Abdeldjalil Larbi Youcef reveals startling facts about a little-known period of Mandela’s life, when he was on the lam in northern Africa and received a short, yet formative, introduction to armed resistance from the Algerian revolutionary forces
On his arrival at Houari Boumediene International Airport in Algiers on May 16, 1990, Nelson Mandela said that it was the Algerian army that had made him a man. Three decades earlier, with an Ethiopian passport, Mandela (under the assumed name of David Motsamayi) sought to learn what he could about armed resistance from the Algerian National Liberation Army (ALN) in Oujda, Morocco. “The situation in Algeria was the closest model to our own in that the rebels faced a large white settler community that ruled the indigenous majority,” Mandela writes in Long Walk to Freedom. The ALN’s resistance to the “Native Code” that imposed strict regulations on Arab inhabitants of the country, and its struggle for Algerian independence from the French, became a beacon and a model for other freedom movements, and Mandela and other freedom-fighters sought to learn from the Algerian example. During his three weeks with the ALN, Mandela would receive, in addition to military training, guidance on the importance of diplomacy. But upon his return to South Africa, he would be arrested and imprisoned for twenty-seven years.
The children who were playing noisily and carefree in the tiny village of Qunu, South Africa, hardly expected they would, one day, be interrupted. The games seemed endless and the future bright. Least expected was to be prematurely thrown into adulthood and impelled to embark upon a singular enterprise, a fight for freedom that would prove long, strenuous, and risky. White settlers, determined to break the rolihlahlas, [End Page 67] the trouble makers, because they dared question the inconsistencies of the apartheid system, did not have any qualms about unleashing unimaginable forces of brutality. In Algeria, thousands of kilometers to the north, other children would undergo similar provocations and embark upon the same long walk to freedom. The raggedy yaouleds [a pejorative term for young Arabs] spent their time trying to make their parents’ ends meet. All means were justified. Some, for a few Francs, roamed the streets looking to polish the shoes of passing Europeans; others, to transport the Europeans’ heavily-provision-loaded straw baskets. When these activities did not yield enough, the alternative was to steal. One found among those kids a young man named Ali Ammar (1930–1957) also known as Ali la Pointe—a guerilla leader who fought for Algerian independence against the French and who is portrayed in the Italian-Algerian film, The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966). Recently, the CIA and the FBI supposedly screened the film for their agents to inspire their work to win the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. La Pointe was accustomed to prison; the first time he was arrested, he was thirteen. Slapping a European on the face led to La Pointe’s arrest for the second time and to his being condemned to forced labor; he was twenty-two. After his escape, he went to the capital, Algiers, where he joined the leadership of the National Liberation Front (FLN). One year earlier, on November 1, 1954, the FLN had announced the outbreak of the Algerian Revolution.
Nelson Mandela being briefed by the ALN, c. 1962.
In Algiers, La Pointe met the militant Hassiba Ben Bouali (1938–1957), and a liaison agent—twelve-year old “Little Omar” (1944–1957)—who reminded him of his younger self. In order to rid the capital of the FLN militants, the French paratroopers resorted to interrogation with torture and eventually located La Pointe, Ben Bouali, and Little Omar. Their hiding place was blown out with dynamite, and they became martyrs for the cause of Algerian independence. All three knew that their sacrifice was the price of freedom. Their forebears had unsuccessfully tried to stop the invading troops that disembarked in Algeria in 1830. As the tide of colonization grew, they became victims of the perfidy of a system that divided people into superior and inferior races, into citizens and subjects. The inferior race consisted of foreigners: Spanish and Italians, Arabs and Jews. France resented the presence of the Spanish because they were taking hold of western Algeria; the Italians were seen as bringing nothing to the colony and were, in the words of a fierce advocate of French colonization, Paul Leroy-Baulieu, of a “somehow inferior type.” Arabs and Jews were seen as uncivilized people. But as the superior old-family French, Germans, and Swiss showed reluctance to emigrate, France had no other solution but to impose citizenship for Jews and foreigners. Arabs, however, remained colonized subjects, and were forced to bow to a peculiar piece of legislation called the Native Code (1881–1946).
