I stumbled upon this website and I thought this website was pretty interesting. I think this question is relevant to politics, since this is all we hear about on the news. On the mainstream media, he's praised for being an anti-apartheid. Yes, this is the movement he led.

However, there are some aspects of his history that struck me. To me, he was a little bit of a terrorist and even an anti-white racist. I read that be planted many bombs and killed many innocent white people, and I'm not talking about any political leaders. I also heard that he bombed a school bus, and put a tire soaked with oil on someone and lit it up. He was involved in the following events:

  • Church Street West, Pretoria, 20 May 1983

  • Amanzimtoti Shopping complex KZN, 23 December 1985

  • Krugersdorp Magistrate’s Court, 17 March 1988

  • Durban Pick ‘n Pay shopping complex, 1 September 1986

  • Pretoria Sterland movie complex, 16 April 1988 – limpet mine killed ANC terrorist M O Maponya instead

  • Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court, 20 May 1987

  • Roodepoort Standard Bank, 3 June 1988

So the question is - was he a terrorist, a Gandhi, or somewhere in between? Explain please.

  • 3
    Is there specific credible evidence re: school bus bombing?
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 8, 2013 at 13:41
  • 5
    A cross-posting: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/18605/… Commented Dec 8, 2013 at 21:20
  • 3
    You are aware that Nelson Mandela was in prison for all of the events you list above? Commented Dec 8, 2013 at 21:22
  • Throwing around the term "terrorism" with no context is loading the question. If not, every act against Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Pol Pot, Franco, Attila the Hun, Adolf Eichmann, Pinochet, Mao, Gaddafi, ad infinitum was an act of terrorism and unjustified in your case. Hail the demons and oppressors of the world! Commented Oct 19, 2021 at 17:36

5 Answers 5


The definition of "terrorism" and "terrorist" was covered on this site before.

I will copy/paste the relevant parts of the answer:

Since 1994, the United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly condemned terrorist acts using the following political description of terrorism:

"Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them."


A definition proposed by Carsten Bockstette at the George C. Marshall Center for European Security Studies, underlines the psychological and tactical aspects of terrorism:

Terrorism is defined as political violence in an asymmetrical conflict that is designed to induce terror and psychic fear (sometimes indiscriminate) through the violent victimization and destruction of noncombatant targets (sometimes iconic symbols). Such acts are meant to send a message from an illicit clandestine organization. The purpose of terrorism is to exploit the media in order to achieve maximum attainable publicity as an amplifying force multiplier in order to influence the targeted audience(s) in order to reach short- and midterm political goals and/or desired long-term end states."

Note that the purposes and end goals of terrorism are 100% irrelevant - merely the tactics (targeting non-combatants on purpose).

As such, if any of the acts that Mandela did targeted non-combatants on purpose, he was a terrorist, pure and simple.

Now, as to whether he did any such thing or not, I think Skeptics.SE is probably a better place to ask. The schoolbus bombing sounds like the most obvious example, but one would need evidence that he actually did that. Obtaining that evidence seems out of scope for Politics.SE and your question didn't link to any.

  • This is the start of a good answer, but just because the OP didn't provide any evidence doesn't mean that you shouldn't. Wikipedia:Mandela 1961 Mandela co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation", abbreviated MK) with Sisulu and the communist Joe Slovo. As a co-founder with Joe Slovo, you might find him responsible, "commanded by Aboobaker Ismail. Such units had been authorised by Oliver Tambo, the ANC President, in 1979. At the time of the attack, they reported to Joe Slovo as chief of staff, and the Church Street attack was auth
    – user1873
    Commented Dec 8, 2013 at 17:02
  • 1
    Your entire answer pretty much boils down to "maybe he was, maybe he wasn't". I'd hardly call that an answer Commented Dec 9, 2013 at 16:37
  • 1
    @SamIam - you disagree with the fact that "did he participate in a specific action" belongs a lot more on Skeptics than here?
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 9, 2013 at 17:32
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    @DVK I think that it is on topic for both sites, but just because you think that this question would be more appropriate for the other site, doesn't mean that you should post a non-answer on this one. Commented Dec 9, 2013 at 17:49
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    @SamIam - I didn't say this question is off topic. I think the specific "did he do it" is. This site is not for digging into whether someone did or didn't do something rumored about them.
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 9, 2013 at 17:56

The problem with the word terrorist and its formal definition as outlined in the (very good) answer by user4012 is that the word usually carries negative connotations while the formal definition tries to resort to facts that can be established. The formal definition and the general usage and connotations of the world can lead to conflicting outcomes with one group applying the label 'terrorist' while the other vehemently rejects it.

