Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, known affectionatley to South Africans by his clan name ‘Madiba’, which carries warm fatherley connotations, was one of the transcendant figures of the 20th Century who left us to join the ancestors, 14 years into the 21st. His death, at the grand age of 95, inspired in me a few thoughts, about his life, the impact of it on South Africa, the rest of Africa, and the world, as well as the similarities and differences his struggle bore to other such struggles against racism and colonialism in the United States, the Carribean, Africa, Latin America, India, and so on. What I came away with is a truly exceptional and inspirational person who the study of will enrich my understanding of humanity as a group and the potential of the human individual for as long as I live.
Being from the Bay Area of California, Oakland in particular, I’ve been steeped in a real politik, no nonsense, militant black school of thought and opinion. The common view among my mentors in this area has been the admittedly truthful belief that the entrenched power of whites in South Africa did not end when Aparteid laws were taken off the books and Nelson Mandela ascended to the Presidency. Of course, this is true, as racism, racial oppresion, and economic and educational disadvantages have not disappeared from American society after the major laws and movements designed to eliminate or lessen racial prejudice and oppression in the good ol U.S of A. However, one who would arrogantly dismiss the various lessons that can be learned from such a rich and incredible life spent in both militant activism and official governmental elected leadership would be quite foolish.
Mandela’s life is interesting to me because as a Black American child of the ’80s and ’90s in America, he was a link or a peek at the old days of the struggle for racial equality, a struggle we did not grow up in, and that, although the major battles of were only a decade or so before us, American consumerism and advertising made seem as far away from us as slavery itself. Of course, the ’80s and ’90s had their own racial upheavels, and when I reached my adolescence I would see my first major racial riot that carried the potency of riots in the ’60s, ’40s and ’20s (the LA Rebellion).
The Black struggle in America as a whole though, was in a murky, somewhat undefined place in the ’80s and ’90s. The major, great leaders of the ’60s were either assasinated in the 1960s, or had lost their credibility due to a combination of the American propaganda machine and their own inability to manage their lives tightly in light of those attacks. The Black leaders who thrived in that polarized time of Ronald Reagen, a Pharoah who “knew not Joseph (or in reality, knew Joseph and didn’t like him, were all seen as polarizing figures. Eventually the mainstream press painted them as American charlatan ghetto hustlers who were simply out for personal attention, and many black people agreed with this depiction. Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton were seldom respected as “selfless” or self sacrificing leaders in the way their forebearers were. They were attacked in the white community for being “oppurtunist hate mongers” who were keeping alive embers of a racial fire they would have you believe was long since contained in these United States. But the leaders of old faced this type of skepticism from outside of the community as well. The difference with post Civil Rights leaders is they didn’t represent the black community as comprehensively as those of old. Of course, such is to be expected, as the eliminatination of segregation laws took away the great uniting force in the black movement. While there was always disagreement in the movement, it splintered even further into urban issues, womens issues, crimminal justice issues, educational concerns, jobs, protecting governmental benefits, and so on.
One of the reasons I think the South African struggle galvanized black support in the United States and other black countries where African peoples had achieved independence, was the clarity of it. As Stevie Wonder said “It’s Wrong (Aparteid)”. South Africa’s racial brutality, obstincence, and attempts to keep blacks in a subservient position in neighboring countries in addition to its own, inspired recollection of the worst days of slavery and segregation, and then some. At times, the South African situation reminds me even more of what Native Americans faced than African Americans, because South Africans faced constriction, pass systems, extermination, germ warfare smallpox, and outright war and violence on their own historic homeland of their birth. Like Native American’s, they had to contend with a group that wanted to live on, benefit from, and dominate their own homeland. Amazingly, what happened to the Native Americans in the United States was averted by the South African people, the other African states, the African diaspora, the Eastren block countries, and later, the rest of the world as a whole. Despite the seeming inevitability of this outcome, the racial violence was brutal and intense, it was almost like watching the Belgians in the Congo or the Europeans taking over the States from the Native Americans in real time. One of those things you wouldn’t concieve could happen in this modern age. I think this sparked something visceral in people like Black Americans, as well as Africans, and other colonized peoples who had this in their history. Some within the African American community feel Blacks were in no position to throw such support at South Africa, being so close to the days of legal discrimmination, and still faceing it. But the larger world picture and the larger winds of history demanded such attention I believe, as there were few people of any race who could watch young Africans throwing rocks and sticks at tanks and not want to join in on the struggle, in the same way the news footage of blacks getting hosed down down South or Martin Luther King’s death sparked emotions. It was almost like the writers and American’s who volunteered for the Spanish Civil War, a cause that ralied peoples sense of justice and what was right.