The Native Code, which, starting from 1887 was extended to other French colonies, codified an absolute denial of political and civil rights. Though not illegal under the common law of France, the offenses (thirty-seven in total) were held illegal and punishable when Arabs committed them. The offenses included traveling without a permit, begging outside one’s district, shooting in the air at a celebration, refusing to pay taxes, gatherings of more than twenty persons without prior permission, giving shelter to tramps, and refusing to salute an officer, civil or military, even when off duty. The struggle that would ensue against this Native Code in Algeria became the model for and led to the mobilization of many other independence movements in the twentieth century.
The War of Independence (1954–1962) cost Algeria much blood; 1.5 million people were killed. The French army, deeply ashamed of having been ridiculed at Dien Bien Phu, was determined not to let success elude it one more time. According to Yves Courriere in La Guerre d’Algérie, its high ranking officers swore that:
the army does not accept—and will never accept—a policy that would lead to another desertion. There had been Indochina, Tunisia, Morocco. That’s enough. It does not want to be deprived of a victory that it feels is at hand.
Referring to the activities of La Pointe and his companions, those officers were also determined not to let a handful of “terrorists” ignore the rules. To the world, they insisted that there was no “war” in Algeria—only some uprisings—and they maintained their position that Algeria was part of France. The Algerians thought differently, of course. But conscious that they would be quickly overpowered by French troops if they engaged in direct action, they instead adopted guerilla tactics.
Soon, however, the French began to displace and confine the countryside populations to special areas. They believed that by isolating these groups, they could prevent them from aiding and further organizing [End Page 70] with the independence movement, and that surrender would automatically ensue. Furthermore, to prevent guerillas and weapons from entry into Algeria, two lines, the Morice Line (1957), named after the defense minister, André Morice, and the Challe Line (1959), after the commander in chief of French troops in Algeria, Maurice Challe, were constructed along the Tunisian and Moroccan borders respectively. The ground on each side of the fence, through which ran 5,000 volts of electricity, was stuffed with antipersonnel land mines. But unbeknownst to the army, in 1957, the French government was secretly negotiating with the Temporary Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA) set up in Cairo in 1956. Feeling betrayed a number of generals staged a putsch, which was swiftly thwarted by Charles de Gaulle’s loyal forces.
It is worthy of note that many French metropolitan leftists and intellectuals were shocked by the atrocities of this war; in particular, by the torture that was sanctioned. Jean-Paul Sartre, Andre Malraux, Simone de Beauvoir, Francois Mauriac, and Francis Jeanson vigorously campaigned for Algerian independence. In a great measure, Jeanson moved a step further. A philosopher, political activist, and collaborator of Sartre on the editorial board of the journal, The Modern Times, he founded in 1955 an underground organization, The Jeanson Network, also known as Les Porteurs de Valises [The Suitcase Bearers]. Espousing the Algerian cause, his network settled to giving the outlawed FLN aid and assistance by providing its members with forged documents, shelter, and the transportation, in suitcases, of the cash the FLN had collected from immigrants. The funds to buy weapons were smuggled to Switzerland, and then dispatched, to Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco.
The Jeanson Network was eventually stopped, and many of its members arrested. The Jeanson Network Trial (September 5, 1960) charged six Algerian and eighteen French citizens with breaching the security of the state, leading French intellectuals in support of Algerian independence to condemn the decision and, in retaliation, to sign on September 6, The Manifesto of the 121 also known as the Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the Algerian War.
In Situations V: Colonialisme et néo-colonialisme, Sartre, unwilling to remain a silent observer of the situation, warned:
. . . against what might be called ‘neo-colonialist mystification.’ Neo-colonialists think that there are some good colonists and some very wicked ones. . . . [I]t is not true that there are some good colonists and others who are wicked. There are colonists and that is it. When we have understood that, we will understand why the Algerians are right to attack. . . .
Nelson Mandela, the South African, understood that there were colonists and that is it. Some time before the cease-fire in 1962, he was at one of the Algerian Liberation Army training camps, Base 15, in Oujda, Morocco. Mandela was not the only freedom-fighter to seek out the ALN. Several other figures that would play prominent roles in the liberation of their countries were at the same camp seeking training and financial assistance. Eduardo Mondlane from Mozambique, a Harvard graduate and a History and Sociology Assistant Professor at Syracuse University, came with Samora Machel, a revolutionary socialist leader and the eventual President of Mozambique; there was the leader of the MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola), Agostinho Neto, and the “African revolution theorist” of Guinea and Cape Verde Islands, Hamílcar Lopes Cabral.