To illustrate my point, allow me to point to two figures of German history: Georg Elser and Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg.

In 1939 the former had decided to use Hitler's annual speech in the Bürgerbräukeller to attempt an assassination. Over months he hollowed out a column behind the speaker's stage and deposited explosives inside. They were connected to a time-detonator device and set to go off at 9.20 pm on the evening of the 8th November 1939. In normal years, Hitler would still be speaking or at least present in the hall at that time but he left earlier that year. When the bomb exploded, the pillar was completely destroyed, parts of the ceiling collapsed, 8 people died and 57 were injured. Elser was working alone.

In 1944 the latter who was a high-ranking military officer decided to bring a hidden bomb into the conference room of the Führer headquarters to assassinate Hitler. He deposited his briefcase with the explosives on the floor next to a table where Hitler was sitting and left the room due to an alleged phone call. The bomb exploded and ultimately killed 4 people and severely injured 9 more. Stauffenberg was part of a larger group of conspirators.

Using the formal definition, both of these acts could be classified as terrorism. The former due to the large number of civilian causualties and victims, the latter additionally because it was a conspiring group. The Nazis had the perpetrators of both attacks arrested and subjected to show trials. While the word terrorist was not in that common use in German at the time and they were thus labelled high traitors, it would be reasonable to assume that nowadays the Nazis would describe them as (evil) terrorists.

Nowadays both these attempts are classified quite differently. They are seen as resistance against the Nazi dictatorship from among the citizenry (Elser) and the military (Stauffenberg). The general idea (assassinating Hitler to end/prevent the Nazi terror and war) is typically seen in a positive light. Despite fitting the formal definition, it is highly unlikely that anybody nowadays would use the word terrorist to describe these people due to the word's negative connotations.

Akin to the difference between a revolution and a rebellion, whether or not somebody is classified as a terrorist by the general public of a certain country often depends on which side they were fighting on and how much their cause is seen as morally good (and to some extend whether the side won). The closer one gets to the present, the more applying the label depends on in-group versus out-group. Thus, a group that is fighting for a cause which itself sees as morally good will typically reject the 'terrorist' label emphatically, while those parts of the general population which do not agree with this cause will be far more likely to apply it.

On the other hand, the more a group's action becomes history the more likely it becomes that the 'terrorist' label (or lack thereof) becomes accepted within the country – but whether a particular person is seen as morally good (not a terrorist) or not (terrorist) can vary between countries.

When we apply the above thoughts to Nelson Mandela, we immediately run into problems. Whether or not Mandela committed (personally or was responsible for) any acts that fit the formal defintion, he is generally seen as the iconic figure ending apartheid in South Africa. In morality terms, it is rather difficult to come up with a cause that would be considered morally good by a greater majority. However, this success was the result of decades of action in some form or another. Thus, actions committed in the past in the attempt to further that morally good goal must be considered part of the fight.

This immediately puts us into a dilemma whether we want to apply a negatively connotated label to a person supporting such a cause even though it fits the formal definition. The stronger people agree with his cause as being morally good, the more they want to reject the morally bad label of terrorist to him or his actions in the past.

I see no way to resolve this issue without rejecting at least one of the two usages of the word.

  • 1
    "Using the formal definition, both of these acts could be classified as terrorism." No, they're not. They weren't trying to create political change through fear, but by assassinating a political leader.
    – nick012000
    Commented Oct 16, 2021 at 5:16
  • @nick012000 and you think assassinating a head of state wouldn't create fear followed by political change? Didn't the assassination of Kennedy put fear and panic and the general feeling of unsafety and terror in the hearts of Americans at the time? Afterall, if a psycho could take out the most protected person in America, the one entrusted with keeping THEM safe, then were any of them safe? Faith in the ability of the government to keep citizens safe likely took a hit, and it would. That must've lead to some if not great political change. assassinating the leader does create change thru fear. Commented Dec 18, 2023 at 3:30
  • @strawberries Creating political change through the assassination of a political leader (with fear as a side-effect) is different to creating political change through fear. In one case, the violence itself is the goal, while in the other, the violence is just the means to achieve the goal of creating fear.
    – nick012000
    Commented Dec 19, 2023 at 12:24

Was Nelson Mandela a Terrorist?

Yes and no: but mostly "no", not in the sense that the word "terrorist" means today.

