The Real Mandela Inspires Us Even Amid His Own Contradictions


MandelaThis was originally written in early December following the passing of Mandela – My first memories of Mandela date back to my days in high school in the late 1980s, when some of my favorite rock bands had come together in an effort to oppose apartheid and the Reagan administration policy of “constructive engagement,” which had been developed in opposition to the movement from the UN and activists pushing for economic sanctions and divestment from South Africa.

I recall my oral report on the imprisoned Nelson Mandela being met with catcalls and dismissive talk of his being a communist from the more conservative members of my class. So I am not sure how to react to the lionization of Nelson Mandela at his death after years of struggle that seems to have whitewashed the previous political divide.

Much as Martin Luther King has lost some of his moral force in this lionization, so too does Nelson Mandela.

We need to remember that in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan would place Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) on the list of terrorist groups. As late as 1985, Congressman Dick Cheney was among those who voted against a resolution demanding his release from prison. President Regan vetoed legislation that would have imposed sanctions on South Africa.

These criticisms of Mr. Mandela from the right were not entirely wrong. He and the ANC waged armed resistance to apartheid and were backed at the time by the Soviet Union. Mr. Mandela was, in fact, an opponent rather than an ally of American power – something that remained in place a long time, as in 2004 he criticized the Iraq War to the chagrin of the American right.

America tends to view the Cold War as the struggle for freedom backed by American Power against the forces of tyranny backed by the Soviet Union. While true in numerous parts of the world like Germany, Europe, and Korea, in South Africa, we saw American presidents who for decades backed apartheid in the name of anti-communism to the point where President Reagan in 1981 called South Africa’s apartheid regime, “essential to the free world.”

Eventually the world would change. In the late 1980s, with the threat of communism waning and the rise of public pressure to end apartheid, America would belatedly move away from the economic and military aid that marked the Reagan administration’s initial policy toward the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, where the US Congress by a vote of 78-21 in the Senate and 313-83 in the House voted to override President Reagan’s veto in October 1986.

At that time it was the visit and efforts of another venerated figure, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who spoke on Capitol Hill in 1984, delivering a speech that would declare “constructive engagement is an abomination, an unmitigated disaster.”

He would add, “In my view, the Reagan administration’s support and collaboration with it is equally immoral, evil, and totally un-Christian.”

Despite the tide turning against apartheid, however, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act would be opposed by conservatives such as Dick Cheney, who in his speech noted that Nelson Mandela headed a terrorist organization with communist ties.

Senator Lowell Weicker, one of the last liberal Republicans responded, “For this moment, at least, the President has become an irrelevancy to the ideals, heartfelt and spoken, of America.”

There is a real danger that in lionizing Nelson Mandela, in sanitizing his leftist ties and his tendency to be blinded by them, in ignoring communism’s crimes, that we also lose sight of the fact that Mandela was a true subversive and revolutionary in his time.

The ANC was, in fact, genuinely a multiracial movement for democracy which, when it gained power, sought truth over power and reconciliation over punishment. After all, in 1990, Nelson Mandela was finally freed after 27 years in prison. By the time he took office as President in 1994, he was 75 years old and he retired at the age of 80 in 1999.

Nelson Mandela should be remembered as a hero, but also as a human and a man of contradictions.

As Zakes Mda writes in a New York Times op-ed, “In 1944, they were among the leaders who had founded the African National Congress Youth League. These young men considered the African National Congress, which had by then existed for more than three decades, moribund and outmoded. They felt there was a need to take the liberation struggle from protest to armed struggle, and were known to shout down those they felt were ‘selling out’ by participating in apartheid-created structures through which black people were supposed to express their political aspirations.”

He notes, “What struck me, even then, was that Mandela was a man of contradictions. He could be avuncular, especially to us kids, but he was also strict and disciplined. While he was a fire-breathing revolutionary who would quote Marx and Lenin at the drop of a hat, he was also a Xhosa traditionalist with aristocratic tendencies.”

He also notes, “It is ironic that in today’s South Africa, there is an increasingly vocal segment of black South Africans who feel that Mandela sold out the liberation struggle to white interests. This will come as a surprise to the international community, which informally canonized him and thinks he enjoyed universal adoration in his country.”

And the legacy of his rule is mixed. Yes, he initiated negotiations for the end of apartheid, but as Mr. Mda notes, “that was a long time ago. With the rampant corruption of the current ruling elite, and the fact that very little has changed for a majority of black people, the euphoria has been replaced with disillusionment.”