Mandela faced some of the same things Civil Rights leaders here faced as well however, as he spent all those years in jail, the mass struggle got even more militant and the younger leaders did as well. It went from Mandela and the ANC’s militant arm carrying acts of sabatogue against the South African industrial machine, to students fighting policemen and traitors getting doused in gasoline after being wrapped in tires (necklacing). At the time the South African Apartied government got ready to negotiate with Mandela and the ANC, they NEEDED HIM. They needed the gravitas he still carried with him, to prevent a Civil War that would not only be heavy in bloodshed, but that South Africa, which had always enjoyed heavy support among the Capitalist countries, would not have world support in. I’m sure Fidel Castro and the USSR and other African countries were waiting to pounce on the Apartied government in a military sense as well. The South African government was a rich white speck in a sea of black.
Mandela had to come out of this and literally save the nation. He had to hold back a nation of millions who had every right to be mad and also had greater and greater world support, but was still lacking in resources, and he also had to ensure the support of the white minority without selling his people out. He didn’t go the route of Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin, in demanding whites resources, and its probably the reason South Africa is doing better than Zimbabwe and Uganda today. Mandela did this after living out an almost biblical arc. He was like Moses, spending 40 years in the Wilderness. In the Bible, Moses was primed and ready to be the savior of the Hebrews when he was 40 years old, a Prince trained in all the knowledge of Egypt who would make his brothers do right by one another. But God made him wander another 40 years until his temprament was smooth but iron hard. Mandela was a man who actually lived that type of story, which is what makes hiim such a towering figure.
Mandela’s ANC was almost in a position the NAACP or SCLC faced in SNCC and the Black Panthers and NOI, or that Booker T Washington’s Niagra Movement faced from DuBois NAACP, or that DuBois faced from Garvey’s UNIA. As black oppression continues to be persistent and long lasting, there is always a new wave of young people and leaders who seem more militant, and who seems to have mastered the urgency of the times better. It’s amazing that Mandela survived to ride this out and become the official leader of the Nation. Of course, maybe the South African government felt the seventy year old Mandela was the most moderate and sensible voices, the only one who would allow them to live and survive at all. But the ANC was invovled in some very heavy activities when Mandela was in jail as well, the intractability of the Apartied system and the way it was written into law made it impossible to fight without stern resistence and violence, which is what Mandela himself pointed to as the main difference between him and Dr. King’s struggle.
But the very fact that Nelson Mandela was alive into the 21st Century amazes me. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Medgar Evars, Malcom X and Huey P Newton, all leaders younger than Mandela, never lived to see Mandela elected President in South Africa’s first Democratic elections. In the United States, a country that has had its own racial problems, but proclaims Democracy, our major black leaders were either killed or defanged. Looking at Mandela only makes me wonder what would have happened if Dr. King, possibly our leader with the most gravitas, had survived. What would he have done with the tensions of young blacks in the 1990s? Or, in a country that constantly sells pretend changes, would his name have been tarnished into irrelevance by those who wouldn’t want him to have such power? Dr. King, Abraham Lincoln and JFK were all put to death. It’s an interesting thing to think of, in terms of the various nature of repression in accordance with different countries, different conditions.