During the First Pan-African Cultural Festival (PANAF) in Algiers (July 21–August 1, 1969) Cabral noticed that Algeria had become home to all kinds of movements: liberation, opposition, and guerilla—they were all friends to the Algerian Revolution. In attendance were Frantz Omar Fanon and Francis Jeanson; African and African American writers, movie makers, jazz musicians and singers, including Archie Schepp, Grachan Mancour, Ted Joans, and Nina Simone; and activists from the Black Panther Party, whose request to be given asylum was granted without hesitation by Algeria’s information minister, Seddik Benyahia. The Panthers at the festival, to name a few, were Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, Emory Douglas, Raymond “Masai” Hewitt, Hubert Gerold Brown (Rap), and Donald “DC” Cox.
Kathleen Cleaver made it plain that their choice was rooted in the fact that they saw in Fanon and in La Pointe the kind of people with whom they wanted to identify and in Algeria “a second land that inspired noble ideals for mankind.” No wonder, then, to see Cabral tell the journalists “take your pens and write: Moslems go on pilgrimage to Mecca, Christians to the Vatican, revolutionaries to Algiers.”
The singer-revolutionary, Miriam Makeba, also decided to go to Algiers to attend the PANAF. South Africa’s authorities had accused Makeba, nicknamed Mama Africa during the festival, of being a trouble maker because of her campaign against apartheid. She was forbidden to return after having her passport and citizenship revoked. Makeba moved the audience when she sang I’m free in Algeria and Africa, which was written by the well known Algerian composer, Mustapha Toumi.
Her performance, her convictions, and engagement did not go unnoticed. Much to her surprise she was, with her daughter Angela, handed Algerian passports by Algeria’s president, Houari Boumediene. During the ceremony at the Cinema Atlas, Algerian citizen Makeba declared that she was “honored to have the nationality of a country that did so much for the liberation of Africa.”
Early on, Nelson Mandela had relentlessly stressed the importance of disciplined, peaceful, and non-violent struggle. In the course of time, however, he noticed that this was proving useless because “South Africa [was] now a land ruled by the gun.” Coming to the conclusion that, after all, “no country became free without some sort of violence,” he saw that the path to freedom meant breaking with the policy pursued to that point. And anyway, even Mohandas K. Gandhi, who had inspired Mandela’s belief in non-violent resistance, held that “where choice [was] set between cowardice and violence, [he] would advise violence,” preferring to use arms in defense of honor “rather than remain the vile witness of dishonor. . . .” The ANC’s leadership forged Umkhonto we Sizwe [The Spear of the Nation]—its armed, militant wing—and attempted to obtain support from leaders that shared similar aspirations to freedom. To that end, it sent Mandela (under the assumed name of David Matsamawi), Oliver Tambo, and its would-be bureau chief in Algiers, Robert Rescha, to Ethiopia to attend the Conference of the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa (PAFMECA) scheduled on February, 2, 1962 in Addis Ababa. When the conference was finished, they went on to tour other African and European countries. They went to Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. After he had received training, Mandela went to Mali, Congo, and Senegal, where, after a meeting with President Leopold Sedar Senghor, he and Tambo were given diplomatic passports and a flight to London.
It was in Egypt that Mandela met representatives from the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA). Mandela, Tambo, Rescha, and Cabral arrived in Morocco in March 1962. Nourredine Djoudi, the head of the ALN political branch, welcomed them at the railway station. He had been requested to do his best to keep Mandela’s identity and stay a secret, for Algerians knew he was being tracked by South African intelligence. Since his stay was not to last long, not more than three weeks, the training he received was rudimentary but essential.
