– By Walton Pantland
Nelson Mandela died last night, and this morning the newspapers of the world are full of tributes to him. In many instances, they are the same newspapers that denounced him as a terrorist in their editorials during the 1980s. This morning, they praise his statesmanship, his peacemaking, his ability to turn South Africa away from the brink of civil war.
Politicians of all stripes are praising him, including David Cameron – despite the Conservative Party’s support for apartheid, and the fact that young Tory activists in the 1980s wore “Hang Nelson Mandela” T-shirts.
The hypocrisy is astounding: by smothering Mandela with praise, they hope to bury his radical legacy.
In the West, Mandela is seen as a Martin Luther King or Gandhi, as a civil rights leader who engaged in passive resistance and whose wisdom, fortitude and magnanimity lead to transformation in his country. This is a liberal rewriting of the meaning of Mandela’s life, and his legacy.
Mandela was a revolutionary and a freedom fighter, a founding member of the Umkhonto we Sizwe guerilla army that fought the apartheid regime. The regime offered to release him from prison many times if he would renounce violence, and he refused, realising that granting the apartheid regime a monopoly on violence would demobilise the anti-apartheid struggle and lead to its defeat.
In the end apartheid was defeated by mass action rather than revolutionary violence, particularly after the formation of the union federation COSATU in 1985, and the campaign that united unions, students and communities. But Mandela’s wisdom lay in realising that to be able to negotiate a transition away from apartheid, he needed to be in a position of strength. If he had conceded ground to the regime by denouncing violence before negotiations started, they would have no incentive to reform. Apartheid was defeated because Mandela, and the people of South Africa, stood up to the regime and confronted it
This was a radical challenge to established power, of the kind that makes most Western politicians deeply uncomfortable.
Mandela’s great strength as a revolutionary leader was in his personal integrity, and in his refusal to destroy his enemies, even having defeated them. In this he drew on the African philosophical concept of ubuntu, a humanism that defines people through their relations to each other and the wider human community. According to ubuntu, none of us is fully human if we are hurting or oppressing others. This concept allowed even former oppressors in South Africa to seek a redemption that was humanist rather than religious.
Mandela also drew on a deep tradition of African diplomacy, perhaps best demonstrated by the Basotho leader Moshoeshoe, who founded the nation of Lesotho. Moshoeshoe, although a great military leader, was famed for drawing in defeated enemies my making them allies, and creating a peace that everyone had a vested interest in maintaining.
Compared to the winner-takes-all domination that is the main characteristic of the current round of Western economic imperialism, this is a lesson the world could do with learning.
The message we need to learn from Mandela’s life is not just one of reconciliation and peacemaking, but of the need to radically challenge injustice wherever we see it, and to do so bravely, consistently and with integrity until it is defeated.
So Hamba Kahle, Tata Madiba. Hamba Kahle, Umkhonto we Sizwe.
Go well, spear of the nation.
- Here is the South African song for a fallen soldier, Hamba Kahle, Umkhonto, as recorded by the group Mayibuye in 1978.