Nelson Mandela: a political obituary

Published: December 6, 2013
The writer is a fellow with the Centre for the Study of Global Power and Politics at Trent University, Canada

The writer is a fellow with the Centre for the Study of Global Power and Politics at Trent University, Canada [email protected]

As a member of the Thembu royal family of the powerful Xhosa clan, Rolihlahla Mandela (Nelson being the ‘civilised’ white name foisted on him by a school teacher) could have easily settled for the prominent comfort he was born to inherit. Instead, he snatched greatness from the jaws of history, by joining and ultimately, leading one of the longest running successful liberation struggles of the 20th century.

Mandela has now been duly deified in the Western media, and as is the rule for all Western deities, he has been thoroughly sanitised as a human rights crusader and paragon of non-violent resistance. This is to read history hypocritically, with only one eye open. Mandela’s true greatness lies not in the myth that he was a saint, but in the fact, that he was not. He fought the struggle he was presented with, with all the tools at his disposal. Unlike those who prefer to heckle from history’s cheap seats (and admittedly, columnists are among the worst offenders), Mandela was, first and foremost, a decidedly engaged political animal who did not believe in ideological purity, in isolation, as being politically commendable. It is this political Mandela that the Third World ought to remember, to honour Mandela’s memory but also for its own edification.

After a childhood and adolescence marked by mischief, wilfulness and sharp intelligence, Mandela formally joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1943 (the ANC had been struggling for freedom since 1912). It took a mind boggling five decades of unceasing struggle — including 27 years in prison — before Mandela and the ANC dismantled the vile system of brutal racial segregation that constituted apartheid in South Africa. The country’s first democratic election in 1994 returned Mandela as the president.

Though not formally a communist, Mandela was certainly a fellow traveller. Mandela was inspired by the ideas and campaigns of civil disobedience among South Africa’s Indian population that had once been organised by Mohandas Gandhi. He was also influenced by other anti-colonial figures, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Habib Bourgiba in Tunisia.

Despite overwhelming temptation, Mandela refused to sacrifice the primacy of politics either in favour of the ‘wars of national liberation’ that were then in vogue throughout the colonised world, or to adopt the pacifism of Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. However, to complement the ANC’s political struggle, Mandela founded the Umkontho we Sizwe (‘Spear of the Nation’), which eventually became the armed wing of the ANC and committed numerous acts of sabotage. In 1962, Mandela was jailed on charges of sabotage and sedition. He would remain incarcerated until 1990.

In prison, the government offered to release him if the ANC renounced armed struggle. Mandela famously refused — twice, and a decade apart — until the government, too, swore off political violence. For his courage of conviction, Margaret Thatcher publicly referred to him as a ‘terrorist’. Somewhat embarrassingly, Mandela also remained on the US’s terrorist watch list until 2008, long after he had become one of the most celebrated figures in the world.

Others who lacked his convictions fared less well. In the 1970s, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) — thanks to petrodollars, the best funded liberation movement in history — even provided generous donations to the ANC. The PLO continued to be primarily a militia rather than a political movement. While its bulging coffers made it the envy of aspiring revolutionaries everywhere, patronage also removed the need for grassroots mobilisation, while the interstate diplomacy it enabled depleted any desire for strategic political organisation. Today, it is the PLO that presides over a collection of occupied Bantustans.

In contrast, Mandela refused to allow the ANC to turn into a cult of death measuring success in the number of lives bartered for the cause. The ANC’s political violence remained highly selective and in service of a defined and measured political strategy. Mandela never lost sight of the primacy of politics, of the need to not to outfight the enemy but to out-administer it and drain its moral legitimacy. His achievement can be measured not just by the ANC’s eventual victory, but by the fact that the ANC’s struggle became our struggle. In a world then partitioned by the Iron Curtain, South Africa’s racist apartheid government eventually became a pariah on both sides of the Cold War divide. Its moral isolation complete, Mandela’s victory became inevitable.

