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Mandela (1918 – 2013)

By Yusuf K. Serunkuma

A freedom fighter who learned the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle and the oppressed is left with no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor

I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there was mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”


These are some of the final thoughts that come at the end of Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom – and they provide insight into the legacy that he leaves behind.  True, apartheid made Mandela, and the more brutal the history of apartheid is written; the more glamorous Mandela’s legacy will shine.  But there is certainly more to Mandela than just the anti-apartheid struggle.

Born in 1918 in Transkei, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela or Madiba, as is fondly called, died on Thursday, December 5, 2013 at the age of 95 in Johannesburg.  This illustrious African National Congress (ANC) leader departs with a legacy that words alone cannot capture.  When the news of his death first came, pictures on television showed South Africans and many people around the world trying to come to terms with the death of one of the greatest persons of their time:  Many went silent.

Many sang songs. Many chanted, eulogised and drummed his name.  It is difficult to consume Mandela’s symbolism in a word or a phrase.  Determination, a dogged perseverance, a deep generosity, an acute sense of fairness and injustice, and a selfless individuality would be some of the many knots that Mandela stands to represent.  Perhaps Thabo Mbeki, his successor president was spot on when he remarked in his maiden speech as President of the ANC after Mandela in 1997.

Mindful that comparisons will be made about him to Mandela, and aware of Mandela’s stellar image, Mbeki remarked: “I will never, ever be seen dead in your shoes, because you always wear ugly shoes.” Although the remark was made in jest, there was a great sense of seriousness to it.  In his lifetime, not a single leader across the world has come close to the standard set by Mandela. We might not be seeing one even in the near future.

Life under apartheid

Writing in his autobiography, Mandela noted that it was not his choice to become political, and does not recall a single moment that had him politicised. But the environment in which a black South African was born prompted his politicisation.  Then, to be born black meant, one went to Africans Only hospitals, was taken home in Africans Only buses, lived in an Africans Only area and attended Africans Only schools – if one attended school at all.

And the ghost of ones’ Africaness – the dark skin – followed you throughout adult life.  As it was with many sung and unsung heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle, a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced anger in Mandela, a rebelliousness, and desire to fight.

Apartheid, which literary meant apartness, was haphazardly in place before the 1940s. When the Boer Nationalist Government came to power in 1948, apartheid was recognised in the laws of the land as the modus operandi.  Apartheid meant that whites were superior to Africans, Coloured and Indians and white supremacy had to be entrenched forever.  Mandela described it as being “diabolical in its detail, inescapable in its reach and overwhelming in its power.”  Apartheid had tougher implications on every aspect of one’s life – including land and any other social amenities available to the South Africans.

Making Mandela

Perhaps, it would have been difficult for Mandela to claim centre stage in the anti-apartheid struggle had he not studied law.  Educated at Fort Hare, he went on to become the first black lawyer to own a firm in Johannesburg – ‘Mandela and Tambo’ – one that they opened in 1952.  Being aware of what the law permitted him, Mandela “made trouble” for many white security and political officers.

He did not only challenge magistrates at will, but working as an attorney made him popular among black people who found their chambers “a place where they could find a sympathetic ear and a competent ally, a place where they would neither be turned away or cheated, a place where they might actually feel proud to be represented by men of their own skin colour.”

Mandela narrated in his autobiography that each morning, to reach their office, they “had to move through a crowd of people waiting in the corridors, on the stairs and in our small waiting room.”  Being a lawyer gave him the opportunity to listen to the plight of the many black men on a daily basis, and meet the injustices of the white-dominated bench – one that had no respect for his learning and expertise.

The fight against injustice

In his preface to Franz Fanon’s, The Wretched of the Earth, Jean Paul Sartre notes that the settler, to justify his brutality, says of the native, the only language they understand is violence. Soon, the native owns this violence and throws it back to the settler in a feat of protest. Sounding like Sartre, Mandela remarked in his autobiography that, “a freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is left with no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor.”

At the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, many ANC leaders were banned from either movement from one town to another or assembly. Peaceful means of protest equally became difficult. New means of struggle had to be sought: Sabotage, terrorism, and violence became options.

Charged with treason in the 1958, the court found Mandela and several other ANC leaders not guilty in 1961 when the verdict was finally made. Knowing full well that the state would find other charges and immediately arrest them, he chose to go underground, changed identity becoming a one David Motsamayi. Newspapers of the period enjoyed his mutation dubbing him the “Black Pimpernel”; an allusion to the fictional underground heroic master of escape during the French Revolution.

