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.