Media and the Making of Future Madibas
by Matt Meyer
Reading through well over one hundred portrayals of Nelson Mandela, and through the extensive comments made on my own “don’t mourn a myth” perspective which urged that we better understand the contradictions inherent in the man, it is hard not to conclude that few are worth a second look. If we are working towards assembling a collection of remembrances which might further the causes Mandela once championed, this month of memorials makes little contributions. Despite a fairly shallow overview in the New York Times Magazine, author Bill Keller was at least correct that Madiba was no saint, and that – in fact – it was his all-too-common human attributes of anger, aging, inconsistency and such that should make it possible for people to “aspire to his example.”
My Peace and Justice Studies Association colleague Stephen Zunes correctly asserted that Mandela’s strategic contributions to the struggle for justice in South Africa have been “oversimplified by proponents of nonviolent and armed resistance alike.” Where Zunes leans a little towards that same dichotomizing trap is in positing a three-tiered series of choices as the apartheid regime became more isolated. The capitalist establishment, Zunes argues (again correctly), believed that corporate liberalization would eventually lead to a fizzling out of apartheid worst ills; the left believed that only a bloody armed struggle would bring the racist regime to its knees. The crucial third way, unarmed civilian resistance by the African majority and their supporters, obviously won the day, and Zunes accurately chronicles some of the reasons this took place and why we should be careful to avoid the historical revisionists who have been working over-time to erase this factual conclusion. The only problem, then, with Zunes’ reflection, is the degree to which we can realistically credit these movements with “Mandela’s utilitarianism.”
For all of the citations of Mandela’s appreciation of nonviolent practitioners such as Mkhuseli Jack, there are dozens of contrasting examples of Mandela’s fondness for Mbeki or Zuma or countless other men who ended up misleading the country. This is not meant, to be sure, as a major critique of Mandela or of Zunes – just as an attempt to be clear that Mandela, while recognizing and accepting the power of the Mass Democratic Movement which had developed throughout the 1980s (it was hard for any serious analyst not to), was never a particular champion of it. One of the first acts of Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) under his direct leadership, just after the ANC’s unbanning and as Mandela himself was released from prison, was also one of its most foolish; the dismantling of the decentralized, grassroots structures which the United Democratic Front and others had built up for the betterment of the majority of South Africa’s people. This, as much as any lowering of literal weapons, amounted to a “disarming” of the movement. Mandela’s contradictions included a life-long balancing act between capitalists, nationalists, communists, nonviolent activists, and others. One could never be entirely certain about the truest allegiances of the man, though one could surmise that central to his beliefs was the idea that all of these forces had somehow to work together.
An insightful commentary on the nature of Mandela’s work comes from john powell, director of the Hass Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. Urging that “Mandela’s work is our own,” powell recounts his own tutelage under Pan African pacifist Bill Sutherland who shared in the ongoing work of building a “inclusive, rainbow society” which went beyond simple political or economic equations. Like powell, Sutherland was not just a mentor but an adopted father to this author, and his grace – like Mandela’s – made clear that the struggle for justice had to include more than militant direct actions, creative constructive programs, and a life-long commitment to the betterment of the world. The struggle requires pragmatism based on principle, an empathetic humanity and openness to the goodness of people (without losing ones strategic or critical faculties). powell also correctly cites that Mandela’s achievements must be understood in the context of other powerful figures and movements on the continent, especially the example of Tanzanian founding father Julius K. Nyerere.
The question of leadership is poignantly raised in a short but important piece by South African activist and academic Janet Cherry, who notes that though Mandela was no pacifist he was surely a master peacemaker. Cherry recounts a challenge passed on to her from a friend: “if Nelson Mandela embodies all the qualities we look for in a leader – integrity, compassion, courage, humility, among many others” why do so few others seem able to lead utilizing these characteristics? That question, though provocative, may not however be the best place to begin an analysis of Mandela and the work still needing to be done. It is likely more useful to understand how a man with the longevity of Mandela, coupled with his ability to both lead and to unite, succeeded in keeping his own political and economic views somewhat vague. To inspire and attract the diversity of people Mandela clearly calls out to, a focus on the positive personal characteristics which Cherry spotlights is the easy part. More challenging might be to ask how the warts and negative aspects of Mandela’s legacy can so easily be minimized or dismissed.