Mandela’s record is by no means perfect: 27 years of imprisonment took their toll, as poignantly described in his autobiography when, besieged by reporters, he mistook a camera microphone for “some newfangled weapon developed while I was in prison”. Thrust into a world that, since Mandela’s incarceration, had undergone seismic geopolitical changes with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of socialism, Mandela left economic management to his vice-presidents, FW de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid era president, and Thabo Mbeki, his eventual successor. The former blocked many of the systemic changes needed to distribute national wealth concentrated in the hands of South Africa’s white minority, whereas the latter embarked on restructuring the economy in light of the neo-liberal Washington Consensus. As a result, poverty and unemployment continue to plague the black population of South Africa.

Still, Mandela must unarguably be credited for ending one of the most morally repugnant systems of government the world has seen, and for transforming a stifling police state into an inclusive and multiracial democratic polity. In power, Mandela eschewed bloody retribution in favour of reconciliation not because he was saintly, but because he cannily recognised that this was good politics. Despite his overwhelming popularity, he resigned from the presidency after serving only one term, emphasising and entrenching his abiding faith in political institutions over personality cults.

Notwithstanding its challenges, today South Africa continues down the path that Mandela wrestled it on, while the grinding failures of the Arab Spring and the impasses of Palestinian liberation are testaments to lessons poorly learnt from one of the most brilliantly fought and politically astute liberation struggles of all time.

On December 5, 2013, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela died. His ideas and legacy never should. Today, Mandela is free. Thanks to him, so are his people.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 7th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (16)

  • Toticalling
    Dec 6, 2013 - 10:54PM

    He was a great man. I visited Robben Island where he was held prisoner and saw how he was treated. Here is an ode to Mandeal:
    Ode tp Mandela
    Bush, Mugabe, Bashir, Netanyahu
    have in common this one thing
    they never followed you
    or Martin Luther King
    You saw resentment as kin to drinking cyanide
    and hoping your enemies would fall
    you recognized such foolish pride
    holds good men back, makes big hearts small
    We studied your constitution in London
    and learnt the history of your struggle, yet none of us
    could imagine your decades in that dungeon
    from which you emerged with neither fuss nor rust
    Just the promise of your legacy
    that bitterness was overcome by will to reconcile
    by civic pride, by act of perfect clemency
    not to mention, or ever forget, your priceless smile.


  • Rex Minor
    Dec 6, 2013 - 11:23PM

    Why must the author compare Mr Mandela with others in the world? He was a unique, a radical extremist and a terrorist too not because Margret Thatcher called him so. He was a terrorist because of his terrorist acts since he took up arms to accompany political struggle and participated in acts of sabotage against the State. He was given life sentence to spend in Robin Island the Guatanimo bay equivalent.where he spent 27 years of his life. But despite this history and after his release he became very soon the world Icon for promoting peace and reconciliation with the enemy and choose the way forward for his people the absolute use of diplomacy. This act alone is of historic importance and unique one. No one before or after him could ever reach such heights in human history. May God grant him peace in the next life and the courage to his people to march on the route of civilisation..

    Rex Minor


  • faizaan
    Dec 7, 2013 - 1:42AM

    It is a an interesting fact that till 2008, Mandela was on the US terrorist watch list…that is a good indication of how things are viewed over there.


  • billo
    Dec 7, 2013 - 3:54AM

    @Rex Minor So by your count George Washington should have been in a Guantanamo equivalent too? The writer here has shown great nuance which you clearly lack.


  • Dec 7, 2013 - 8:59AM

    @Rex Minor:

    So what do you think about Jinnah and his Direct Action day call?Recommend

  • ali
    Dec 7, 2013 - 9:14AM

    Great write up. What a great man. A true loss for the world, and a shining example for all time.


  • Majid Sheikh
    Dec 7, 2013 - 2:10PM

    Very well-written.


