“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” — Nelson Mandela
In my life, Madiba has always stood as a human symbol of making the impossible possible, and for incredible dignity in his ability to forgive. More recently however, especially when he was ill in hospital, I have learned more about him as a person. He is still a symbol, but he is no saint.
Many words have been written about Nelson Mandela since his passing, and many conservative world leaders are trying to sanitise his legacy, hide their own despicable pro-Apartheid views, or, like Tory David Cameron have been exposed as gross hypocrites.
This post is not an obituary or a tribute, but rather some of my thoughts from the past few days about Mandela, the ANC, South Africa and radical activism.
What I most admire about Mandela was that he was unafraid to stand up for all oppressed people, and to oppose war, despite the wishes of the powerful.
He supported Palestine (“We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”); he opposed the war in Iraq (“It is a tragedy, what is happening, what Bush is doing. But Bush is now undermining the United Nations”); he argued that addressing poverty and justice required tackling climate change (“The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom.”); and fundamentally he has fought for true democratic society of equality.
At heart, he was a radical and a revolutionary — he could be nothing less as in his struggle against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Overturning that racist regime required nothing less than the wholesale transformation of society, the upending of both cultural norms and global financial status quo. While he gave up violent struggle after his release from prison, the constitution he signed and the government he led was fundamentally radical.
He was also a supporter of trade unions: “The kind of democracy that we all seek to build demands that we deepen and broaden the rights of all citizens. This includes a culture of workers’ rights.” Unions, especially maritime unions, were instrumental in enforcing an international oil embargo against South Africa in the 1980s. It is worth remembering that many conservative and corporate institutions opposed the embargo and sanctions.
Mandela “led the armed wing of the African National Congress, explaining: ‘Our mandate was to wage acts of violence against the state… Our intention was to begin with what was least violent to individuals but most damaging to the state.’” The ANC, which Mandela was a member, was on the terrorist watch list in the USA as late as 2008. The ANC and Mandela once considered guerilla warfare and violent struggle as essential to opposing the racist Apartheid South African state. The ANC “had no alternative to armed and violent resistance” he said in 1955.
While more than a quarter of a century in prison “mellowed” him (according to Desmond Tutu), he still refused in 1985 President PW Botha’s conditional offer of freedom if Mandela “unconditionally rejected violence as a political instrument”. What this says to me is that Mandela was a man of deep conviction, and was willing to make difficult decisions about something he believed in.
I think it is important to remember the true history of both the ANC, and Mandela, in the struggle against Apartheid. It was a life-or-death struggle, fought over decades by ordinary people against a racist, violent institution that until the end enjoyed the support of global capitalism.
It was won, not through his actions, but through countless everyday people taking action, calling for his release and for the end to Apartheid. The nature of the Apartheid regime was so repugnant and repressive that it drove people to abandon passive resistance, and it also galvanised people around the world to call for boycotts and sanctions against the racist regime.
Despite his many human flaws, Mandela’s legacy will be one as the world’s great conciliator, a man who was able to put aside a life-time of imprisonment to lead his nation out of Apartheid. I think we can do far more justice to his legacy to remember him, not as a saint, but as a person and as the radical activist he was.
“Long speeches, the shaking of fists, the banging of tables and strongly worded resolutions out of touch with the objective conditions do not bring about mass action and can do a great deal of harm to the organisation and the struggle we serve.” — Nelson Mandela, 1953