately and skillfully turned his skills to reconciliation between whites and blacks. That was a strategic decision, made necessary by the legitimate fear that the right wing would sabotage or undermine democracy.

Frederick Douglass, our own great Black freedom leader, aptly warned us against people who “profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation . . . who want crops without plowing up the ground . . .who want rain without thunder and lightning.” 

Mandela was a man of rain and also of thunder and lightning. He gave up family life and his liberty to work for equality. In 1964 he and his fellow treason trialists deliberately risked death by hanging. Rather than deny the charges, Mandela proudly and carefully argued that treason and sabotage were a moral duty. In the first few sentences he spoke in his defense, he stated, “I admit immediately that I was one of the persons who helped to form Umkhonto we Sizwe” [the ANC’s armed wing]. He concluded his Defense with these words: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society . . . It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Often we can know the worth of a man by the enemies he made. Many Americans, especially political leaders, feared him and the ANC because of ANC policies: in particular, a close alliance with the Communist Party, the declaration that the mineral wealth and land would in future be restored to the people, and the decision to take up arms for the liberation of the country.

The Unites States government worked for many years against the liberation struggle.

  • In 1962, the CIA is known to have fingered Mandela for the security police, so they could arrest him to end his underground organizing.
  • For much of several decades, the U.S. government agencies supported the apartheid military with needed weapons and technology, while private corporations and banks provided loans and capital to strengthen the economy.
  • The 1969 report that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger commissioned boldly concluded: “The whites are here to stay and the only way that constructive change can come about is through them.
  • In the 1980’s, at the height of the freedom struggle, President Reagan put the ANC and its leaders on the government’s list of terrorists, labeling the ANC “one of the world’s most notorious terrorist groups”.  Reagan believed that the apartheid government was a staunch ally “that has stood by us in every war we’ve ever fought.”
  • In this same period, 104 Congressional leaders, including Dick Cheney, voted against the U.S. Anti-Apartheid Act.
  • John Silber, President of Boston University, described the ANC and its leaders as “ruthless . . . black Leninists . . . engaged in terrorism and murder—largely against blacks”

The most common photographs of President Mandela show him smiling, inadvertently offering the impression of a man all can admire. The great photographer Chester Higgins shows us instead a somber face of enormous intelligence, a man about whom Higgins said, “I can hear his brain working, sharply like the edge of a knife.”

If we remember only reconciliation and smiles, we will forget Frederick Douglass’ warning that” power concedes nothing without demand. It never has and never will.” Mandela teaches us to be willing to fight for what we need and deserve, to use both our humanity and our minds to make decisions and to live faithfully to our ideals. A revolution requires grace and much more. In him we benefitted from it all together in one person.

Dr. Barbara Brown,  Ph.D. October 2014


* This article appears in Mandela: Tributes to a Global Icon, ed., Toyin Falola. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2014. Barbara Brown participated actively in the US anti-apartheid movement and is a scholar of South Africa.