Saturday, June 29, 2013

What do you know about Nelson Mandela?

When I first came back to the US after a year in Cape Town, I was asked to give a talk to an adult community service organization about my time abroad.

So I did. I talked a little about South Africa today, but mostly about what it means to study Social Development, and how I’d like to put it to use in the nonprofit world.

I got some interesting questions from my (largely retiree, completely male) audience. Then I got this one:

“Nelson Mandela, is he a communist?”

My talk wasn’t about Mandela. Still, I tried to patch an answer together. But it was long and involved a lot of back story, so the questioner got bored and lost interest.

Clearly this American man had a lot of assumptions and intellectual baggage wrapped up into that question. He was really asking, “Mandela: EVIL COMMIE SPY or TRUE AMERICAN PATRIOT?!” (Hmm, I wonder what kind of American news source is re-framing historical data like that?)

The question is painfully reductive, and tries to fit Mandela into a very narrow, and very America-centric, worldview. History doesn’t work like that. (American patriot? He’s a South African citizen!)

Just dismissing it there wasn’t enough for me. Mandela, like every other human, was complicated person living in a specific time and place, and his place was a nation with its own history of racist political oppression.

In younger Mandela’s life, South Africa had a sham democracy.* Whites voted for white officials, Coloured People voted for Coloured officials, Black Africans had their own congress, and so on. (Oh! Did you know that there were at least four racial classifications in apartheid South Africa? Not just the two we usually talk about in our own Civil Rights history. See? DIFFERENT COUNTRIES are DIFFERENT.) But here’s the kicker: Only the white congress had any real power/authority. The treasury, the military, the power to create or enact laws: all that was controlled solely by the white governing body. All of the other groups were just play-acting at democracy.

How insulting.

And so there was resistance--wouldn't you like to think you'd resist an oppressive system parading around as a representative democracy? Some groups were even so revolutionary as to be a multiracial political party, emerging during the same era that apartheid was created.**

The apartheid government was brutal in its attempts to stamp out resistance. People who spoke out were placed under house arrest, thrown into prison, or murdered by police. This was justified by calling anyone who tried to disrupt racist government procedures, you guessed it, a communist.***

Mandela was a member of the African National Congress, not any of the Communist parties of South Africa. However, I'm not trying to gloss over the fact that worldwide worker's rights and communist movements influenced many facets of resistance to apartheid.

This system of oppression was largely built on the backs of laborers--of diamond and gold miners, of farmers, of domestic workers. These people were kept poor, and told they were inferior because of their skin color. And so, anyone trying to throw a monkey wrench into the apartheid machine was going to have to look at its economic functions, and start treating workers like people, not cattle. It's an ideal that's pretty compatible with Marxism.

If a person wanted to follow their conscience and live by their ethics (let’s just assume their conscience told them that a lack of race-based segregation was a good thing), the party of resistance (which may or may not align itself with the worldwide Communist identity) would be the most ethical choice. Because democracy sure as heck wasn't working for the majority of the South African populace. (In this country, at this time, at least.)

It’s morally vexing, eh? If you were brought up in this time, especially if you were brought up in a marginalized group (the questioner at my talk was not. How surprised are you?), you may have a very different reaction to words like “communist” or “democracy.” You would have first encountered them in different contexts, and seen them lived out in very different fashions.

So, we’ve established that it’s short-sighted (and I’m being generous here) to try to squeeze Mandela into very modern and very American categories to try to understand him, in order to completely discredit the man.

But what if I insisted that trying to fit him into an American ideal in order to praise him is just as destructive and ignorant of history?

Let me blow ya mind.

I am asking you: Just what do you know about Nelson Mandela? And how did you come to know it? From a facebook picture your friend shared? From and American-made movie starring American actors?

First off, do you know why (off the top of your head) he was sentenced to life in prison?

For nonviolent political actions? Try again.

For crusading for freedom of press? Nope.

In his life before prison, Mandela supported and coordinated sabotage—armed attacks on infrastructure (think train tracks), not people (that’s terrorism) to fight apartheid as an economic system.**** Listen to Mandela himself explain this decision:

In planning the direction and form that MK (ed. note: the armed branch of the ANC) would take, we considered four types of violent activities: sabotage, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and open revolution. For a small and fledgling army, open revolution was inconceivable. Terrorism inevitably reflected poorly on those who used it, undermining any public support it might otherwise garner. Guerrilla warfare was a possibility, but since the ANC had been reluctant to embrace violence at all, it made sense to start with the form of violence that inflicted the least harm against individuals: sabotage.


Our strategy was to make selective forays against military installations, power plants, telephone lines and transportation links; targets that would not only hamper the military effectiveness of the state, but frighten National Party supporters, scare away foreign capital, and weaken the economy.

(Mandela, Nelson. "Chapter 45: The Black Pimpernel." Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. First Paperback ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994. 282-83. Print.)

Is this shocking or distasteful to you? It shouldn’t be. Mandela’s long, fascinating life was filled with strong convictions, changes of heart, and lessons learned. If you read his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, you’ll still admire his struggle and sacrifice, as well as his skills as a shrewd negotiator.

During his trial and prison time, Mandela was already a symbol of The Struggle—and he knew it. The Free Mandela posters that hung not only in South Africa but in many countries of the world would be considered a successful media branding campaign today. And in his memoirs, Mandela acknowledged that he was aware of this campaign, even when he was in isolation while in prison, and he encouraged it. He wasn’t after fame or renown, but he supported any tactic that got the world to watch and criticize the apartheid regime.*****

See, that’s shrewd.

It is a mistake to take Mandela’s life and mold it into a personal or provincial narrative. He’s no saint, and canonizing a public figure is counterproductive to their dreams. Mandela is the perfect example of this.

The dream: A free, equitable South Africa.

The current reality: 20 years after Mandela’s presidency began, South Africa is free in name only. There’s no law keeping previously marginalized groups out of universities, and yet they’re shamefully underrepresented all the same (and those who do attend virtually never complete on time). There are no boycotts against apartheid which are keeping the economy stagnant. And yet, the economy is still stalled, and unemployment rates are at inhumane highs. Violence, HIV infection and death, brutal sexism, and drug abuse are very real in the lives of many South Africans, in ways most Invictus ticket-holders on this side of the Atlantic cannot imagine. I could go on and on. (Dismal child health statistics and high rates of orphanhood. Political corruption and cronyism. Brain drain of young, energetic South Africans. Economic and geographic segregation.)

There is a lot of rhetoric about the next generation picking up the fight where Mandela left off, but every president since Madiba has had a dimmer and dimmer star. (Don’t even get me started on Jacob Zuma.)

I left South Africa heart-broken, overwhelmed by the nation’s problems and lack of sane, dedicated, honest leaders. In this situation, pointing to Mandela is ineffective.

Because if it’s impossible to be a hero like perfect old Mandela, then why even try?

**** Mandela, Nelson. "Chapter 55: Rivonia." Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. First Paperback ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994. 355-78. Print.
***** Mandela, Nelson. "Chapter 85: Robben Island: Beginning to Hope." Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. First Paperback ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994. 505-06. Print.

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