Nelson Mandela’s memorial service earlier this month met an outpouring of kind words in commemoration. Dignitaries from Barack Obama to Ban ki-Moon to Raúl Castro struggled to convey the significance of his life while still capturing a glimpse of his humanity along the way. Countless others around the globe offered tributes upon learning of his death. Heads of state and an infinite reel of media voices honored his passing, entirely unsurprising for a man so loved by so many. Some spoke from grief, some in celebration of his life. A few politicians casually treated his death as a cheap political opportunity (see Rick Santorum comparing the liberation struggle against apartheid to the liberation struggle against the Affordable Care Act). Other voices, however, were even more perverse.
Let’s examine the language they used to describe his legacy: one head of state announced that “A great light has gone out in the world. Nelson Mandela was a towering figure in our time; a legend in life and now in death – a true global hero.” Another claimed he “bore his burdens with dignity and grace, and our world is better off because of his example.” A third called him a “moral leader of the highest order.” By singing such praises, they imply that they – and their nations and their parties – have been at his side all along, cheering him and Black South Africa to victory.
However, we should not be taken in so easily. The first thing to note are the identities of our speakers. The first was British Prime Minister David Cameron. As a rising star in the Conservative party, he traveled to South Africa with a pro-apartheid lobby group, all expenses paid. His party’s hero and leader Margaret Thatcher, who counted monsters like Pinochet and Suharto among her close friends, condemned Mandela as a terrorist. The Tory youth movement pinned badges to their eager chests reading “Hang Nelson Mandela.” This was, of course, an appropriate punishment for any colonized subject foolish enough to refuse to kneel before white, capitalist rifle barrels.
The second quote is from former President George W. Bush, whom Mandela had savaged for his myopia and arrogance in the invasion of Iraq. He accused of him of “plunging the world into a holocaust” in pursuit of oil. Bush’s party’s hero, our illustrious president Ronald Reagan, described the racist colonial regime Mandela fought against as “essential to the free world.” From the American Standard Dictionary of Orwellian Reaganspeak (Cold War edition), “free” here describes whatever serves the reach of American power. Reagan fought bitterly to the end to quash boycott, divestment, and sanctions against the white supremacist state, and our government officially listed Mandela and the African National Congress as terrorists until 2008.
The last was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, overseer of the increasingly brutal and intractable occupation in the Palestinian territories and perhaps the closest thing to Mandela’s antithesis in power today – a modern-day P.W. Botha. It is alleged that the Likud government of the late 1970s violated the UN arms embargo to provide nuclear weapons and other military technology to South Africa, while Mandela described PLO leader Yasser Arafat as a “comrade in arms” and Israel as a “terrorist state…slaughtering defenseless and innocent Arabs in the occupied territories.” Mandela’s conflict with the West was never merely rhetorical. Assistance from Israel, the United Kingdom, and the United States is to thank for apartheid surviving as long as it did.
The second thing to note is how devoid of content these platitudes are. His “greatness” is confined to generalities. His political legacy is captured by vagueries like “forgiveness” and “reconciliation.” This extends far beyond the ironies of the speeches of right-wing politicians; media representation and celebrity personalities from Oprah to Bono are just as guilty. Musa Okwonga wrote to these vapid revisionists: “Right now, you are anxiously pacing the corridors of your condos and country estates, looking for the right words, the right tributes, the right-wing tributes. You will say that Mandela was not about race. You will say that Mandela was not about politics. You will say that Mandela was about nothing but one love, you will try to reduce him to a lilting reggae tune.” Mandela faces the same fate as Dr. King, what Omid Safi described as “whitewashing their radical prophetic legacy into nonthreatening champions of ‘reconciliation,’ ” scrubbed and polished controversy-free. To pretend he was someone whose legacy we can all embrace is to erase existing injustices of imperialism, poverty, and racism from public discourse. Revisionists must sanitize his memory because of their complicity in other criminal enterprises that he dedicated his life to dismantling.
Perhaps most painful for me to hear were Obama’s words. The loyal flagbearer of American empire seemed so heartfelt in his praises of Madiba the socialist, Madiba the revolutionary, Madiba the anti-imperialist, whom he called “the last great liberator of the twentieth century,” that taught us “the power of action; of taking risks on behalf of our ideals.” Yet Reagan’s strategy of “constructive engagement” with the South African government finds parallel today with the Obama administration’s ‘commitment’ to peace talks to resolve the horrors of Israeli occupation. In hindsight, it is obvious that South African apartheid needed to be met by unrestrained condemnation and economic sanctions, but we are slow learners. The Reagan administration may have stated that its official goal was to end apartheid, but its support for the regime and refusal to apply real pressure did more to preserve apartheid than any white supremacist could have hoped for. The peace process, rightly described as “more process than peace,” does the same for Israeli dispossession and occupation. The emphasis on negotiated ‘dialogue’ rather than action, as if Israelis and Palestinians were somehow equal partners, is as meaningless as constructive engagement. The truth is that one party is powerless and the other hegemonic, and the mediator is committed to the interests of the hegemon. Such talks are at best a half-hearted attempt to save face, at worst a veil for further entrenchment, and unquestionably cosmetic. And so Obama walks with Reagan’s shadow behind him.
