The Axioms Of
Mandela is no longer suspected of 'terrorism' - a term so politicised it is
By Waleed Aly
Guardian" -- - Nelson Mandela was 44 years old when he was
arrested in 1962, and subsequently imprisoned for leaving South Africa without
a passport. Two years later, while serving this sentence, he was infamously
convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to launch violent revolution, and spent
his prime in prison as a result.
These facts are frequently rehearsed. More rarely noted is that Mandela's
arrest was made possible by the CIA, which effectively handed him over to the
South African security police by revealing his whereabouts and blowing his
disguise. Mandela was a villain then. His anti-apartheid activism had a vaguely
communist hue, and threatened to undermine a friendly South African regime.
Thus was he condemned. As a terrorist, no less. That much was made official
during the Reagan era when Mandela and his party, the African National
Congress, were added to the US government's terror watch list.
Now, with Mandela on the brink of his 90th birthday, the scenery could not
contrast more starkly. These days, the Queen meets him and London celebrates
his milestone with a rock concert. Yet he officially remained a terror suspect
until last week, when the US government finally removed his name, and that of
the ANC, from its watch list. It rectified an absurdity that Condoleezza Rice
said she found "embarrassing".
But serious questions emerge from this. For example, precisely what is so
"embarrassing" about Mandela's inclusion? Was his inclusion always so
ridiculous, or did it only become so when the political winds blew apartheid to
the ground? Margaret Thatcher did not seem remotely abashed in declaring the
ANC terrorists in 1987, signing up to the prevailing Reaganite orthodoxy. Yet
today, David Cameron sees a need to repudiate that stance. Mandela is "one
of the greatest men alive", he wrote two years ago in the Observer. A
terrorist no longer, he saved South Africa with his "leadership, his
humanity and generosity of spirit".
Who was right? At the heart of this is a lack of clarity on what we mean by the
term "terrorist". Mandela, you will recall, founded and led the ANC's
armed wing. In that role, he launched bombing campaigns on government and
military targets. Is that terrorism? He took care to ensure no people would be
killed in the attacks. Does that change your answer? It makes no difference
under American or British law, where political violence qualifies as terrorism
even if directed against property alone. Is that right?
There are no easy, unanimous answers to such questions. Terrorism studies
academics have failed for decades to agree on a definition of their subject
matter. Presently, they argue over something in the order of a staggering 200
different definitions, and this controversy shows no sign of resolving itself.
Some insist that terrorism connotes the targeting of civilians - which would
exclude IRA attacks against British soldiers. Others require the violence to be
aimed at generating fear, rather than causing mass casualties. Some require the
attack to be symbolic in character. And so on.
But the greatest source of incoherence is the irrepressible tendency to
politicise the term. Put simply, terrorists are presumed evil and illegitimate
by definition. Here it becomes a term of condemnation rather than description.
That seems uncontroversial until one considers that it renders the definition
of terrorism a political contest. Inevitably, such political discourse becomes
swamped by double standards: those whose cause we oppose are terrorists; those
we support are not. The Mandela case sharply illustrates this phenomenon. His
past actions cannot be altered, but his status clearly transforms in line with
our own political orientations. A terrorist in one era becomes a champion in
Such convenient inconsistencies can only devalue the concept of terrorism in the
long run, and undermine those claiming to fight it. Surely it would be wiser to
accept that, however we ultimately choose to define terrorism, that definition
should apply irrespective of the cause being served. The ghastly cliche that
one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter could then be consigned to
irrelevance. It is entirely possible to be both.
· Waleed Aly is a lawyer and a lecturer in politics at Monash University,