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Mandela's Young Days Marked By More Radical Activism


Many are remembering Nelson Mandela as the man who led South Africa peacefully into reconciliation and an inclusive, post-apartheid democracy. But there was a time when Mandela was more controversial - in his early years of activism, when his politics demanded radical action to bring about the end of racial segregation.

David James Smith is a journalist with The Sunday Times magazine in Britain, and the author of the book "Young Mandela: The Revolutionary Years." David, thanks so much for being with us.


RATH: What was the African National Congress - the ANC - like in the 1940s, when Nelson Mandela first encountered it?

SMITH: Well, it had been going probably since the early parts of the century. It was like a lobby group. They were very polite - the ANC - in those days. They didn't really want to ruffle feathers very much. So there was nothing very activist about them.

RATH: And so the ANC, as we would later know it - then clearly, Nelson Mandela changed the organization.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, of course, it wasn't just him, but that's very much the case. There was a group of much more active, young, black men in Johannesburg in the 1940s. And in 1944, they formed the ANC Youth League, which was a kind of breeding ground for a much more aggressive form of activism against racist politics.

RATH: And how did his position on violence and protest evolve?

SMITH: I think it was a very slow, evolutionary protest. One of the significant things about the ANC Youth League he was a part of was that they really believed in non-cooperation with black people. They were kind of separatist school of thought. And Mandela, for a while, was working with the white people and the communists. And as we move through the period, we come to the point where he became very active in the turn to violence as part of, in a sense, an armed struggle.

RATH: And at one point, Mandela was training in guerrilla warfare, right?

SMITH: Yes, that's right. He really was the head of what became the beginnings of the armed struggle for the ANC. And they formed some activist cells, and they started planning a campaign of bombs, particularly in Johannesburg. And the plan was always to plant bombs and explode them where - in places where people wouldn't be hurt.

And it's interesting because, of course, people nowadays, they're very uncomfortable about describing Mandela as a terrorist. But in a very real sense, this very initial action that he planned and led - he was the kind of commander-in-chief - was, you know, a very small campaign of terror. It was the beginnings of a much longer and more difficult armed struggle; and a much more violent armed struggle later on, after Mandela was in prison.

RATH: While he was in prison, there was a resurgence of the violent anti-apartheid protests. What was Nelson Mandela's reaction to that turn to violence?

SMITH: Well, I think he was very concerned about it. And in the early days following his arrest, the ANC were really, effectively crushed as a movement. And it took them many years to be galvanized again. And the security forces instigated much more of a crackdown; they were much more aggressive and violent themselves. So there was a recognition that some form of armed struggle was necessary. And Mandela had accepted that.

But it became very complicated, as the time approached for his release. And I think what we saw, at the time of his release, was a kind of politics of pragmatism; a recognition that, you know, you had to work with white people. And you have this kind of tension between, you know, those people who, I guess, were more sort of aggressive about, you know, their racial politics, and others who were, you know, like Mandela by this stage, who were being much more pragmatic and forgiving - and also, I think recognizing that, you know, there could be terrible bloodshed if they weren't careful. And that's the thing that we all think that Mandela managed to avoid.

RATH: I wonder - with so few people now that actually remember Nelson Mandela before that incredibly long stretch in prison, do you think all these tributes in the days following his death - that people are appreciating the entirety of his life?

SMITH: I do think it's quite interesting because he became this - oh, docile sounds an incredibly patronizing word - but he was an old man, you know, the world's icon, the bleeding sort of morale authority; or kind of a little bit like a friendly, avuncular figure, he's got a twinkle of mischief. And people were focusing on that. And I think there is a danger that Mandela will be kind of de-radicalized by the collective memory and almost, to some extent, deracinated.

SMITH: It's kind of a tricky area. And, you know, he's the pride of Africa, and he meant something to black people all around the world, not just to people in Johannesburg. And I think we, you know, need to think about that; and think about what it means, and what he meant to them.

RATH: That's David James Smith. He's the author of "Young Mandela: The Revolutionary Years." David, thank you very much.

SMITH: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.