Dec 9, 2013

The Meaning of Mandela

Mandela was part of a radical anti-colonial movement.
Pictured are heroes of the movement at the
Riviona trials.
Revisionism isn’t an event. It’s a process. A sustained exercise in narrative-building. We’ve seen it every hour since the 6th of December when Nelson Mandela died. Mandela’s beliefs and legacy have been white washed. Pun intended. 

In a report on the 7th One News recounted the toolshed version of Mandela’s life. They praised his commitment to reconciliation and added, as a conclusion, that it made him:
“An exception on a continent with a bloody history of long-serving autocrats and violent coups”.

Coming from the perspective that I do, I thought that One News was referring to the “bloody history of long-serving” colonial autocrats and thugs. But I know better than that. The idea that Mandela was above other post-colonial heads of government and state is part of a pattern. The effect is to elevate Mandela above the struggle rather than acknowledge his position as part of the struggle.

But the problem isn’t unique to New Zealand. Nor has it taken the same form every time. The trend has been towards sanctification by reconciliation. Ed Miliband touches on it in the Guardian writing that Mandela’s “spirit of reconciliation” has “been so widely acknowledged in the days since his death”, but he pushes back against that narrative – admittedly in the innocuous way that politicians do – and writes that “the liberation of South Africa was won by a movement”. But the strongest push back has come from people of colour.

Musa Okwonga has written a storming piece: “Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel”. Okwonga launches a fiery critique of the revisionists who will forget Mandela’s “Malcolm X” and only emphasise his Martin Luther King Jnr. 

Yet why does it matter? Mandela was a reconciliator too. It matters because the meaning of Mandela is more than reconciliation, more than forgiveness for the oppressors. Teju Cole captured the absurdity of it all: 

“The prisoner finally dies. The torturers take a moment to praise him (to praise themselves). Then they return to work”.

A lime quarry on "The Island" where Mandela and
others would work in prison. 

In his head, his heart and in his bones Mandela was a humanist. He lived ubuntu. But his humanism didn’t only manifest in his unhuman capacity for forgiveness: it manifested in his anti-colonialism, his anti-imperialism, his commitment to armed resistance. But those aspects of Mandela are at risk of being forgotten. How many media outlets have aired Mandela’s recent views on US and UK foreign policy and the conflict in Iraq and Palestine? Very few. It may seem strange to quote Robert Mugabe, but he captures what Mandela was to people of colour: he was “the great icon of African liberation… [a] freedom fighter”.

But for the white establishment, Mandela represents something different. He represents reconciliation. Writer and historian of colour Jelani Cobb is right in arguing that, for the white establishment: 

“[Mandela’s] capacity to emerge from twenty-seven years in prison without bitterness broadcast the hope that this country’s own racial trespasses might be forgiven”. 

Framing Mandela as a figure only of or primarily of forgiveness is self-interested.

The four former colonies of the Anglosphere share a common history with South Africa.  All are former English colonies and have forged their national identities on that basis. And all have committed atrocities against their indigenous and non-white populations. Indeed, de jure apartheid was partly modelled on Jim Crow laws from the United States and the Indian Act from Canada. 

New Zealand took a different trajectory. (Less brutal, thankfully). But it’s still in the white establishment’s interest to highlight, to celebrate and to push upon us their interpretation of Mandela. Highlighting his reconciliatory aspects gives the white establishment hope that Maori might – no, should! – let go of the past and let the status quo remain.

But that misunderstands the meaning of Mandela. He knew reconciliation was a moral response, but more so it was a matter of survival. When Mandela was released from prison he entered a world that was vastly different from the one he left. Neoliberalism was ascendant and the post-colonial project had collapsed in comparator countries. In Zimbabwe capital flight had ruined the economy and incompetent government had destroyed the optimism of liberation. Closer to home the far right had armed itself and the government security apparatus was sowing tensions between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC. Although it would have been just to arrest, prosecute and imprison the criminals of apartheid it would've ended the post-colonial project by civil war. First and foremost, Mandela was a shrewd politician who knew how to achieve what he needed to achieve. 

Mandela the radical on a commerative
Soviet stamp.

So Mandela emerged at that rare moment where “idealism and pragmatism were practically indistinguishable”. The white establishment honours Mandela’s idealism because it dignifies their argument that people of colour should forget history and move on, but people of colour know that Mandela's real idealism was his commitment to the post-colonial movement.

It has to be remembered that Mandela:

“Was always a maverick within the ANC… In the 1940s and 1950s, when the ANC was the preserve of conservative ‘Black Englishmen’, he advocated taking up arms and fomenting insurrection”. 

Mandela sanctioned armed resistance right to the very end of the apartheid regime.

So don’t forget that Mandela was as much Malcolm X as he was Martin Luther King Jnr. Don’t forget that it is self-serving for the white establishment to portray Mandela as a jesus-like fount of forgiveness ready to absolve the oppressors of all crime and retain the status quo. It is true that Mandela was a source of moral authority. But don’t forget that he was more than that. Anti-colonial, anti-imperial, a liberator and a radical. Amandla!

Post script: I wrote this out of frustration. On reflection, it wasn’t the right headspace. But if I had written it in contemplation, in peace, the words wouldn’t have come. I would have liked to have written a tribute rather than a rant. But words are too small for him. The meaning of Mandela goes deeper than words can. 


  1. Calls to mind what Lenin wrote nearly a hundred years ago in State and Revolution: "During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it."

    1. That's a great quote. There are so many examples. Only today I was thinking on how Muhammad Ali is remembered not for his political activism - which was significant - but for his boxing ability. Even his ban from boxing for taking anti-Vietnam stance is glossed over and the boxing aspect itself is given significance.

  2. Morgan, I would caution you about claiming to speak authoritatively on a cultural tradition that is so foreign to your own. Your perspective here seems overconfident.

  3. Tukua kia rere... let you thoughts fly... like prison 46664... let them finally be free... MAURIORA MORGAN

  4. How ironic it was that by jailing Mandela for all those years, that he was actually protected. Otherwise I am in no doubt that he would have been assassinated like the other anti-apartheid leaders.



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