POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Dec 14, 2013
HOWICK, South Africa » To hear the tributes pouring forth across the globe, Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president and a universal symbol of peace and reconciliation, may seem like a teddy bear of a man.
He forgave the government that jailed him for 27 years in the prime of his life, emerging without bitterness to make peace with his oppressors. He killed apartheid, the harsh system of racial segregation that ruled South Africa for nearly half a century, with kindness. Or so the story goes.
But here, nestled among the green hills that were once the blood-soaked battlefields of the war between British colonial troops and Zulu fighters, is a memorial to a very different Mandela: the radical militant who took up arms against a regime that brooked no dissent.
"Mandela was a peacemaker, but he was also a fighter," said Philippe Itizo, a nurse from the Democratic Republic of Congo working in South Africa. "He knew that words alone can't make peace with a terrible enemy. You need force."
In the days since Mandela's death on Dec. 5 at 95, thousands of mourners have flocked to this small town in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal province, laying flowers, lighting candles and offering prayers at a modern sculpture that marks the spot where, on Aug. 5, 1962, Mandela was captured by the apartheid police.
"People should remember Mandela the warrior," said Aaron Hlongwane, a 49-year-old handyman who works at the memorial site.
Fifty vertical shafts of steel, 20 to 30 feet tall, make up the sculpture, sunk into the earth. Visitors approach the sculpture along a sloping path backed by embankments. Suddenly, 100 feet away, the shafts align to create an image of Mandela's face, looking defiantly west over the rolling hills.
The story of Mandela's decision to lay aside bitterness and make peace with his white captors is well known. But several years before he went to prison, Mandela helped found Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation, the armed wing of the African National Congress.
After years of passive resistance to apartheid, Mandela and some of his more radical companions in the ANC decided that nonviolence would not work against such an implacable foe.
"If the government reaction is to crush by naked force our nonviolent demonstrations, we will have to seriously reconsider our tactics," Mandela told a television interviewer in 1961. "In my mind, we are closing a chapter on this question of nonviolent policy."
Visitors to the memorial here agreed.
"You can't throw marshmallows at people throwing spears," said Levien Yengopal, a magistrate who brought his vacationing family to see the sculpture. "Armed struggle was forced upon him."
The armed group engaged mostly in sabotage of government property, although the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that it did take part in bombings and other attacks during the 1970s and 1980s, while Mandela was in prison, which resulted in civilian deaths and injuries.
The rebel group, known as the MK, quickly became a pawn in the African Cold War battles. With backing from China, Cuba and other communist countries, the rebels were considered terrorists by leaders in the United States, Britain and elsewhere.
These days, politicians and celebrities clamor to be associated with Mandela: By many accounts, more heads of state attended his memorial service than that of Pope John Paul II.
But as recently as a few months ago, U.S. security officials stopped top ANC officials because they are still listed as terrorists.
"Can you imagine, after all these years, they still call us terrorists?" said Tokyo Sexwale, a prominent ANC leader who was detained at Kennedy International Airport in October because his name appeared on a watch list.
He was quickly allowed to continue his journey by embarrassed officials in the United States, but the episode served as a reminder that Mandela and his party were not always universally loved.
David Cameron, Britain's prime minister, attended the memorial and hailed Mandela as a visionary, but his Conservative party predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, had opposed sanctions on the apartheid regime.
For people like Pam Paul, a 72-year-old English teacher who lives in Howick, the contrast is rich.
"Look how times change," Paul said as she visited the sculpture.
Like many people in this nation of 50 million, Paul had a story, and a picture, of when she had met Mandela, 17 years before. She had been living in the seaside city of Durban at the time, and noticed the presidential helicopter hovering over the Kings House, the residence of the head of state in the city. When Mandela walked over to greet the crowd that had gathered, he took Paul's grandson, Joshua, into his arms.
"My daughter was working in a rural hospital at the time, and I told Mandela that she had given him a Zulu name, Bonginkosi," Paul said. The name means "thank the Lord."
Mandela smiled his broad, flashing grin, then held up the 3-month-old boy for a kiss. Clutching a photograph of the moment, she shook her head.
"He said to each of us, 'It's an honor to meet you,'" Paul said. "We were all weak at the knees."
Like many people who supported the fight against apartheid, she had mixed feelings about the armed struggle.
"We didn't like the fact that there was going to be violence, but we accepted that it was necessary," Paul said. "Those were the times we were living in. But look at us now. We have come so far."
Lydia Polgreen, New York Times