Nelson Mandela and Political (Mis)Remembering

Terrorist. Freedom fighter. Subversive. Communist.

All of the above are words that have been used to describe Nelson Mandela, contrary to those being used by the mainstream media in the wake of his death in order to sanitize and subvert his legacy. He is now being hailed as an icon of peace, and elevated to saintly status with the likes of Gandhi and Mother Teresa (who are not exactly the kind of moral compasses we have been led to believe – Teresa was virulently anti-choice, and Gandhi’s exploitative sexual practices have recently come to light). I would like to argue that Mandela was not a peace icon, nor was he a saint – but that these are the very aspects of his legacy that have left such an impact on us, and that should give us hope for the future.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of the mainstream media’s discussion of Mandela is their smug, self-satisfied declarations that equality and democracy have arrived, that history is past and settled, that racial harmony is pervasive and the struggle is definitively over. All of this is a blatant lie.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this approach is apparent in American right-wing politicians clumsily stumbling over themselves in attempts to ‘pay homage’ to the legacy of Mandela. What they are really doing is desperately trying to obscure their own complicity and support of the former Apartheid government in South Africa. You can view a timeline of American right wing support for the Apartheid government and their accompanying demonization of Nelson Mandela here.

UK Conservative Students

A Poster from the UK’s Federation of Conservative Students (1980s)

But one aspect of the coverage which seems to be distributed across the ideological spectrum is this idea that Nelson Mandela was an icon of peace. In a time when class divisions and resentment over increasing joblessness and income inequality is growing, maintaining the idea that the only legitimate form of political change is peaceful is clearly only in the interest of the status quo. Nelson Mandela was a man who believed that violence had its time and place, that sometimes the system is entrenched in such a way that violence becomes necessary.

As one commentator predicts, “As with [Martin Luther] King, it is this subversive aspect of Mandela’s legacy that is most in danger of being erased as he enters America’s pantheon of sanitized moral icons.”

However, it is possible to resist this trend of sanitization and to remember history despite the mainstream media’s short memory and the status quo’s campaign to wipe it out.

As one blogger reminds us,

“Mandela founded and ran Umkhonto we Sizwe, the paramilitary wing of the ANC, which carried out armed resistance and a bombing campaign. The bombings mostly targeted high-profile pieces of property, but were nevertheless responsible for many civilian deaths. Umkhonto we Sizwe also executed collaborators…Botha would have freed Mandela in ‘85 if he’d agreed to renounce armed struggle; Mandela courageously refused. On his release in 1990, Mandela repeated:

“The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement will be created soon so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle.”

Instead of buying into the insidious repackaging and sanitizing of Mandela and his politics, let’s examine some of the issues he cared about, such as his belief that freedom from poverty is a fundamental human right. Because as much as we turn away and try not to see it, we face some of the same issues today, now, in our country. When the crisis in Attawapiskat came to light in 2011, images of people living in shacks, with no running water or electricity emerged. Many mainstream commentators were shocked, as they exclaimed “this is not what Canada looks like!” Unfortunately, extreme poverty is the reality for many Canadians, and indigenous people are disproportionately affected. We, as Canadians, must face our own history as well as the fact that we continue to live in a colonial state. It is not enough to praise leaders in faraway places for confronting these issues in other times, if we ourselves do not recognize our current complicity in the colonial structures that, for instance, continue to oppress indigenous people here in Canada.

Returning to the case of South Africa, the truth is that it is impossible to look at the poverty in South Africa today and say that the struggle is over. It is impossible to look at how entrenched the ruling political party, the ANC, is and view South Africa as an entirely healthy democracy. South Africans have dismantled Apartheid. But they have not yet dismantled the economic system which still places an incongruent amount of the nation’s wealth in the hands of so few (disproportionately white South Africans), while leaving so many out on the peripheries, struggling with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and suffering in poverty. The fact we all must face is that when we speak about poverty, what we are really talking about is income inequality and the greed of the ruling class. Poverty will not be alleviated until we have set up an economic system in which everyone shares in the wealth, and everyone has access to the resources a government can provide.

So instead of remembering Mandela as a peace icon and a saint, in a slick, repackaged image let’s remember him as the man who went to prison because he was charged with the intent to overthrow the government (and not only actually tried to, but had some measure of success). Let’s not forget him as the man who was branded a terrorist by the United States government up until 2008. It is those fearless confrontations with entrenched imperialist powers that really make him great.

As one commentator beautifully put it,

“Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel. Over the next few days you will try so, so hard to make him something he was not, and you will fail. You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X…You will make out that apartheid was just some sort of evil mystical space disease that suddenly fell from the heavens and settled on all of us, had us all, black or white, in its thrall, until Mandela appeared from the ether to redeem us…You will try to make out that apartheid was some horrid spontaneous historical aberration, and not the logical culmination of centuries of imperial arrogance. Yes, you will try that too. You will imply or audaciously state that its evils ended the day Mandela stepped out of jail…

Well, try hard as you like, and you’ll fail. Because Mandela was about politics and he was about race and he was about freedom and he was even about force, and he did what he felt he had to do and given the current economic inequality in South Africa he might even have died thinking he didn’t do nearly enough of it.”

With that in mind, we should celebrate the aspects of Mandela’s life that brought these issues to the fore and refuse to sanitize his beliefs and his values. We should also refuse to forget all the messy complications, and competing forces in history (including the sordid past of his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, infighting between different political parties in the fight against apartheid, and the ANC’s collaboration with organizations such as the IMF and World Bank along with the damaging consequences of these collaborations for many South Africans). We should refuse to allow mainstream media sources to colonize his radicalism. Let’s take him at his word, because I believe that that is exactly what he would have wanted. Let’s apply the lessons he has to offer us to our own country and the injustices that are apparent all around us.

The struggle is far from over. We still have a great deal of work to do.


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