Nelson Mandela was not a perfect man, nor perfectly consistent. He listed dictators like Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi among his friends and allies. Support against apartheid from the Soviet Union and non-aligned countries occasionally blinded him to the crimes of communists and national liberators who used anti-imperialism outwardly to veil kleptocracy and imperial rule inwardly. But nor did he claim such perfection. He was, in his words, “not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
Yet Madiba is still, in Obama’s own words, “a giant of history.” He looms too largely and brightly in popular memory to be ignored or demonized. People who wield economic and political power can at best hope to water down his moral force to a set of exhausted liberal tropes about love and freedom to preempt efforts to make them realities. Do not let them. They will try to co-opt his legacy to obscure how they fail to live up to his example. Do not let them. Emperors of many stripes have wrapped themselves in the cloak of his memory when it should be used instead to point out that they wear no clothes. Do not let them.
Our leaders, our media spokespeople, and our plutocrats want him to be remembered as a reconciler whose sainthood places him outside of the messiness of ideology and politics, as if ideology and politics were not about the fight for justice and human freedom against those who take them from us. His radicalism is inseparable from his struggle for peace and liberty. Such are the beliefs and actions of a man committed to the values of liberation. By selectively limiting his legacy, these creators of historical memory mean to equate forgiveness for injustice with an unwillingness to do what is necessary to stop it. I do not mean to say that Madiba was not Love, for he certainly was. But he was also Rage. He understood that to love your enemy did not mean to submit to him. Reconciliation was never meant to be a compromise with injustice; it was what was necessary to free the jailer along with his prisoner. He was not sentenced to life in prison for civil disobedience, but for sabotage and treason. He was not simply a saint or a sage, with all the timidity those words connote. He was a saintly warrior, and a warrior sage. A warrior against capitalism, against racism, and against their wicked marriage in colonialism.
In truth, South Africa has not been fully ‘liberated.’ Bantustans are just called slums now, and the abolition of poverty, which Mandela ranked alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils, was never finished. Still, his smiling resurrection from twenty-seven years of captivity is no less a symbol for people black, brown, and yellow across the globe, a beacon of hope that decolonization is possible. Marwan Barghouti, imprisoned for violent resistance to Israeli occupation, said of Mandela:
You said: ‘We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’ And from within my prison cell, I tell you our freedom seems possible because you reached yours…You carried a promise far beyond the limits of your country’s borders, a promise that oppression and injustice will be vanquished, paving the way to freedom and peace…Your country has become a lighthouse and we, as Palestinians, are setting sails to reach its shores.
There is more at stake than the opportunity to call out the hypocrisy of establishmentarians and reactionaries. Madiba’s life is not mere biography. It is a parable for South Africa and a parable for people in chains everywhere who long to break them. Heroes are first and foremost symbols, and how we remember them crafts how we think about our own collective struggles: the doctrines of power we have the courage to reject, the forms of resistance we are willing to shoulder, the visions for the future that we dare to imagine.
Madiba is a hero for humanity, but he is not a hero for all people. His legacy belongs to those who struggle for justice, not to those who commit their lives to domination. His moral force is a comfort for the oppressed, not a vain apology for the comforts of oppressors. His is not theirs to bow to, to pay cynical tribute to, to hang on their walls beside inspiring quotes. Madiba belongs to aspiring radicals and liberators, to picketing miners, to Occupiers, to Zapatistas, to hungry children, to hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners, to East Timor and Western Sahara, to Tiananmen and Tahrir and Taksim, to the bright-eyed millions wearily chipping away at the monuments and fortresses of power.
If reclaiming the truth of his legacy means losing his place in the white-washed pantheon of safe, respectable heroes whose remembered quotes would be more suited for Nike ads or graduation speeches than liberation struggles, then so be it. Their heroes are not our heroes, and their vision is not our vision. And when we take up his mantle, they will try to stop us. Their hollow eulogies do not change this. They need Mandela to rest in peace because a Mandela still alive in our hearts is a Mandela still fighting. And he is fighting for the causes of human liberation and uplift that our leaders either lack the courage to stand for or could only accept bitterly when the furious weight of colonized peoples comes crashing down on top of them.
Mandela rests, but not in peace. He rests in indignation, in agitation, in solidarity. Our only prayer worthy of his soul is the hope that we may create a liberated world, so that he can at last sleep soundly.