  • harkol
    Dec 7, 2013 - 10:14PM

    This author writes a column, not because he is journalist, not because he is an intellectual – because he has to make a living.

    Now, compare the above sentence to the article – that is exactly what author says. A man who is a pragmatist, and does what is needed to get to an objective, can’t be undermined by negative attributes that can’t be proven.

    Just because author makes a living of it, doesn’t mean he isn’t a good journalist. Similarly, Mandela can both be a paragon of non-violent resistance and simultaneously be a pragmatic politician, who also uses violence at times.

    Even Gandhi hadn’t totally abjured violence.Recommend

  • Raja
    Dec 8, 2013 - 2:34AM

    Excellent article, great perspective.


  • Rex Minor
    Dec 8, 2013 - 6:49AM


    As I said Mr Mandela is not comparable to any other political personalities of the world; he was unique in the sense that despite his armed struggle against the oppressor regime, after his release from the Prison he pleaded for reconciliation with them. Besides, the Indian leaders did not have major problems with the Brits. who were required per the agreement of ww2 allies to grant inependence to their people.

    Rex Minor


  • Dec 8, 2013 - 1:50PM

    @Rex Minor:

    “Besides, the Indian leaders did not have major problems with the Brits”

    So going to jail, getting killed during Satyagraha, torture, high taxation on essential items are not “major problems”.

    Mandela has himself said he got inspired from the ideology, methods and vision of Gandhi. After Independence, Congress invited the Viceroy to be Governor-General. So, yeah, its very similar to what Mandela did.


  • Rex Minor
    Dec 8, 2013 - 5:03PM


    It matters not what inspires people but how the inspired people perform in public life. It is not always appropriate to compare one with another since it does not bring clarity. Mr Mandela took up arms in his struggle against the oppressor, whereas Mr Gandhi was known for non-violence movement. Besides the Indian leader was a charletan as well. He insisted to be treated by the Brits superior to the black africans and was responsible more or less for the muslims separatist movement.
    While the Indian leaders followed a divisive strategy, Mr Mandela did not and tried to unite both whites and blacks, old and young and this is his legacy and will be remembered in history. .

    Rex Minor.


  • Rex Minor
    Dec 8, 2013 - 5:24PM

    Must one compare people who lived at different times in history and inevitably with different standards.The personal wealth of Washington included the land and the african slaves whereas Mr Madela was given the status of a slave in his own land by the white settlers!.

    Rex Minor


  • Dec 8, 2013 - 6:11PM

    @Rex Minor:

    “He insisted to be treated by the Brits superior to the black africans and was responsible more or less for the muslims separatist movement.”

    Can you site one instance of Gandhi doing any of the above things?

    Is this like the “Humans are from Arabia” theory you once talked of, for you which you have not quoted any reliable Scientific journal?

    Gandhi’s idol is still in South Africa today.

    If he were so racist, why are the people in South Africa celebrating him by erecting a statue?

    “While the Indian leaders followed a divisive strategy”

    Huh! What divisive strategy? Maulana Azad was President of Congress for 6 years in the 1940s. So, are you saying a Muslim was discriminating against Muslims? Isn’t it absurd?


  • Rex Minor
    Dec 8, 2013 - 11:31PM


    Are you asking me or telling me? If you have not the knoledge about Indian history or their leadership, you can easily ask Google about Gandhis pre-occupation with blacks in south Africa. It is not a secret that Indians were exploited as well as the exploiters in south Africa.
    It is indeed absurd to imagine that Indians(hindus and muslims) were not only exploited by the colonialists but more so by their own leadership. Logic does not influence the facts which speak for themselves and by the way this has not altered in the 21st century. This is my reading and my opinion. You are free to disagree.

    Rex Minor..


  • Ben Millar
    Dec 18, 2013 - 11:59PM

    What a great write up. Of the dozens of Mandela obituaries I have read in the last couple of weeks, this has been one of the very best. Great to discover this paper and this writer.


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