Image of Madiba

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

I cried.

I cried when my mother died in the winter of 2006. I cried when my father died in the spring of 2012. I cried when Nelson Mandela died this week. I felt as if I had lost a close friend, a mentor, a member of my own family.

At first, I was puzzled by the intensity of my grief and my sense of loss. Mandela’s death, though sad, was hardly a shock. He was 95 years old. He had been gravely ill since last June, and had passed into a coma in July. Part of me hoped, as I did when each of my parents fell ill, that the great man would come through, that he would defy the odds, his age, and medicine, and make a full recovery. The world needed Madiba, and I could not imagine it without him. He didn’t, of course, and his death on Friday was simply the last page of a months-long denouement to an extraordinary life.

I never met Mandela. I watched his release on television in February 1990. Though I did not attend the rally in his honour at Jarry Park in Montreal the following summer, I listened to it on the radio and watched the extended coverage on the news. I never shook his hand. He was not a personal friend, a colleague, or a comrade. Yet, in so many ways, I felt closer to him than I do many of my friends, colleagues, and comrades.

Mandela raises a fist in defiance as he walks to freedom, 11 February 1990

Mandela raises a fist in defiance as he walks to freedom, 11 February 1990

Nelson Mandela has occupied a place at the centre of my politics and sense of justice since my father told me his story. I was in grade school, and I had been assigned South Africa for a United Nations day. The night before the exercise, my father sat me down and told me about apartheid, the Bantustans, the pass system, Sharpeville, Soweto, Stephen Biko, the African National Congress… and the long years Mandela had spent in prison because of his struggle for freedom and democracy. “You will be South Africa tomorrow; I know you will do the right thing.”

My first acts of activism were against the apartheid regime. I helped organize demonstrations in CEGEP; I stood along with thousands calling for Mandela’s release, and to protest the Canadian government’s continued engagement – like the uranium shipments from the port of Montreal – with Pretoria. I boycotted FBI orange juice, and any other product remotely tainted by its connections to the Rembrandt Group.

When I danced the high-step to the Special AKA’s “Nelson Mandela” in some long-forgotten punk club in 1985, or to Johnny Clegg and Savuka in the streets at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 1988, it was with passion and determination. I was not dancing alone; I danced with my friends and comrades, and with Mandela in our imaginations. It was an ecstatic act of musical and political solidarity.

Madiba has always been there with me. I guess I thought he always would be. Now that he is gone, I feel the weight of his absence.


What puzzles me more, however, is the representation of Mandela in the news and social media over the last couple of days. I have had an eerie feeling that I have been watching the “Savage Curtain” episode from the 1969 season of Star Trek played out over and over again. That’s the episode where the ever-intrepid Kirk and Spock do battle with some of the worst villains of galactic history, aided by the two greatest paragons of justice and courage: Abraham Lincoln and the Vulcan philosopher Surak. They’re not really Lincoln and Surak, but mysterious doppelgangers. Spock insists on addressing “Image of Surak.”

It seems as if so much of the media have been addressing Image of Mandela, rather than the man himself. In fairness, I recognize that the Mandela who I lost this week is as much an image as anyone else’s. Yet what puzzles me is how many – though not all – of the Mandelas depart from any reasonable reading of the man’s life and work.

The most common is the whitewashed or right-washed Mandela. This is the one on display in the American corporate media, shorn of his radicalism and revolutionary politics. Most of these reports emphasize his courage, strength and his insistence on peace and reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. These were essential parts of his politics and character, to be sure, but when his radicalism is mentioned at all – he was a life-long socialist, close to members of the South African Communist Party, and committed, even after his release, to the armed struggle – it is as an afterthought.

It is as if few people in the media want to ruin their celebration of the great man’s life by mentioning that he was on the US government’s terrorist watch list until 2008, and remained an incisive critic of US imperialism, and close some of the great villains of the American Right’s worst fantasies. In fact, one of the few remotely-mainstream American commentators who has mentioned any of this is the repulsive reactionary gasbag David Horowitz – and then only to denounce him.

Rick Santorum has even gone so far to enlist Mandela – a socialist and a vocal advocate for government-run, free, national health insurance – in his ongoing campaign against the Affordable Care Act. According to Santorum, his efforts to deny affordable health care to the majority of Americans is just like the great man’s resistance to the brutal, racist, genocidal, apartheid regime. You can’t make this stuff up.

A Mandela meme

A Mandela meme

More common is the kind of embroidered sampler sentimentality that bloomed all over Facebook, Twitter and other social media sources. We’ve seen this kind of thing before with Martin Luther King, jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama – a focus on the kind of comforting, unchalenging platitudes that can be printed over a soft-focus photo on an Internet meme. It’s the kind of thing American and Canadian liberals go in for in a big way; quite like all those pictures of a gentle, smiling Louis Armstrong over the text “What a wonderful world it would be.”

