Let’s Not Mourn a Myth
by Matt Meyer
As the world joins together in celebrating the life of Nelson R. Mandela, South Africa’s “Madiba” who symbolizes freedom and dignity in every corner of the planet, let us not make the too-easy mistake of constructing an icon rather than honoring a man. He was, after all, a rather heroic although complicated man — with almost one-third of his life spent as a political prisoner who refused to bend on his most basic beliefs and strategies yet lived to lead a mass movement of international dimensions which put a number of those beliefs into practice.
The mythology comes when we forget about the complications, smooth over the rough edges which actually make his story most meaningful for those looking to continue building movements for lasting and radical social change. Those who support the status quo, or who remain largely ignorant of or uninterested in the history of struggle, can be expected to revel in the over-simplifications; there can be no sympathy, however, for those who knowingly ignore one side of Mandela’s legacy to callously and opportunistically proclaim and showcase another. Madiba was, for example, a true champion of peace and reconciliation — an admirer of Gandhi and nonviolence (who tried out and perfected his earliest “experiments with truth” fighting injustice in South Africa). He was also, of course, a strong advocate of armed struggle, spending twenty-seven years in jail primarily for refusing to have the African National Congress (ANC) he led set down their weapons or ideological commitment to use of arms so long as the racist apartheid regime was armed to the teeth; he was not imprisoned simply for wanting Africans to have the right to vote. He was an adherent of democratic socialism who quickly compromised some fundamental aspects of the ANC’s Freedom Charter to allow for capitalist enterprise to play a large role in post-apartheid South Africa. One could argue that Mandela played a significant role in the development and advancement of neoliberal policies over the past twenty years, encouraging multinational corporations to profit off of a mineral-rich country whose majority of citizens are still dirt poor; one would have to also recognize that for most of his life his closest friends and advisors were members of the South African Communist Party, some of whom maintained Stalinist positions on economics and organization till the time of their deaths.
Those who called Mandela friend, of course, include raging imperialists (Barack Obama and Bill Clinton to name just two), but also included leaders of the Palestinian liberation movement, Fidel Castro and indigenous leaders throughout Latin America and Asia, grassroots peoples movements who gained inspiration from his commanding presence and progressive vision. Mandela liked to remind people, for example, that Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was also a friend of his, one he would not give up so easily even as the world seemed to revile him. Gaddafi supported the anti-apartheid movement during some of its lowest, least popular times, and Mandela would not forget that. Almost every Head of State who met Mandela, and every member of civil society who had that opportunity too, are trotting out their photos and reminding us of the diversity of ways in which he influenced people — from petty dictators to the most revolutionary of matriarchal eco-socialists. Mandela was, after all, part Winnie as well as part Graca, part anarchistic rebel part diplomatic statesman, both compromiser and man of principle, all rolled into one.
It has been written, by others and me as well, that Madiba was the world’s most famous political prisoner — but of course he was so much more than that. Nevertheless, it is a plain truth that he often reminded all the peoples he encountered that it was by looking at the way a country treats its prisoners which reveals the true characteristics of its rule. Twenty-first century USA, currently incarcerating men of African descent at five times of the rate of apartheid South Africa, is not faring too well in that respect. It is much more than rhetorical flourish when we link Mandela’s life to those still languishing under torturous conditions behind bars; senior citizen Russell Maroon Shoatz of the Black movement of Pennsylvania in the 1970s (!), for example, has spent almost as many years in continuous solitary confinement as Mandela spent altogether in jail. The US movements to free all political prisoners understand what so many in the Global South know well, but so many in the Northern and eastern parts of the planet try hard to forget: that these prisoners hold the key to our legacies of resistance. Forgotten, they enable right-wing and fascist movements to intensify repression against popular efforts for peace and freedom; remembered and fought for, they provide short-cuts and invaluable histories for advancing new levels of struggle (especially if, like Shoatz, they continue to engage in and write about the lessons we must learn to make the world a better place). Perhaps it is that link to the best of human history that has made Mandela more than just the world’s most famous political prisoner, but the world’s most famous face.