Nelson Mandela with the ALN for military training, 1962
In Morocco, Mandela also met Dr. Chawki Mostefaï, the GPRA’s diplomatic mission head, and a graduate of ophthalmology from Algiers, Toulouse, and Paris University. Dr. Mostefaï understood Mandela’s desire to receive military training so as to wage a war against apartheid, but drew his attention to the important role that international public opinion played in speeding recognition of the legitimacy of his struggle. In his book, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela describes his meeting with Mostefaï in Morocco:
While there, we met with freedom fighters from Mozambique, Angola, Algeria, and Cape Verde. It was also the headquarters of the Algerian revolutionary army, and we spent several days with Dr. Mustafa, head of the Algerian mission in Morocco, who briefed us on the history of the Algerian resistance to the French. The situation in Algeria was the closest model to our own in that the rebels faced a large white settler community that ruled the indigenous majority. He related [End Page 74] how the FLN had begun their struggle with a handful of guerrilla attacks in 1954, having been heartened by the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. At first, the FLN believed they could defeat the French militarily, Dr. Mustafa said, and then realized that a pure military victory was impossible. Instead, they resorted to guerrilla warfare. Guerrilla warfare, he explained, was not designed to win a military victory so much as to unleash political and economic forces that would bring down the enemy. Dr. Mustafa counseled us not to neglect the political side of war while planning the military effort. International public opinion, he said, is sometimes worth more than a fleet of jet fighters.
All the same, the journalist Slimane Zeghidour, who interviewed Djoudi, was told the ALN taught Mandela “how to handle weapons, landmines, and their impact on combatants. It was not actually training; it was a general instruction that a future leader of an army had to know.”
Djoudi was impressed “by the safari-clad, tall, strong, boxer-like Mandela” who said that he was “glad to be with his brothers, the Algerians.” He put Mandela in touch with Commander Slimane (Kaid Ahmed) who, in turn, entrusted him to instructors, the most conspicuous, Algeria’s future Chief of Staff, Mohamed Lamari.
In a conversation with Ahmed Khadrata (one of the accused in the Rivonia Trial) in 2010, Mandela burst into laughter as he remembered the ALN’s reaction to him. The instructors had asked him:
Can you shoot at that point across the valley?
He shot and hit the target.
Is this the first time you shoot?! He replied: “Yes.”
Mandela told Khadrata: “They were all stunned!”
Djoudi recalled the performance. He explained that Mandela shot with a Mauser rifle and did amaze the ALN, which gradually became confident that Mandela was a person that could not only lead politically but who could also lead an armed resistance.
In a statement during the Rivonia Trial on April 20, 1964, Mandela explained that he:
Started making a study of the art of war and revolution and, whilst abroad, underwent a course in military training. If there was to be guerrilla warfare, I wanted to be able to stand and fight with my people and to share the hazards of war with them. Notes of lectures which I received in Ethiopia and Algeria are contained in Exhibit 16 produced in evidence . . . I have already admitted that these documents are in my writing, and I acknowledge that I made these studies to equip myself for the role which I might have to play if the struggle drifted into guerrilla warfare.
Part of Mandela’s training consisted of spotting the enemy. He was taken to the battlefront and handed a pair of field glasses that enabled him to “actually see French troops across the border.” The French were there—real, within reach, fine targets, and surprisingly looking like the ones in South Africa. He wrote in Long Walk, “I confess I imagined that I was looking at the uniforms of the South African Defense Force.” The ALN did their best to protect Mandela from harm while the French artillery and planes were in action. In truth, it was not just any force, they stressed; it was that of France, a power that was a member of NATO.
One thing that surprised Mandela was the absence of discrimination within the ranks of the ALN. Taken to another base, Zegangan in Nador (Morocco), he saw a “very competent instructor,” named Soudani. He was a black man giving orders to whites. Mandela exclaimed “here we are in a country where a black leads whites!”
Mandela also attended a military parade at the invitation of Ahmed Ben Bella. A founder of the underground Special Organization (OS), Ben Bella was arrested in 1951 and sentenced to eight years imprisonment because of a holdup in a bank; the money was intended for use in buying weapons. His escape was short-lived. He was released as a result of the Evian Accords. The parade, to celebrate Ben Bella’s return, unlike the one Mandela saw in Ethiopia, was unimpressive. The soldiers looked uninterested in parades and uniforms. However, in the struggle for freedom he was about to wage, Mandela felt certain that his men would look more like the soldiers of the ALN than of Ethiopia because:
They won their stripes in the fire of battle; they cared more about fighting and tactics than dress uniforms and parades. As inspired as I was by the troops in Addis, I knew that our own force would be more like these [End troops here in Oujda, and I could only hope they would fight as valiantly.
