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A road well traveled

Updated: 2013-12-13 11:58
By Bob Wekesa ( China Daily Africa)

Mandela had strong, lasting bonds of friendship with China

Looking at the tributes and eulogies that were delivered during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela on Dec 10, one just cannot help being in awe of the late African leader, someone whom South African President Jacob Zuma described as "like no other".

When the United Nations General Assembly designated July 18 as Nelson Mandela International Day in 2009, Mandela's name was permanently etched in the annals of history. The galaxy of world leaders who came to South Africa to offer tributes and condolences showed "Madiba's" reach and appeal across the globe. What, however, remains little known to the rest of the world or to those who gathered in South Africa on Dec 10 is the late leader's strong bonds and connections with China.

In his moving tribute, Mandela's fellow inmate at Robben Island prison, Andrew Mlangeni, talked about how Mandela often encouraged young anti-apartheid soldiers to seek military training in China.

Indeed, one of the earliest known contacts between the African National Congress and the Communist Party of China was in 1953, when Mandela's comrade-in-arms Walter Sisulu undertook a trip to China to seek military hardware and training support for the then nascent Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the military wing of ANC.

In his bestselling autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela is on record saying that Sisulu would report that the trip to China was "a remarkable and unforgettable experience". He would also report that the 600 million Chinese people were united in common opposition to "imperialism, the landlord classes, bureaucratic capitalism and the reactionary Kuomintang clique of Chiang Kai-shek". Sisulu's early trip to China would also set the stage for China's pragmatic support of the liberation movement.

It was befitting that the 88-year-old Mlangeni, one of only three remaining leaders who served a jail term with Mandela, should speak at his comrade's memorial service. He was indeed the group leader of military trainees that Mandela - as commander of the military wing of ANC - sent to China. In an article entitled "Studying Guerrilla Theory in China", Mlangeni told South African writer Tomas Karis in December 1989 soon after his release from prison that he left South Africa for China in 1961 with other familiar names in the checkered history of South Africa's liberation struggle, such as Raymond Mhlaba, Joe Gqabi, Patrick Mthembu, Steve Naidoo and Wilton Mkwayi most of them now deceased.

In The Road to Democracy, Raymond Mhalaba - a fellow detainee with Mandela and member of the South African Communist Party - recalled that one of the instructions given to the trainees leaving for China was that they should study Mao Zedong's works.

After a short stint in Beijing, the group learnt military tactics at a military academy in Nanjing under the instruction of Chinese strategists, some of who had been involved in the 1950-1953 Korean War. They also studied radio communication techniques as part of a training program that lasted 10 months.

Ahmad Kathrada is one of the remaining freedom fighters imprisoned with Mandela in 1964. In his memoirs, Kathrada, or Kathy as he is fondly called, narrates how two of the China-trained militants - Raymond Mhlaba and Wilton Mkwayi - shared their military training with Mandela at the Liliesleaf farm, the historical place on the outskirts of Johannesburg where Mandela and other ANC leaders were arrested in 1962.

A road well traveled

In his autobiography, Mandela mentioned that one of the documents used against him at the infamous Rivonia Trials was a paper entitled "How to be a Good Communist". The paper was largely a South African contextualization of Communist thoughts from leaders of that era, such as Mao Zedong.

Mandela admitted that had been "handicapped by ignorance of Marxist philosophy". To rectify that, he immersed himself in the works of Marxist leaders, including Mao Zedong. "In Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China I saw that it was Mao's determination and non-traditional thinking that led him to victory," he wrote.

Mandela and the ANC also maintained close links with the Yu Chi Chan Club, a study group on guerilla warfare. Mao's tactics that had led to the proclamation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, ideas Mandela embraced at the time, inspired the club.

To lift spirits during those early days of the struggle, the ANC youth who had visited or trained in China would sing Chinese liberation songs. The ANC's links with China and other Communist states seemed to have emboldened the movement to abandon Mahatma Gandhi's passive resistance approach for armed struggle.

When Mandela and his compatriots were jailed for life, China was among the countries that issued a protest calling for their release and severed links with the apartheid regime. When he was released in 1990 after 27 years in prison, one of the first diplomats he met was the Chinese ambassador to Zambia, an indication that China had contact with the ANC through friendly southern African countries.

A picture in the ANC archives shows a beaming Mandela on the Great Wall of China in 1992, his first visit. Video footage also shows Mandela in a deep embrace with Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. Mandela was in China to acknowledge China's support.

In 1992, Peking University honored Mandela with an honorary degree in law. He would return as an alumnus of this university in 1999 to grace an event with his humble mien. Addressing students and staff he said: "This occasion is unique not so much because this is probably the last address before I retire from public life I must say that at a personal level this fact reminds me with some finality that I shall be entering the new millennium without a job. I am not sure how many universities will then want to be lectured by an old man, even a former president, with nothing to show but his age."

In the present, Chinese author Li Yong's Freedom and Forgiveness: the Biography of Mandela under the "Modern Civilized Personality" series targeting young Chinese readers is evidence of the admiration of Chinese people for Madiba.

The author is a PhD candidate at Communication University of China and Research Associate at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily Africa Weekly 12/13/2013 page8)

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