Mandela would ingeniously evade  capture by the police for close to two years, during which he even got the opportunity to travel abroad, for the first time.  Although his script had been deftly executed, Mandela’s luck ran out a few months after sneaking back into the country.  Whoever tipped off the South African government, we may never know.  But the American intelligence unit, the CIA has remained a key suspect.

In 1964, together with other ANC leaders, Mandela was tried in what became the dramatic and lengthy Rivonia Trials. At the end of the day, they were sentenced to life in prison.  But it was during these trials that Mandela delivered one of the toughest defences for the struggle, and the moral power of his concluding remarks remained engrained in the hearts of many across the world.  Having read for over four hours in the course of his defence, detailing the injustices meted against the blacks in South Africa, Mandela finally placed down the papers from which he had been reading, sternly faced the judge and said:

During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against Black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Not a single public officer compares to Mandela in recent history.  True, many have compared him to Mahatma Ghandi and there is a great deal of salt in this – for Mandela read a lot of Ghandi at Robben Island.  But if the size of the fight determines the size of the dog, Mandela’s battlefronts were more outstanding. He was tested with prison, an instrument that has the power to crush tough spirits.

Twenty-seven years at Robben Island – of hard labour, dehumanisation and isolation, Mandela left the prison unmoved.  Even as President, power did not corrupt him. He served a single term and quit.  It is difficult to argue that old age prompted his decision to quit after one term for the old man kept an active public life till 2004. But following his fame, carrying on even in senility would have been agreeable. But he bowed out.

Manufacturing Mandela’s legacy

No single critique will ever wash away the brand that Mandela is.  Without doubt, Mandela exhibited a great deal of individual accomplishment. He should have gotten the Nobel alone. The struggle was tough, and Mandela deftly rose to the occasion especially throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.  Mandela was radical – he would be among the first to harbour intentions of armed violence and going on to become the first Commander in Chief the ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.  He was daring, cautious and very sensitive to the environment.  And this is the legacy we take on.

With an irrepressible tinge of hyperbole, Mandela has been unfairly, portrayed as pristine; bordering on sainthood. His heroic contributions to the struggle seem to have overshadowed his false steps in the post-prison and post-apartheid world.

Indeed, Post-prison Mandela could be viewed to have played into the hands of the apartheid regime.  After 27 years of absence, the terrain had changed a great deal. The anti-apartheid fighters had an upper hand in the conflict; perhaps Mandela gave in too quickly, and with much servility to negotiation.  This could be a legacy highly overlooked.

Starting 1985, the regime was in free fall.  It was being fought both at home and abroad. Agitation for radical revolt was on the rise inside the country. In either sports or diplomatic circles, apartheid South Africa was being chastised, oftentimes, violently.  And Mandela who had been known for his unrelenting compromise and humility was sought to arbitrate between an aggrieved and radicalising black South Africa, and privileged white rule.  Mandela would disempower the masses – for they loved him – and empower the regime that found him a more reassuring ally.  In the end, much of Mandela’s contributions to post-apartheid South Africa were ahistorical.

Indeed, as many political economists and contemporary historians have pointed out, economic justice will dent Mandela’s legacy.  In a conversation on human rights and justice, Columbia Professor, Robert Meister, discusses in After Evil the implications of political justice over economic justice in a post-evil world, that is, after a dismantling of the structures of injustice, the end of physical cruelty.

If the perpetrators of physical injustice are forgiven, and reconciliation happens, what then remains of the social and economic beneficiaries of the oppressive political, social, and economic system that came before political justice – as they continue to enjoy the unjustly acquired economic and social advantages and privileges?  Meister argues that as this imbalance is not sorted, evil still exists, and real justice becomes out of reach.  Perhaps many ordinary South Africans feel this way, and Mandela’s legacy, after his death, enters a new chapter.

Quotes from Nelson Mandela

Men, I think, are not capable of doing nothing, of saying nothing, of not reacting to injustice, of not protesting against oppression, of not striving for the good society and the good life in the ways they see it.

I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.  A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.

While I think certain individuals are disposed to crime because of their genetic inheritance or an abusive upbringing, I am convinced that apartheid turned many otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals.

Nothing is as dehumanising as the absence of human companionship.

I have walked that long road to freedom. 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.

The challenge of every prisoner, particularly political prisoners, is how to survive prison intact, how to emerge from prison undiminished, how to conserve and even replenish ones’ beliefs.

After one person had been in prison, it is the small things that one appreciates: being able to take a walk whenever one wants, going into the shop and buying a newspaper, speaking or choosing to remain silent. The simple act of being able to control one’s person.

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