As Mandela writes in Long Walk to Freedom, he went to Algeria to obtain support as well as training. When in Morocco, the ALN informed him that he “would be provided with all that he needed not because they wanted to help him but because his struggle was Algeria’s struggle.” Weapons, financial aid, and the training of his men ensued. But Mandela’s stay in Algeria led to his being labeled a “terrorist.”
Mandela would have, in all probability, followed Dr. Mustafa’s advice to consider diplomacy, in addition to guerilla tactics, in the fight against apartheid. Unfortunately, Mandela was unable to do battle on the diplomatic front. Upon his return from his northern tour, he was arrested on August 8, 1962 and sentenced to five years in prison for having left without a passport. At the Rivonia Trial two years later, he was declared guilty of sabotage (for acts committed by Umkhonto we Sizwe) and was condemned to life imprisonment. On June 13, 1964 he was transferred to a place that was not, a guard warned, “Johannesburg, not Pretoria; this is Robben Island.” Prior to his arrest, he had succeeded in convincing the ALN that the cause he was defending was just; and subsequently succeeded in inducing its members to stand up for it. They carried on the cause on his behalf.
First, independent Algeria hosted several ANC members in military camps and authorized, under Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s first prime minister, the opening of an ANC office in 1966, with Reisha at its head and Johnny Makatini as chief representative. Second, slightly more than a decade later, in 1974, Algeria chaired the United Nation’s 29th Assembly. At thirty-six, the youngest chair ever, Abdelaziz Bouteflika (Algeria’s current president) showed much discontent in his address. Bouteflika was infuriated to see the United States show bias. They vetoed the membership of the Republic of South Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, but when it came to South Africa, they refused to suspend the country’s membership. “That the United States” he told the General Assembly “explained their double veto by the fact they adhered to the principle of universality perhaps deserves to be stressed . . . because, in reference to the same principle, they vetoed the suspension of South Africa. . . .”
Bouteflika managed to expel “the racist South African delegation” in 1974. Although the United States contested, the decision was confirmed by a majority vote: ninety-one ayes, twenty-two nays (including the votes of the nine members of the European community (CEE) and nineteen abstentions). In 1998, when the South African delegation returned to the U.N., it was with Mandela at its head. The suspension was not limited to the United Nations; South Africa was also expelled from UNESCO, FAO, and the Olympic Games.
Mandela and his wife Winnie visited independent Algeria on May 16, 1990. The purpose of the visit was to express gratitude for the help he had obtained nearly thirty years earlier. Mandela, whom President Chadli Bendjedid awarded the Medal of distinction for his struggle, said on his arrival that “the Algerian Army made me a man” and thanked Algeria as well as other countries for their support in “the struggle of the South African people against apartheid.”
This short journey into a page of Mandela’s story, if anything, helps to expose the man’s extraordinary legacy. A life spent in prison, surprisingly, did not induce him to carry forward hostility for his enemies. Hatred and a spirit of revenge, he was sure, had no room in the rainbow nation he envisioned. Thus, despite the military training he had received from the ALN, when he emerged from his long confinement he chose to endear people to the power of reconciliation rather than to the power of violence. The esteem that ensued undoubtedly came from his having moved, ideologically, from the specific to the universal, from South Africa to the larger world. Furthermore, well aware of the incompatibility of good governance and holding the presidential office too long, he decided to step aside for younger generations to carry the movement forward. Before bidding farewell, he felt it was his duty to thank the Algerian army for making him a man. Many around the world thanked him for believing in man’s capacity to change for the best. Still, many remain, to borrow from Gandhi, eager to garland his photos but not to follow his advice.
Abdeldjalil Larbi Youcef was born in 1953 in a tiny village, Mazouna, in western Algeria. After graduating from the University of Oran Es Senia, he undertook postgraduate studies at the University of the Sorbonne (Paris IV). He received his doctorate in 1983, having produced a dissertation on The Constitutionalism of John Marshall. He presently teaches American civilization at the University of Abd El Hamid Ibn Badis. His field of interest is American Constitutional Law and Afro-American Studies. He resides in Mostaganem with his family. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org