Mandela T-shirts and Terrorist Birthdays

Our glorious leader, David Cameron, was in South Africa on Monday 18 July ̶ the birthday of the world's most famous convicted terrorist. The terrorist's name is Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first democratically elected President and former bomb-plotter.

Our glorious leader, David Cameron, was in South Africa on Monday 18 July ̶ the birthday of the world's most famous convicted terrorist. The terrorist's name is Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first democratically elected President and former bomb-plotter.

Everybody loves Madiba (as Mr Mandela is known in SA). Cite him as an example and he serves as shorthand for heroism, peace and justice. Wear a T-shirt with his face on it and you're likely to make friends and collect smiles on the street. Not for you the inevitable fate of Che Guevara shirt-wearers around the world at the hands of smartarses who delight in pointing to the man's violent resumé as if that wasn't part of the attraction. No, Nelson Mandela is pretty safe political ground, which is no doubt why David Cameron was reportedly seeking an audience with him while he still has the chance.

And who can blame him? At a time when China threatens British interests in Africa, the natural thing is to meet with Jacob Zuma, and at a time when your own image is suffering significant tarnishing by association at home, perhaps some of the iconic statesmanlike glory in South Africa will rub off. A kind of politico-historic t-shirt for gathering credibility smiles.

But, Mr Cameron's trip raised some interesting questions. The most obvious concerns the British trading relationship with Africa and whether Cameron's championing of an African Free Trade Area will benefit Africa as much as it benefits British corporations. More interestingly, however, it raises the questions of whether Mr Cameron will apologise to Mr Mandela and, more fundamentally, Madiba is more rabbit's foot than albatross in international politics.

This was not David Cameron's first visit to South Africa. In 1989, at the invitation of a pro-Apartheid, sanctions-busting group that was trying to help the Botha regime 'make itself look less horrible', our current Prime Minister had a bit of a look-round ‒ a 'perk of the job' of being a Conservative Party researcher, according to his former boss, Alistair Cooke.

While others were campaigning for justice in South Africa and while Mr Mandela was still in prison, David Cameron did the equivalent of accepting an invitation from the Burmese Tourist Board, bypassing Aung San Suu Kyi. Not that it was his fault. He's a Tory, after all, even if he is terribly nice. His party, under Margaret Thatcher, opposed sanctions against the Apartheid government and Mr Cameron himself admitted this was an error in a subsequent visit to South Africa and did meet some opposition groups.

But the fact remains that while countless musicians, sportspeople and others maintained sanctions against an unjust regime, he did not. The argument that it was a long time ago and hardly relevant today would only stand if Cameron were not hoping to catch some of that 'Madiba magic' now, or if he hadn't cited Mr Mandela as a one of his heroes in the past (No, really, he did.)

Mr Cameron is, of course, not a lone horse in the Mandela Hypocrisy Stakes. Our society as a whole seems to adore Nelson Mandela, and rightly so, and yet our attitudes seem closer to those of Mr Cameron during Apartheid than Cameron 2.0 in 2011. There are individuals and groups who, by virtue of being called 'terrorists', we either despise or ignore ̶ certainly we never go out of our way to support them.

A friend of mine went to an air-show this weekend (always a conflicting experience for a liberal who also happens to like aeroplanes). Among all the other disturbingly militarist bumf at the BAE-Systems sponsored event, were t-shirts on sale with 'Taliban hunter' written on them.

Now, I'm no fan of the Taliban and I wouldn't compare them in any meaningful way to Nelson Mandela's party, the ANC. I dislike their attitude to women, I'm not crazy about their attitude to people like me who like to profess a faith in Jesus Christ and I dislike their violence. And it's the last bit that puts them in the category (in the popular imagination, anyway) of 'terrorists'. Fair enough. Like many militant Islamist groups (and isn't it interesting how easily that trips off the tongue, like 'radical Muslim cleric', almost as if we've been trained to repeat the phrases like patriotic mantras) they believe in violence as a means to achieve their aims. But that, according to the popular thinking, puts them beyond the pale, regardless of the justice (or not) of their cause.

In fact, any movement that uses violence to achieve its ends and doesn't have the good manners to use a £10million aircraft, soldiers with proper uniforms or remote controlled drones fits into this category, if many of our nation's daily newspapers are to be believed. Which would be fine if the same people who objected to them didn't love the man convicted, not of putting flowers in soldiers' guns but of planning acts of sabotage and violence. A man who was a head of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the 'Spear of the Nation', the armed wing of the ANC. A man who, when he was released from prison did not instruct his followers to slaughter the white oppressors but also did not immediately call off the armed struggle.

I am not one of those who thinks Nelson Mandela should be less venerated. Never having experienced the oppression he lived under, I can't even judge him for resorting to violence. As a Christian I cannot fully support its use, but then I can't fully support its use by the Army. And I know there is a difference between those motivated by legitimate grievance and those driven by bigoted hatred. But I genuinely cannot see how we could possibly tell the difference if we adopt the attitude of so many British governments, newspapers and commentators and refuse even to engage with the motivations and messages of those we've labelled 'terrorist'.

In my own Church, there has too long been a refusal to listen to the complaints of the Palestinian people, justified by bad theology and the word 'terrorist'. In Britain and the West generally, Islamist, Marxist and nationalist groups around the world have been written off as madmen or demons, and their actions as irrational explosions of hate, rather than possibly being reactions to our own economic and political policies.

I'm not saying all or any of these people are necessarily right. I'm just saying that if we want peace, if we want progress and if we want to avoid being put in David Cameron's current embarrassing position in the future, we would do well to listen more and find out if 'terrorists' have anything valid to say before banishing them from our dialogues. And our t-shirts.


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