His successors in power have, as the New York Times notes today in an editorial, “not been his equals.” They note, “Scandalous mismanagement of the H.I.V./AIDS epidemic by Thabo Mbeki brought widespread, unnecessary suffering. South Africa under Mr. Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, the current president, has failed to provide the enlightened regional leadership many had expected and has helped sustain the murderous Robert Mugabe in power in neighboring Zimbabwe.”

“Most ominously,” they add, “Most ominously, the end of apartheid did not, and still has not, brought an end to the deep poverty of millions of its victims.”

Thus, Mr. Mandela’s legacy is as mixed as his life itself.
Concludes the New York Times, “It will be up to a new generation of South African leaders to resolve these problems. All of them will owe a historic debt to Nelson Mandela.”

Still, the legacy of Nelson Mandela inspires a generation of activists who see a man who spent 27 hard years in prison and rose above it all to lead his nation, or at least try to lead his nation, back from being the scorn of the international community.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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3 thoughts on “The Real Mandela Inspires Us Even Amid His Own Contradictions”

  1. Rich Rifkin

    “We need to remember that in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan would place Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) on the list of terrorist groups.”

    Certainly, given the behavior of the apartheid regime, the case can be made that an armed struggle against it was justified. However, an important point too often not made in regard to the decision of the ANC in 1961 to engage in violence–it originally had been founded on the principles of Mohandas Gandhi before WW1–is that violence never worked and that, when apartheid ultimately fell, no part of its end was won on account of ANC assaults.

    An interesting question, then, is why Mandela chose to go the route of violence, when he was born in Gandhian ethics and trained as a lawyer and his party for 50 years had believed exclusively in non-violent struggle? The best answer I have read to this question is that it was all about intra-black political survival. The ANC was a mostly moderate* and multiracial group. But in the late 1950s another anti-apartheid group called the Pan Africanist Congress was competing with the ANC for allegiance. The PAC was quite radical and violent and it would not allow whites or other non-blacks to join. In 1959 and 1960, the PAC had succeeded in killing a number of white businessmen and police officers. At the same time, the ANC was conducting peaceful marches which were being violently attacked by the apartheid regime. Young members of the ANC started fleeing to the PAC. After the Sharpville massacre (which was very small in terms of its brutality compared with so much of 20th century violence), it looked to Madela as if the ANC could disappear and be replaced by the PAC. So in a move to make sure his party survived in a changed climate among black S. Africans, he changed course and began engaging in violence and yes, terror.

    But, again, it never worked. Apartheid fell, in my view, for much the same reason other tyrannies fell all over the world at that very same time in history. That is, the people who were needed to hold them up, able (because of global TV and radio) to know that the rest of the modern living in democratic capitalist societies like ours was passing them by, lost their desire to oppress. The leaders of the USSR and all the Eastern European countries and various dictatorships in Latin America and the Apartheid rulers had all inherited the tyrannies they oversaw. And, as these systems could not keep up with America or W. Europe or the emerging nations of East Asia, the leaders of them lost desire to keep up the oppression. Some, like Gorbachev, thought they could stay in power with modest changes. But ultimately, they found their systems had no legitimacy and had to go. And so they all did, all in a 3 year window of change.

    *The Communists aligned with the ANC were certainly immoderate. However, they never controlled the policies of the ANC. They merely were accepted as “allies.”

    1. Rich Rifkin

      Pete Seeger was actually born the following year, May 3, 1919, exactly 6 days before my father was born.

      FWIW, this year marks the 100th anniversary of everyone born in 1914. Some of the famous births of 1914 were: Joe DiMaggio, Dylan Thomas, Joe Louis, Harry Caray (Holy Cow!), Jonas Salk, Jack LaLanne, William S. Burroughs, Ralph Ellison, Octavio Paz*, Alan Cranston**, Daniel J. Boorstin, and Hedy Lamarr***.

      *On various occasions I got to meet Octavio Paz in Santa Barbara, where he lived (in the 1980s). He was, of course, a great poet. But he was also one of those intellectuals who knew quite a lot about all sorts of things, including U.S. history and Mexican history, and the literature of many countries. I think he spoke 5 or 6 languages.

      **When I was a grad student at UCSD I had breakfast with Sen. Cranston (who was then a disgraced former senator) and others from my department in La Jolla. My strongest memory of that breakfast was nothing he said or did. It was that I got violently ill right after–later found out I had contracted a disease called campylobacter. It was ugly.

      ***Hedy Lamarr was a fascinating woman. Not only was she a leading lady in Hollywood, quite beautiful and a Jewess by heritage, but she was at the same time an accomplished scientist, engineer and inventor. I’ve never heard of anyone else in history who was so famous for her work in the arts and so heralded in the sciences as she was.

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