Former South African Intelligence Minister, and leading ANC and South African Communist Party official Ronnie Kasrils has been the most vocal in voicing critiques, before and after Mandela’s passing. In what Kasrils has called a “Faustian pact,” the ANC leadership under Mandela’s control “sold out South Africa’s poorest” in a bid to make a smooth transition to democracy and assuage multinational interests. Yet beyond what Kasrils notes as the failed policies and related “corruption, cronyism, and patronage” of the contemporary era, he speaks of “Mandela’s greatness” in holding together the nation – especially in the period immediately following the 1994 election. University of KwaZulu Natal’s eco-socialist Patrick Bond has asked, in noting the sadness around Mandela’s passing along with the now-clear concessions which Mandela made: “was he pushed or did he jump?” In pain-staking detail, Bond uncovers the many neoliberal connections which tie South African society to its apartheid inheritance. Concluding that there were elements both of pushing and jumping involved, Bond suggests that the fight against extreme inequality – which Mandela did not lead – is in the hands of the current generation.
Durban-based author and columnist Ashwin Desai writes poetically of Mandela’s “bravery, mistakes, wisdom, and retreat” – noting that he did what he thought he needed to do. But Desai’s description of life as an activist throughout the 1980s is unmatched. As Mandela conducted (while still formally a prisoner) secretive discussions with apartheid businessmen and politicians, Desai remembers that front-line activists knew “mass organization, the constant fear of imprisonment, the sense of a regime unable to quell rebellion, of all things possible.” A whole generation of grassroots campaigners understood that “apartheid could not imprison us,” and that everyday life included “cross-racial alliances, reading groups, all-night meetings, building one street at a time.” Though the compromises which were made as formal apartheid ended included the break-up of the organizations and rebellion of which Desai writes, and “imponderable” questions were raised about the nature of what the ANC former exiles and Mandela were negotiating in back-room deals, Desai still speaks of the “Madiba magic” which touched the entire nation. The end of crass racial classifications made it seem like the majority of the population was released from a prison of sorts, “releasing the spell cast over us for so long.”
There are lyrical rants, from Ugandan-born, British-based Musu Okwonga for instance, who writes of the ways in which many will try to turn Mandela into a “minstrel” of peace and reconciliation: “You will make out that apartheid was just some sort of evil mystical space disease that suddenly fell from the heavens and settled on us all, had us all, black or white, in its thrall, until Mandela appeared from the ether to redeem us. You will try to make Mandela a Magic Negro and you will fail. You will say that Mandela stood above all for forgiveness whilst scuttling swiftly over the details of the perversity that he had the grace to forgive. You will try to make out that apartheid was some horrid spontaneous historical aberration, and not the logical culmination of centuries of imperial arrogance.”
There is pointed rhetoric, from US-based Black Agenda Report columnist Jemina Pierre for example, who writes of the ways in which white liberal fawning over Mandela is a form of “white self-preservation” in the context of a continent which never underwent full decolonization: “True decolonization for Africa demanded no less than the full uprooting of the bifurcated colonial structure: decoupling whiteness and power. South Africa is only the most prominent and disappointing example.”
Perhaps most noteworthy though, from the pages of Waging Nonviolence (despite having neither indigenous African authors nor even a sourced quote from the mass movements), comes astute commentary from Beyond the Choir co-founder and former War Resisters staff member Jonathan Matthew Smucker. More than any single reporter, Smucker comes closest to summarizing a vital aspect of the inter-connected questions of leadership, legacy, and the apparent contradictions in Mandela’s political-economic world view. Smucker – far from an expert on Mandela, or Africa, or even revolution – hits the nail directly on the head as a thoughtful organizer who understands that Mandela the organizer made concrete choices about his image and its uses. “What can be hard to grasp,” Smucker reminds us, “is that revolutionary leaders like Mandela are often quite okay with using – and even themselves being – ambiguous [catalyzing] symbols.” The befriending of ones own jailer is not only moving, Smucker notes, but also profoundly strategic. For anyone close to political prisoners, one might add that it is also not that uncommon. Building those relationships on a larger scale is what mass organizing, as Mandela knew, is all about. “When we orient ourselves toward connecting with society,” Smucker beautifully concludes, “when we seek common ground – we get better at finding and activating more allies along the way.”
Mandela – by any means necessary – spent his entire life planning to win. Smucker correctly asserts that our current movements for social change need winners and success stories, popular heroes and heroines, and legends like Nelson Mandela. Mandela was a master at media imagery and populism; he worked hard to insure that he’d be no one groups’ property or easy symbol. Those of us seeking to derive lessons from past movements and real men would do well to read history a bit more carefully. The contradictions and ambiguities and meanings-between-the-lines just might point us to the fault lines of the cracks in the empire.
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.