As revealed in his autobiography, Nelson Mandela’s life is that of a fighter, especially in his non-violence
I would not have read Long Walk to Freedom (Abacus: 1995) if it had not been among the many books owned by an interesting older cousin, and in the strange way that younger girls cling on to female role models, I cannibalised her bookshelf. The literature there spanned decades of injustice and oppression, from the Holocaust to the struggles of First Nations, of Dalits, of battered women. And there was also this book by Nelson Mandela.
When you are reading through the canon of literature that focuses on minority or outsider struggles, what will strike you is the passion, the anger, the bitterness and the determination. What strikes me now, is that Mandela’s voice never lost anger or passion, but it did lose rage and bitterness. It was, truly, revolutionary.
What Mandela points out in Long Walk is a lesson that Frantz Fanon, in a different context, had already given to us: of how deeply racism had been ingrained into South Africa that even he, as a member of the black elite, was disturbed when he noticed black people in positions of power and importance. He was shocked to realise how normal it had become to be poor and black, so much so that the poverty of his own people ceased to tug at his heart strings, but he was appalled when he saw a white girl begging in the street.
Long Walk is the account of a man, who, through his observations and his encounter with suffering and oppression, changed from being a young man who favoured armed struggle to a leader who found an even greater, more potent weapon: non-violence. Mandela’s lack of bitterness, and his espousal of non-violence and forgiveness was not passivity, but a formula for a much more incisive and strategic war. A man who will not hit you back is a man you cannot conquer.
The actor Idris Elba, when asked about his experience playing Nelson Mandela concurs by saying a curious thing. He said his research of footage and speeches led him to notice that the young Mandela was always on the go, restless and energetically motivated. After Mandela’s stint in prison, and as he came to the peak of his leadership of the anti-apartheid struggle, Elba notes that the South African leader’s actions become marked by a remarkable stillness. It is this stillness, this quiet determination, that should give us pause for thought – and it is this deep reservoir of distilled revolutionary energy that causes world leaders to praise him and insist that he transcended what we consider to be ‘the political’.
Did Mandela so easily transcend politics and difference? Mandela’s timeline is an extraordinary one. He was expelled from university in 1940 for his political activism, he joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1943, and in the late ‘50s and ‘60s became what we would approximate to be a guerrilla leader. He collided with the state in an effort to fight growing state oppression and was part of a group of African nationalists who, together with the South African Communist Party, challenged state-led apartheid. The state responded with force, which led the ANC and Mandela to launch an armed struggle. He was then convicted of incitement, and sentenced to five years in prison. In 1964, the charge was raised to sabotage and Mandela then served a sentence that spanned a quarter of a lifetime, free at last in 1990. After his release, Mandela emerged as a symbol of the fight for equality, and against racial segregation. He led his people by focusing not only on their pain and their suffering, but on the truth of the struggle. Fergal Keane of the BBC remembers this comment made by Mandela after fighting took place between the ANC and members of the Zulu Ikantha movement:
“There are members of the ANC who are killing our people… We must face the truth. Our people are just as involved as other organisations that are committing violence… We cannot climb to freedom on the corpses of innocent people.”
Building on this, Archbishop Tutu provides us with the ‘money quote’ for the life of Mandela. It was that Madiba realised that people depend upon other people, and that the first step in the walk to freedom is to look to ourselves.
David Cameron, who stepped out on Thursday night and spoke of Mandela as an inspiration, worked at the Tory Policy Unit in 1989 and joined an anti-sanctions factfinding mission for pro-apartheid South Africa. Stephen Harper praised Mandela in the House last night, but one of his own MPs, Rob Anders, labelled Mandela as a communist and a terrorist. Barack Obama waxed poetic in his tribute, but Mandela was on the US Terrorist watch list until 2008. The US and Israel opposed Mandela and supported apartheid, and Mandela himself was constantly critical of US foreign policy and supportive of the Cuban revolution. Indian papers hail him as South Africa’s Gandhi, but contemporary India is crippled by gigantic gaps in wealth between rich and poor, and one of the most corrupt administrations in its political history.
In just the same way that Mandela fought for freedom, he defeated the right – the coloniser. They could not hang him as a terrorist and a troublemaker, so they appropriated him and lauded him with Orders of Canada, Nobel Prizes and Bharat Ratnas. By mythologising him and covering him with honours, the system attempts to dismiss Mandela’s revolutionary potential. It steps out in tribute to him and embraces him into the neo-liberal agenda. South Africa today is a result of neo-liberal governance partly through compromises made during Mandela’s presidency, such as the project GEAR, but largely because of a struggle that was lost to building a particular kind of democracy.
Mandela was a fighter. He earned such a legacy. He protested against oppression and the entrenched, repulsive belief of the coloniser’s entitlement. As he is lauded for his non-violence and forgiveness, let us not forget that for him non-violence was a weapon. Let us not forget, as students and protestors around the world are met with aggressive police brutality, that Mandela defended the right to protest. Let us not forget the power of stillness – a distilled anger – that, in his own words, fought both white domination and black domination.
Image from: http://brightgreenscotland.org/index.php/2013/12/nelson-mandela-see-the-movement-he-personified-as-well-as-the-great-man/
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