Maybe even though South Africa’s repression of the African was even more intense and brutal than the blueprints they borrowed from the United States, Nazi Germany, and other colonial powers, the fact that Nelson Mandela was an African in Africa somehow always saved him. The South African police state most likely needed to preserve Mandela and his ANC brethren, in order to prevent further violence, and at the same time, wanted to keep them away where they could not plan, influence, and inspire. These men kept their strength up and survived that ordeal. At the same time, the South Africans assertion that striking the shepards would scatter the sheep was mistaken. The South African people responded with even more direct action. Mandela was a great leader, but also, his people were able to thrive and keep up the struggle without his great leadership, a great accomplishment. But then, under such terrible racist brutality, did they have a choice? The people kept the pressure up so heavy to the point where the “moderates” or those with sense were probably begging for the ANC and it’s focus on Democracy and fair elections back.
Mandela himself is a man who does not fit easily into boxes. Although he was known for non violent protest, and for encouraging his people to eschew violence in favor of elective politics, he was also a figher, a man who literally trained in boxing. His legal career was also that of a fighter. Ultimatley, his struggle was different than the struggle of the ’60s in America, in that his absolutely required violence, like the days of Nat Turner, John Brown, and the Civil War.
Mandela lived long enough and was relevant to so many permutations of the struggle in his country, that he was able to be, in American terms, analogous to Dr. King, Malcom X/Stokely Carmichael/Huey P Newton, Thurgood Marshall, and Barack Obama at different times. You could say he started as a Thurgood Marshall figure, attempting to win blacks rights in the courts. When that approach revealed his limits, he staged bus boycots and acts of civil disobedience in the mold of Dr. King and Dr. Kings influene, Mohandes K Ghandi. When the police state impended his ability to protest peacefully, he became a militant, even going further than Malcom X and Stokely in carrying out militant actions. He actually went to Ethiopia to recieve military training. He suffered a lont time in jail and was able to come out to be an elected, political figure of reconcilliation like Barack Obama. He advocated peace when he was an older man and peace was the most pragmatic thing to do to preserve human life, but in all, I see a man who was willing to do what ever it takes, a man who lived Malcom X’s famous credo, “By Any Means Necessary.” He was a unifiying figure, a man who got along with Fidel Castro, and eventually, America as well, after spending years on the terrorist list.
South Africa contains interesting similarities and differences to the American struggle. Obviously, the strongest difference was the Dutch and Englishmen of South Africa were totally surrounded by Black Africans. In the United States, the black population was carefully controlled so as not to overtake or equal the white population. This created a desperate evil in the white South Africans, which would only be matched in the U.S in an area like the American South where black numbers were comparable to whites, or in the destruction of the Native AMerican communities. But, in contrast to other African countries ruled by indirect rule, the South Africans had greater expsure to whites and Westren culture. If you look at pictures of South Afria during the 1950s, it looks almost exactly like pics of Black southerners during that time period. You see black sartorial grace in Western dress. But somewhere in there, I do believe African Americans can recognize elements of their situation in Apartied more than they can other colonial situations in Africa, and the cultural exchange has often been strong, the jazz culture of the 20s through the ’40s was a strong influence on South Africa, and I also found in South African history a hope among the blacks that the country would imporove after World War II, which is a similar hope we had here in America.
All in all, Mandela was always about unity. One of the key things he did was to deemphasize tribal affiliation, which is something that has hurt Africa, that is part of the reason Africa is in the position it is in. Tribal affiliation almost kept Apartied going in South Africa. His views also grew to include unity with Indians and others who were struggling in South Africa. Later he grew from a figure who’s unifiying force was seen as a unifying force in the world. This unity was not based on lofty ideological points, but is one he grew into progressively, seeing the practical values of peace and unity. Mandela also looms large as a personal example. Here is a man devoted to exercise and discipline in his life, who went from a lawyer with middle class aspirations, to a non violent activist, to a militant commander on the run, to policial prisoner, to savior of his nation, to President of that nation, to an International symbol of Peace. He had a great ability to change, to see the current situation, and to grow. He was a great personal example of dignity and self control. Like one of my other heroes, Miles Davis, boxing was a symbol of that self discipline, his hero and example, both in boxing and racial/political matters being the great champion Joe Louis. He was a figher who knew when to stopped fighting and never ended his fight on the INSIDE. For this, he sacrificed family time and so much of the normalcy regular human beings enjoy, most likely even including the desire for revenge. For that I say THANK YOU and I’m happy he has now gone to rest in peace.