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong

In this, white liberals are able to domesticate Mandela – the revolutionary – like a fuzzy Lolcat in a profoundly racist dynamic. He has become, to so many doubtless well-intentioned people, a kind of “magical Negro.” This is a recurring media figure, closely related to the “Uncle” and “Mammy” of the blackface minstrel show, whose whole purpose is to nudge white characters toward spiritual salvation and reconciliation. He is virtually always portrayed as a wise, gentle usually older Black man who is somehow in touch with a deeper, mystical reality. Think of the John Coffey character in The Green Mile, or Morgan Freeman in virtually anything. While it might give middle-class white people – like myself – the warm-and-fuzzies, and a momentary respite from interrogating our privilege, it robs a man like Mandela of his agency and his power.

It makes him safe.


The young Mandela

The young Mandela

On the other side, I have noted puzzling critique emerging from the radical Left. This first became apparent in an exchange on my Facebook wall where a friend – a committed activist whom I deeply respect and admire – suggested that, for all his radical efforts as a young man, the post-release Mandela was simply a “bourgeois pacifist” and what, in “Marxist circles,” might be called a “revisionist.”

I’m not so sure about Marxist circles; Communist circles, certainly. “Revisionism” suggests that there is an explicit and pure party line, and that to deviate from it in any way is a revision of the original intent. Considering that (a) Marx’s analysis and critique apply to a radically different form of capitalism than exists today and (b) he called for a “ruthless criticism of everything existing” including his own work, I would have to say that any “Marxist” who condemns anyone as a “revisionist” should go back and actually read Marx.

The most common Left criticism goes something like this: While we should respect the Mandela’s revolutionary work up to his arrest and trial in 1962, the man who emerged from Victor Verster Prison on 11 February 1990 was no longer a revolutionary committed to the armed struggle. He had been tamed. His efforts to seek a peaceful transformation of South African society, his insistence on reconciliation with the White population and his willingness to engage with neo-liberal, global capitalism as president are all evidence of “capitulation.” The whites did not feel the force of African vengeance nor did Mandela immediately transform South Africa into a workers’ paradise. Instead, he played the game of bourgeois liberal democracy and betrayed the Revolution.

Western/Northern/Euro-American (hereafter “Western”) radicals are impatient people. We want The Revolution to be made right now. We want to storm the barricades and, considering that we are virtually all bourgeois intellectuals, we can’t understand why the oppressed proletariat doesn’t rise up right now. We can’t understand why Mandela, a Marxist, allowed himself to be “coopted” and “capitulated” when he finally had the power of the state in his own hands.

Mandela, the radical leader

Mandela, the radical leader

This kind of criticism of Mandela is deeply colonialist. It presumes the universality of a Western revolutionary agenda rather that acknowledging that a revolution in another part of the world might address other kinds of issues and look quite a bit different. Mandela’s “failure” to live up to the revolutionary standards of comfortable bourgeois intellectuals like us in the United States and Canada is characterized as a betrayal.

I am sure that Mandela felt that he had some larger issues to contend with than sticking to the Western revolutionary playbook. Like maybe dismantling a century-old regime built on systematic racism and racial violence. This was a society where the minority White population held a monopoly on political and economic power. It was a place where non-whites did not have the right to vote, where Blacks could not legally own or manage businesses, where the education system spent ten-times-more teaching white children than Black children. It was a place where Afrikaans writer Breyten Breytenbach was arrested and imprisoned, in part for violated miscegenation laws, when he returned to his country of birth with his Franco-Vietnamese bride in 1975. I suppose that, if you ignore all of that and more, you could argue that Mandela’s “failure” to bring about an immediate and complete social revolution might look like “capitulation.”

Could Mandela have acted differently? More “radically?” Maybe he could have expelled the entire white population, like Robert Mugabe did in Zimbabwe. We can see how well that turned out. Perhaps, when he spoke from the steps of the Cape Town city hall hours after his release, Mandela could have called for a mass uprising in the streets, and simply accepted that the hundreds of thousands who would inevitably have been slaughtered by Africa’s largest, best trained, and best-equipped army had died in the cause of revolution.

Perhaps, when elected president, he could have used the powers of his office and his phenomenal political capital to nationalize all industries and economically disenfranchise non-Black capitalists, as Mugabe is doing in Zimbabwe right now. He would have then had to accept the embargo that the Western democracies would inevitably have imposed. Millions would have starved, of course, and it would have been impossible for Mandela’s government to fund desperately-pressing programs to address basic needs like housing, food, and education.

