Nelson Mandela died earlier today, and the world is mourning his passing and evaluating his legacy. The fact that many South Africans believed that he actually died during the summer and that his death was covered up at the time by the government suggests what a long way the African National Congress—the party to which he dedicated his life in the service of South Africa—has to go to regain the levels of trust Mandela commanded.
Today Mandela is universally celebrated, including by those who sought to frustrate the ANC during its years of struggle, and his story is all the better known thanks to the recent film Invictus which foregrounded the powers of forgiveness he sternly demanded from South Africans at the end of apartheid. But few are likely to appreciate just how powerfully symbolic were his efforts to unify his country in light of his own personal experiences and those of the people who, with his election, won back their humanity from a government which dehumanised them, imprisoned them, and waged war on them.
Mandela is best remembered for his advocacy of forgiveness and nonviolence. But he was sent into decades of imprisonment when he and the ANC realised that they had struck a rock in efforts to negotiate with the National Party which won power in 1949 and proceeded to implement a system of apartheid, a form of racial segregation which began by separating people according to race, proceeded to press one group of people into the service of an economy which benefited only white South Africans, and built a formidable police and security state to secure white hegemony.
Mandela helped to form Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, and it was when he was taken to a show trial by the apartheid government that he uttered his famous speech articulating both the tradition in which he worked for freedom, and hints of the aspirations towards harmony for which he is now so celebrated:
“In my youth in the Transkei I listened to the elders of my tribe telling stories of the old days. Amongst the tales they related to me were those of wars fought by our ancestors in defence of the fatherland. The names of Dingane and Bambata, Hintsa and Makana, Squngthi and Dalasile, Moshoeshoe and Sekhukhuni, were praised as the glory of the entire African nation.
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.
Like few other movements in the twentieth century which ostensibly concerned a single country, the struggle against apartheid captured the attention of the world. And that was in part because as articulated by people like Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda, apartheid was so transparently immoral that it acted as a contaminant to all those who came in contact with it. While some of South Africa’s neighbours took an understandably accommodating stance towards the well-armed and economically powerful government in Pretoria, Kaunda declared that Zambia would never truly be free until it had assisted in the dismantling of the “ideology of apartheid [which was] hitting the neighbours back into the stone age”.
And so when students around the world protested their University administrations and governments for investing in apartheid, when social democratic governments in Europe called for sanctions, when Kaunda gave the ANC’s leader Oliver Tambo refuge in State House in Lusaka, they were sharing the ideals of a democratic and free society that Mandela articulated so powerfully before his imprisonment, and which Oliver Tambo, Desmond Tutu, and thousands of others carried with them as they aided the ANC’s efforts within South Africa and as a part of the External Mission.
Umkhonto we Sizwe might have styled itself as the military wing of the ANC, but its efforts were primarily those of sabotage, as set against a nuclear-armed power with a massive military which did not hesitate to roam abroad with that power, whether that took the form of assassinations or commando raids in other countries.
And the apartheid government behind that military might was for many years aided and armed by Western powers, including the United States, and particularly the United Kingdom, where right-wing governments indulged in the fantasy which they called “Constructive Engagement”, namely the writing of blank checks to the regime which kept Mandela in jail and nationalists on the run.
By the 1980s, the apartheid government was reeling from an economic downturn and the internal disorder created by its bulging police state. Rebuffed in its efforts to force independence upon Bantustans (scraps of overpopulated and over farmed marginal land) and a racially-divisive constitution on Black, Coloured, and Indian South Africans, the government slowly reconciled itself to the idea of facing the man it had sworn would live out his days on a windswept island off of Cape Town, a pilgrimage to which even today feels like venturing beyond the edge of the world.
And when Mandela emerged before a hushed, breathless, wreck of a country, the world looking on, it was not as the fearsome terrorist portrayed by the apartheid government and demonised by Dick Cheney. It was as a hero whose moral stature dwarfed the pygmies of the National Party which had imprisoned him, and brought hope to a country which had come through a decade of increasingly indiscriminate violence meted out by the police and security services, between supporters of rival nationalist groups, and by the disenfranchised, disempowered, and dehumanised youth of the townships.
Mandela’s critics, pointing to the inequality which remains such a defining feature of life in South Africa today, argue that he let his supporters down by sacrificing justice for peace. But we write these things at a time when we know that it was possible—thanks to his efforts—to achieve at least one of these things, rather than at a time when there was no such certainty, and indeed many reasons to believe otherwise. After all, Zimbabwe’s first decade of independence had been sabotaged in part by the successful efforts of apartheid agents and rogue members of the Rhodesian security services to turn the nationalists against each other. There should be debate about that decision, but it is difficult to question his motives.
Through his words to those who had been his enemies, through the freedom he gave Archbishop Desmond Tutu to pursue the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and through the grace and humour that he offered the world, Mandela sought to honour the efforts of those whose efforts won him his freedom from prison and one of the most celebrated elections in history, and South Africa its liberation from a tyranny of the body and soul. He became a hero in a way which won him the adulation of people around Africa and the envy of leaders who declined to leave power with a sunny smile and easy wave.
At the Rivonia Trial, Mandela said, “I hoped then that life might offer me the opportunity to serve my people and make my own humble contribution to their freedom struggle”. Many people are offered such opportunities, but few have the courage to seize them or the wherewithal to act upon them in a way that leaves the world feeling the loss it does with Mandela’s passing.