Perhaps in some ways Mandela is the world’s first post-modern revolutionary. Resting comfortably between strategies and ideologies — between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King — Mandela defies the old dichotomies which falsely turned tactical differences into divisive polar opposites. Today, young South African activists — typified by the dynamic (and persecuted) Abahlali baseMjondolo Shackdwellers Movement — understand that it is their responsibility to press beyond supposed past contradictions, and create economic justice on a scale only imagined and talked about but never implemented by Mandela and his comrades. Just beyond tomorrow, in early July 2014, Africans from across the continent will converge on the Cape Town City Hall to press for an end to all war and the causes of war, for gender justice and lesbian and gay liberation and a Pan-African borne peace. Bandile Mdlalose, the Secretary-General of Abahlali baseMjondolo, put it this way when mourning the death of ‘the light of the nation.’ “To hell with protocol,” she wrote. “The only way for our generation to fulfill Mandela’s dream is to take power into our own hands. Together we must turn this country into a revolutionary democracy.”
Memories without Myth
The following two vignettes, written immediately after the passing of “our” dear Madiba, chronicles two experiences this author had with welcoming the man to New York City and meeting the man in Johannesburg. Though Mandela was many things, he was not a New Yorker … but I think my home-town Daily News got it correct when they headlined his passing with the words “Farewell, dear friend.”
Mandela in Harlem, 1990
Remembering Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the USA some months after his release from prison brings back many thrilling moments … but none beats the Harlem street rally, where secret service and official US governmental “protection” met We, the People energy in the Black capital of the empire. Unbeknownst to everyone at the time, Mandela was still on the US terrorist list; he never did denounce armed struggle. Harlem was out in force and ready to greet the great man, but some troubling behind-the-scenes rumblings were reverberating, especially for those of us who had just begun to have some successes in getting word to a new generation of folks about the then-fairly unrecognized fact that there are over 100 US political prisoners in jails throughout the country. A visit from the planet’s best-known political prisoner was too great an opportunity to pass up.
The days in preparation for the outdoor Harlem gathering had already been filled with tension. Mayor David Dinkins, in a disastrous splitting move that would later haunt his political career, insulted several Puerto Rican former political prisoners from the 1950s (the contemporary generation were all still behind bars at this time) by making it clear that they would not be welcomed on the podium with Mandela. Our best bet, though, for direct spotlighting of the cause was the extraordinarily dynamic, recently-freed Black Panther militant Dhoruba Bin-Wahad. If anyone could excite Harlem, connect with Mandela, and send a message that all people concerned with peace, justice and human rights had to face the reality that the US political prisoners deserved immediate release, it was Dhoruba. Beloved Harlem organizer and historian Elombe Brath, who was the emcee and coordinator for the celebration, finally made it all possible. Just before Mandela was to speak, Dhoruba would be brought to the podium and introduced by Elombe, who would highlight Dhoruba’s own 19 years of incarceration after a Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) frame-up.
Dhoruba strode mighty to the stage; he was even wearing what came to be thought of as a “Mandela” shirt: unique patterns and colors crossing between worlds and eras. Looking at the crowd and at Mandela himself, Dhoruba recounted his own years of struggle and incarceration–but mainly spoke of the many political prisoners still behind bars, from resistance movements willing to truly confront US imperialism and colonialism. At the end of his speech, the crowd excited to hear Mandela but just as thrilled by Dhoruba’s bold message, he led us in the bold chant “WE WILL NOT GIVE UP THE FIGHT” to free all US political prisoners. All of us in the streets were already on our feet; there were no chairs or seats at this street rally. At the perfect pitched moment, however, Mandela himself rose from his front row chair on the podium, right between Winnie and Dhoruba, and hugged our Panther spokesperson as the assembled masses cheered.
Then, as now, there is much work to be done — from South Africa to gentrified south Harlem and beyond. Then, as now, there are prisoners to be freed, whole peoples to be liberated. Then, as now, WE WILL NOT GIVE UP THE FIGHT!!
