Back in 1990, Nelson Mandela, newly freed, came to Boston on a US visit to raise awareness (and money) for the continuing liberation struggle. Massachusetts was, of course, one of the heartlands of liberal support for South African freedom, even through the darkest and most racist days of Reagan. (I remember sitting in a Harvard Square cafe some years before, as a very nice white lady next to me tried to manage an ill-behaved two-year-old boy. “Bish! Bish!” she kept saying, but I didn’t know what this imprecation meant till the end of her patience arrived: she warned sternly, “You keep your hands out of that butter, Bishop Tutu McNally.”) He spoke on Boston Common, and the turnout was enormous, reinforcing the rock-star quality of the tour. I went down to hear him. I don’t remember anything he said, and I doubt anyone else there did either. Although Mandela obviously could be extremely eloquent, his US reputation even at that point was caught in an antinomy like the old divines’ dispute over Jesus: Did his teachings matter more, or his miracles?
With Mandela, the words-versus-works controversy was already settled in the miracles’ favor. The image of the man, wonder-working in his saintliness, transcended any particular message he might try to convey. What remains of the event is the picture of a small Madiba doll on stage, whose mere presence promised absolution for a myriad local sins and omissions to the worshipping, overwhelmingly white throng.
Walking back across the Common and feeling unaccountably melancholy as the crowd disbanded, I ran into a black man, dishevelled and a little drunk or stoned, who started beleaguering me. “What the fuck, do you think you own this place, asshole? That guy” — gesturing back toward the defunct convocation — “is gonna teach you a lesson. He’s gonna show the white man who rules. White people ain’t gonna rule no more, motherfucker. You think you can do what you want? Just wait.” This was in the days of ignorance, long before George Zimmerman came to earth to bring us enlightenment: I didn’t realize that I could just shoot him. Instead I got into an conversation, starting with the predictable premises: a) I am not oppressing anybody right now; b) I am here to support Mandela, because I am on the right side. I don’t recall the outcome of the discussion (though it does strike me that in those days of jahiliyya, fewer white people carried guns), but I don’t think it was productive. Even in my racially and politically rather callow state back then, however, it did occur to me that the guy had a point. Not so much in the substance of what he said, as in rather bluntly reminding me Mandela didn’t mean the same thing to everybody. Despite all the white people who insisted he stood for forgiveness — mainly, their forgiveness — there were others to whom he signified aluta continua, the struggle goes on, we are still militant while oppression still stalks the streets and parks. His person– and this was true in South Africa, too, because he could never have kept the faith of the masses without it — could channel not only love but anger. For some, he came to bring not peace but a sword.
In Minima Moralia, Adorno wrote:
Before the eighty-fifth birthday of an in all respects well cared-for man, I dreamed that I asked myself the question, what could I give him which would make him truly happy? I immediately received the answer: a guide through the realm of the dead.
As Mandela turns ninety-five, I am struck by the demands, from South Africa and elsewhere, that he refrain from dying. I too wish he could be eternal, but not like Tithonus, settling into a decay unmitigated by the consolation of mortality. The man has done everything he was put on earth to do; nothing more can be asked of him. He is sick. He needs rest.
Obviously, however, he’s more than frail flesh now, even at the end point of his frailty. He is, as he’s been for fifty years, a symbol. The insistence on his survival is also a desperate supplication that the things he came to symbolize — the possibility of dialogue, the promise of forgiveness, the example of how a civil state can be built despite a deep foundation of violence, and, of course, the state he built, South Africa — can all survive.
If they mean anything, of course, they’ll survive without him. But they’re so fragile; some of them (forgiveness, for instance) are always fragile. Bloemfontein to Boston, none of us are so at ease with facing the desolation of reality that we don’t cling to a veil of symbols to keep ourselves standing.
Yet there’s a great deal to be learned from, and about, Mandela beneath the symbol. Maybe those lessons will become more teachable (as Obama might say) once the man-as-symbol is gone. One remarkable thing is that he’s one of the twentieth century’s very few revolutionaries who also succeeded in building a democratic state. In fact, he’s almost the only one. It’s as if the talents and lives of Gandhi and Nehru cohabited in one person. Except, of course, he was never a simple Gandhian; he paid his obeisance to non-violence as an ideal, but when he saw the extent of the apartheid state’s violence, he believed in fighting back. One would have to add Subhas Chandra Bose to the mix, then, and probably plenty of others from different strands of history: from Toussaint L’Ouverture to Che, from Sandino to Lumumba. The image of Mandela we have is like one of those Baroque effigies of saints constructed to contain and conceal a jumble and diversity of relics — for he was diverse and self-contradictory, like anybody. There is no particular contradiction between his latter-day embrace of forgiveness and his long pursuit of the struggle, though. Peace was only possible when the apartheid regime abandoned power. There was no possibility it would do so peacefully. Reconciliation would only come as a consequence of resistance.