  • Yes, because he organized the planting of bombs for sabotage (e.g. of electric pylons).
  • No, because he did so in a way that was purposefully intended to avoid killing anyone.

I tried to explore or 'prove' this question in detail on the Skeptics forum: Was Nelson Mandela a killer?

  • 1
    Please provide some sources to the claim that he avoided killing innocent people.
    – Jacob3
    Commented Jun 7, 2021 at 19:47

No, Nelson Mandela was part of a liberation movement which successfully liberated South Africa from the abomination of apartheid. Apartheid is now seen as a crime against humanity by the UN, and in fact this situation was the defining case and the crime named after it. It is a charge currently being directed at Israel by several prominent human rights organisations

The military wing of the ANC was called uMkhonto We Sizwe, meaning, the spear of the nation. It was co-founded by Mandela in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre. This massacre occurred on the 21st March, 1960 at the police station in the township of Sharpeville which is in the province then named Transvaal and now named Gauteng. The police opened fire on a peaceful protest of around 7,000 who were protesting at the racist pass-laws. They killed 69 people and injured 150 others. This includes 29 children and many were shot in the back as they were fleeing the scene. Today, this date is commemorated as a public holiday and celebrates human rights in general.

This protest was motivated by the Gandhian notion of non-violence. The protestors were offering themselves up for arrest by violating the pass-laws by not carrying their pass-books. The police were not unprepared for the protest as the previous night they had driven away smaller groups of protestors.

In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, there was uproar in the black community prompting the Apartheid South African government to call a state of emergency detaining 18,000 people including prominent anti-apartheid activists including Nelson Mandela. There was a storm of international protest which included many sympathetic protests. The UN condemned the massacre and the Security Council passed Resolution 134. This was passed by a complaint of 29 member states regarding:

The situation arising out of the large-scale killings of unarmed and peaceful demonstrators against racial discrimination and segregation in the Union of South Africa.

uMkhonto We Sizwe adopted a policy of sabotage as opposed to one causing random terrorist killings. It launched its first attacks a year later in December 1961 after warning the South African government of its intent in June of that year. It was later classified as a terrorist organisation by the South African government and Nelson Mandela was listed as a terrorist by the USA, only being taken off the terrorist watch-list in 2011.

This is twenty years after the fall of Apartheid and the lauding of Mandela as a secular saint for resisting Apartheid up to the point of spending twenty years in prison. He is seen now as the liberator of South Africa from that crime against humanity, Apartheid and the designation of him by the South African government and the USA as a terrorist as having no substance, in the former because the then South African government instigated and supported Apartheid and in the latter because the USA - despite dismantling slavery and the civil rights movement - was still uncomfortable with blacks asserting their political rights. For example, Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, in a 1971 telephone call to President Nixon, vented his frustration with African delegates at the UN who voted to recognise The People's Republic of China by saying:

Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did ... to see those, those monkeys from those African countries - damn them, they're still uncomfortable wearing shoes.


No, Nelson Mandela was not a terrorist. He peacefully terminated the apartheid regime:

The Nobel Peace Prize 1993 was awarded (...) to Nelson Mandela (...) "for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa."

source: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1993/summary/

Proving that someone did not employ certain activities is impossible without a non-corrupt police investigation, but peacefully terminating the apartheid regime shows that Nelson Mandela was not a terrorist.

  • 3
    You just made him part of the discussion.
    – user16741
    Commented Oct 7, 2021 at 21:38
  • 7
    Regardless of De Klerk, the reasoning in this answer is fallacious because showing that someone was "a historic iconic person who won a Nobel Price" does not establish that the person was not a terrorist.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 8, 2021 at 7:56
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    @AlbertHendriks there are actual “no question about it” terrorists who have received the peace prize, so no, that logic does not follow at all.
    – user16741
    Commented Oct 8, 2021 at 8:46
  • 3
    "Politics is not about mathematical logical implications": I agree. But this answer asserts a logical implication, one which is in fact fallacious. I don't dislike the conclusion of this answer. The idea that Mandela may have been a terrorist is very unappealing. But one should not accept fallacious arguments simply because they lead to a desired conclusion.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 8, 2021 at 12:03
  • 5
    Ok, but the fact that Mandela didn't engage in terrorist acts while ending apartheid doesn't mean that the answer to "was Mandela a terrorist" must be negative. If Mandela had some connection to terrorist acts earlier in life and then repudiated terrorism then one may argue about how to convey that in an effective answer, but "no, because he won the Peace Prize" doesn't convey any of that nuance.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 8, 2021 at 14:49

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