Meeting Mandela in Johannesburg
It was more than a little odd, traveling to the land we had both so long boycotted — veteran WWII conscientious objector and Pan African pacifist Bill Sutherland for his decades as a people’s ambassador for entire generations (and representative of organizations such as War Resisters International and the American Friends Service Committee), me since my coming of age in the early 1980s, part of the Columbia University divestment campaign and a burgeoning anti-imperialist. But the movement — the African National Congress (ANC) — had insisted; we were touring the continent conducting dialogues for our joint project and book, Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation (2000). So, with ANC’s explicit permission (and a diplomatic nod to our comrades in the Pan African Congress as well), Bill and I crossed into South Africa two years after Mandela’s triumphant release from prison and two years before his even more triumphant election as first president of an electorally democratic South Africa. It was the height of the Mass Democratic Movement, the newest incarnation of the grassroots, multifaceted United Democratic Front (UDF), and we were meeting with friends of both of ours–Zwelakhe Sisulu, Dr. Ivan Toms, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, Ela Gandhi, End Conscription Campaign cohorts Laurie Nathan and Gavin Evans and Richard Steele and Anita Kromberg, comrades in the South African Council of Churches and iconic sheroes like Sister Emma Mashinini.
But that particular afternoon was special: we were spending the day at ANC headquarters in JoBurg, with a long scheduled interview with ANC Deputy President and Mandela’s legal partner, Walter Sisulu. The timing was not coincidental, as at one point the interview was interrupted so the wonderful OR Tambo could join us, along with Walter’s wife and former UDF co-chair Albertina Sisulu. After the excitement of that reunion (Bill had for years provided hospitality at his Tanzanian home to Tambo and national liberation movement leaders from Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozanbique and so on…but those were the days when Mandela and Sisulu were still behind bars and Tambo didn’t dare enter the land of his birth), another interruption took place. We were to leave the comfort of Papa Sisulu’s office and greet the ANC National Executive Committee, about to go into session. It was a who’s who of a part of South African politics, as Bill and I were led round the circle to shake hands with the gathered leadership – including Cyril Ramaphosa, Joe Slovo, and so many others. At the end of the line, however, standing just outside the room, Mandela towered over us all. It was far from just his height; it was his stature. In his calm, steady, regal voice, he greeted us, thanked us for coming to his country, for working for his freedom, for joining in the continued work for his people.
By this time in our travels, I had met, interviewed and spent time with many striking and notable people, including some rather impressive Nobel Peace laureates, Presidents, Prime Ministers, trade unionists, musicians, revolutionaries. But Mandela, for all his very human qualities, stood out. It was all I could do to quietly ask Bill if it might OK to snap a few pictures. This is one of the only times, in a routine which was familiar to the two of us where photos would be taken, books inscribed, with small talk leading to serious dialogues on strategies and tactics, that I felt too awed to ask to get in one photo. There was a special respect, not quite reverence but not familiarity either, that seemed to reverberate across the walls. As we said our good-byes so Madiba could go off to his meeting and we could return to our interview with his life-long best friend, I got my confirmation that I was hardly the only one who felt that way in the man’s presence. Ramaphosa, who was himself Secretary-General of the ANC at that time (before Mandela had any particular title in the party or the government) stood alongside of his elder to whisper some ideas about an agenda item in the old man’s ear. His salutation to his colleague? “Greetings, Mr. President.”
We can be sure that the work for an end to economic apartheid is far from completed in South Africa, and that the call to free all political prisoners has not been met. But those ongoing struggles and others must now take a moment to pay homage to Madiba — our imperfect, inspiring, challenging man. Long Live Nelson Mandela! Long live all freedom fighters!!
Matt Meyer is an educator-activist based in New York City, and serves as convener of the War Resisters International Africa Working Group. His recent books include Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation (Africa World Press, 2000), the two-volume collection Seeds of New Hope: Pan African Peace Studies for the 21st Century (Africa World Press, 2008, 2010), and Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U. S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008). Meyer is a contributing member of the Editorial Advisory Board for New Clear Vision.