Everybody has their own Mandela. The magnificent figure of the opening statement at the Rivonia trial is a canonical one. His peroration, as he prepared to face the life sentence of which he would serve twenty-seven years, is now inscribed on the wall of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, a kind of Fiat Lux for the country as it is now:
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 with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
Audio of Mandela’s closing speech at the Rivonia treason trial, April 20, 1964
There are other objects in the reliquary, though. There is the speech he gave to the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa (PAFMECA) in Addis in 1962, a great summation of Third-Worldism adduced as “evidence” in his trials later. An internationalist all his life, he nonetheless held that people had to shoulder responsibility for their own freedom — although he knew all too clearly what ruthless violence they would face.
The view has been expressed in some quarters outside South Africa that, in the special situation obtaining in our country, our people will never win freedom through their own efforts. Those who hold this view point to the formidable apparatus of force and coercion in the hands of the government, to the size of its armies, the fierce suppression of civil liberties, and the persecution of political opponents of the regime. Consequently, in these quarters, we are urged to look for our salvation beyond our borders. Nothing could be further from the truth. …
South Africa is now a land ruled by the gun. The government is increasing the size of its army, of the navy, of its air force, and the police. Pill-boxes and road blocks are being built up all over the country. Armament factories are being set up in Johannesburg and other cities. Officers of the South African army have visited Algeria and Angola where they were briefed exclusively on methods of suppressing popular struggles. All opportunities for peaceful agitation and struggle have been closed. Africans no longer have the freedom even to stay peacefully in their houses in protest against the oppressive policies of the government. During the strike in May last year the police went from house to house, beating up Africans and driving them to work. …
But we believe it would be fatal to create the illusion that external pressures render it unnecessary for us to tackle the enemy from within. The centre and cornerstone of the struggle for freedom and democracy in South Africa lies inside South Africa itself. Apart from those required for essential work outside the country, freedom fighters are in great demand for work inside the country. We owe it as a duty to ourselves and to the freedom-loving peoples of the world to build and maintain in South Africa itself a powerful, solid movement, capable of surviving any attack by the government and sufficiently militant to fight back with a determination that comes from the knowledge and conviction that it is first and foremost by our own struggle and sacrifice inside South Africa itself that victory over White domination and apartheid can be won.
Myself, I turn to his less-famous statements when put on trial by the South African regime (for inciting resistance and for leaving the country illegally), in 1962:
I challenge the right of this court to hear my case on two grounds. Firstly, I challenge it because I fear that I will not be given a fair and proper trial. Secondly, I consider myself neither legally nor morally bound to obey laws made by a parliament in which I have no representation.
Mandela said the state and its whole apparatus of injustice was illegitimate, and he claimed the right to resist it by means corresponding to its own. The historic resonance of what he said perhaps obscures the fact that it’s not a strategic thing for a lawyer to assert in a courtroom, when the lawyer is on trial for (several years of) his own life. It effectively convicted him in advance of the treason he’d be charged with a year later. He was ready for that. He laid out the principle of resistance to immoral authority in terms even clearer than Thoreau’s:
Government violence can do only one thing, and that is to breed counter violence. We have warned repeatedly that the government, by resorting continually to violence, will breed in this country counter-violence amongst the people, till ultimately, if there is no dawning of sanity on the part of the government – ultimately, the dispute between the government and my people will finish up by being settled in violence and by force. Already there are indications in this country that people, my people, Africans, are turning to deliberate acts of violence and of force against the government, in order to persuade the government, in the only language which this government shows by its own behaviour that it understands.
Elsewhere in the world, a court would say to me, ‘You should have made representations to the government.’ This court, I am confident, will not say so. Representations have been made, by people who have gone before me, time and time again. Representations were made in this case by me; I do not want again to repeat the experience of those representations. The court cannot expect a respect for the processes of representation and negotiation to grow amongst the African people, when the government shows every day, by its conduct, that it despises such processes and frowns upon them and will not indulge in them. Nor will the court, I believe, say that, under the circumstances, my people are condemned forever to say nothing and to do nothing. If this court says that, or believes it, I think it is mistaken and deceiving itself. Men 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 of society and the good life in the ways they see it. Nor will they do so in this country.
The Mandela of resistance is the one I am remembering as he turns ninety-five. It’s not that I don’t value the legacy of comity and reconciliation — I do. But the world I choose to live in is a secular one, where forgiveness is not a transcendent obligation but a political choice.
“What would happiness be that was not measured by the immeasurable grief at what is? For the world is deeply ailing.” There is much still to resist. If that means there’s much to forgive, then resisting it comes first. In South Africa, the state Mandela built massacred 34 striking miners in Marikana last year. The state is still democratic, still open, still lawful; but it is also increasingly under the rigid hegemony of neoliberalism, looking more and more like a reserve run for the rich by the purchasable. The malls in Sandton where the white bourgeoisie used to go to get away from blacks are now where a black bourgeoisie goes, for the same reason. Nor does this make South Africa worse than or different to many other formally free polities, policed and segregated against the demanding poor. Freedom increasingly doesn’t guarantee the right to move about, the right to demonstrate, the right to vote among meaningful alternatives, even — in some primitive places that have regressed especially far, like Pennsylvania — the right to vote in the first place. Pass laws have given way to gated communities; the ethic of Sandton is the one George Zimmerman killed for. Would Mandela resist this world? Think.
Miriam Makeba, Aluta Continua