Moreover, he could not have done any of this and expect any support in the South African Parliament. The Whites would have opposed it for sure, as would have the South Africans of Asian and South-Asian descent. And despite the fact that, in the romantic imagination of Western intellectual revolutionaries, all oppressed people are a single, undifferentiated mass with a unified hive mind and will, it wasn’t that way at all. Black voters and political leaders would not automatically have agreed. Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party held 43, or 20%, of the seats in the 1994 Parliament, and they were never inclined to support Mandela. Even in the ANC itself, there was – and is – a vast range of opinions. It is highly unlikely that a majority could be could be mobilized to pass such legislation.

But what difference does democracy make to a true revolutionary? The good revolutionary knows that democracy is a sham designed to maintain bourgeois power.

It would be better to ask what democracy meant to a man who committed his life to “one-man-one-vote,” who was prepared to die for the principle (we should ask ourselves what we are prepared to die for), who served 27 years in prison for it. For Nelson Mandela, the simple idea that all people must have free and equal access to political expression and power was the first principle. Everything followed from there. If that was not secured, the nothing could be secured.

Mandela and Joe Slovo, 1990

Mandela and Joe Slovo, 1990

Joe Slovo, Mandela’s comrade, friend, the minister for housing in his government, and the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party, no less, said this in 1990:

“Our party’s programme holds firmly to a post-apartheid state which will guarantee all citizens the basic rights and freedoms of organisation, speech, thought, press, movement, residence, conscience and religion; full trade union rights for all workers including the right to strike, and one person one vote in free and democratic elections. These freedoms constitute the very essence of our national liberation and socialist objectives and they clearly imply political pluralism…

It follows that, in truly democratic conditions, it is perfectly legitimate and desirable for a party claiming to be the political instrument of the working class to attempt to lead its constituency in democratic contest for political power against other parties and groups representing other social forces. And if it wins, it must be constitutionally required, from time to time, to go back to the people for a renewed mandate. The alternative to this is self-perpetuating power with all its implications for corruption and dictatorship…”

As for Mandela’s pacifism, it beggars the imagination that anyone would think that it was easy for a man whose friends had been murdered, whose people had been confined in a social prison of racial segregation and forced labour, who had spent 27 years in prison to seek peace and reconciliation with the murderers and jailers. When Western radicals, as well-intentioned as we might be, speak of “bourgeois pacifism,” we articulate a notion that pacifism is an easy way out. A real revolutionary would stand and fight to the bloody death.

It is the infantile – and dare I say it, the bourgeois – fantasy of the Left, a Left of which I count myself a part, that resistance and revolution must be a moment of immediate apocalyptic reckoning, singed by flames and bathed in blood. That is the great romance in seminar rooms and drum circles. That’s how it looks from behind the gas mask and bandanna as we all line up – students, professors, hipsters and bloggers – with our fists raised and our banners flying, ready to take pepper spray in the face, a knock on the head, and a night in jail, to put our “bodies on the line” and fight the power. And sometimes that is how it has to be. But after we’re booked at the police station, or spend a night in jail, we get to go home to our classes, our jobs and our families afterward to lick our wounds.

Neither Mandela, nor any of the other activists of the ANC had anywhere else to go. There was no retreat. Mandela knew that the rubble left after an apocalyptic confrontation would be the rubble of his own home, in the largest sense of the word. He also knew that there could be no freedom for his people unless that included all the people – Black, “coloured,” and White – in South Africa.

Peace, reconciliation, democracy were neither a “capitulation,” nor an easy way out, nor a failure. They were the most difficult things in the world, and they were the only way to ensure that his personal freedom, and the freedom of his people, meant something.


Mandela did not storm the barricades and crush neo-liberal neo-colonialism. He did not establish a worker’s paradise-on-the-Cape. South Africa today remains a troubled land, in many ways, and it seems that, to some people, that is an indictment of Mandela’s “failure.” But that ignores something that the great man knew better than almost anyone: that revolutionary transformation is a process and not an event, that the path to change is rarely short and straight. “I have walked that long road to freedom,” he wrote in his memoirs. “I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” South Africa has a long way to go, but thanks to Mandela, it is on its way.

Despite all the soft-focus samplers and aphoristic remembrances, he was not a saint, but practical man deeply committed to a political ideal. Shortly after Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, George Orwell wrote, “No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.” Orwell, ever prickly, had no stomach for Gandhi the saint, but he expressed deep admiration for the human being.

Although I know that my Image of Mandela is a problematic as anyone else’s, that I never knew the man apart from his mark on history, that is how I choose to remember him: as a human being. But what a human being! He was a great man, the greatest I have ever known. I feel privileged to have lived in his times. If all of our leaders – if all of us – were as committed to peace and decency, as intolerant of oppression, as courageous, as principled – as human – then we would not need people like Mandela to change the world.

Thank you, Madiba.

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