Some “terrorist.”

Nelson Mandela was my hero back when many in the West thought he was precisely that: a terrorist.

I hopped on the Mandela bandwagon early, around 1969, if I recall correctly. I was fresh out of high school, with a passion for African liberation groups like Mandela's African National Congress.

America’s mainstream covered little news about the ANC in those days. There was no news about the African liberation movements struggling to throw off Portuguese colonialism in Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique.

Through the pages of the Nation of Islam's newspaper Muhammad Speaks - definitely not mainstream - I learned that a group called the PAIGC was fighting for independence in Guinea-Bissau, the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) was doing the same in Angola and that FRELIMO was fighting Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique.

In what was then known as Rhodesia, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) sought to bring an end to Ian Smith’s settler colonist regime, along with a group called the Zimbabwe African National Union.

In Southwest Africa, a group called the Southwest Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) was determined to wrest control of the country from South Africa, which had ruled it for years.

I engrossed myself in this alphabet soup of African geo-politics every time I opened a copy of Muhammad Speaks, which had, I suspect, more readers who were not members of the Nation of Islam than readers who were.

It was on the pages of Muhammad Speaks that I first learned of the man called Nelson Mandela and the organization of which he was a part: the African National Congress.

I also learned that the ANC had a rival liberation group in South Africa called the Pan Africanist Congress, or PAC, which was formed in the late 1950s by disgruntled ANC members.

Later, I subscribed to a magazine called Sechaba, which at the time was the official organ of the ANC. On its pages I became even more familiar with Mandela.

In the early 1960s, shortly after South African police fatally shot 69 blacks at a place called Sharpeville. It was then that Mandela and others formed Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC.

The goal of Umkhonto members was to carry out acts of sabotage against the South African government in order to force it to abandon apartheid and give blacks the power of the franchise.

The South African government responded by banning the ANC – and subsequently Umkhonto we Sizwe – and throwing Mandela behind bars. For good measure, the South African government labeled the ANC a terrorist organization.

I never bought the notion that Mandela was a terrorist. Deep down, the South African government must have felt the same way. It released him after 27 years of imprisonment in 1990.

Four years after he was released, Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black president. Those who thought he would urge blacks to go on an orgy of revenge against whites were in for a disappointment.

I had a hunch that Mandela would do exactly what he did: make an urgent plea for unity and racial reconciliation. I wasn’t surprised when he stepped down after one five-year term as president either.

Had Mandela been a Robert Mugabe-type, things would have turned out differently – and far more tragically – in South Africa. The country would have descended into the blood bath of a race war.

Mugabe was head of ZAPU in Rhodesia. After white-majority rule ended in 1979, Mugabe was elected president and hasn’t relinquished power since. Black and white Zimbabwean opposition groups have charged that Mugabe is making a wreck of the country.

The praises Mandela has received since his death on Dec. 5 are not only well-deserved, but also come from people who realize how easy it would have been for Mandela to take South Africa down Zimbabwe’s road.

GREGORY KANE, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated news and opinion journalist who has covered people and politics from Baltimore to the Sudan.