It is 1981 and I am writing my first long research paper ever in my high school government class on why the U.S. government and U.S. institutions need to commit more aggressively to fighting apartheid. I am citing a report that says if apartheid isn’t ended soon through a negotiated process, it will collapse in a revolutionary bloodbath in which tens of thousands will die. The Reagan Administration has already expressed its lack of interest in pressuring South Africa, though it had no problem applying sanctions to Poland. I spend a good portion of my research reading about Nelson Mandela and the ANC.
It is 1985 and I’m speaking at a student rally against apartheid, as one of two student representatives to the Board of Trustees who have been pushing for divestment. Somewhere the Special AKA’s song “Free Nelson Mandela” is playing.
It is 1988 and I’m a graduate student starting to focus my interest on southern African history, attending a conference in Canada that has numerous participants from South Africa whose presence was financed in part by the Canadian government as a sign of its commitment to the anti-apartheid movement. Many of the speakers and attendees had been members of the United Democratic Front, which had been the key driver of internal struggle against apartheid during the 1980s. Some of them have recently been in jail. The mood at the conference is pessimistic, even despairing. Activists have been murdered, beaten and tortured with increasing frequency and boldness and the state seemed to have successfully suppressed the momentum of mass protest. One speaker says, “This phase of the struggle is over. Our children may see the end of apartheid, but we will not.” Mandela has been involved in secret negotiations with the apartheid leadership for years but no one at the conference knows that or at least could say that they knew it.
It’s 1990 and I’m working on my dissertation in London. Mandela is going to walk free of prison that day and I’m watching it on the TV and damn if I’m not crying freely. Not long after I arrived in London in October 1989, the Berlin Wall had begun to crumble. Suddenly everything impossible is happening.
It’s 1991 and I’m visiting South Africa for the first time, taking a break from my research in Zimbabwe. My dissertation topic had been imagined in 1988 with South Africa in mind at first, but I decided due to the academic boycott that I should work in Zimbabwe instead. My friend’s house is full of the excitement of exiles returning and friends being released from jail. I have a great conversation with a sweet, gentle physicist who tells me about how his complicated plan to set off a small symbolic explosion in a famous building (avoiding casualties) landed him in jail when he told the wrong person about it. I’m told gleefully that one of my circle of friends in my graduate program actually helped to write an iconic line in Mandela’s 1990 speech about the violence in Natal.
It’s 1998 and I’m in South Africa again. I’m in the first trembles of a long slide into middle-age regret and re-examination, and confessing to one of my South African friends about how embarrassed I feel by some of my more romantic and naive perceptions of the struggle against apartheid and African nationalism in general. (I’ve just been in Zimbabwe again, which was a very different place in 1998 than in 1991.) I confide that I’m not sure I have any heroes any longer, and feel stupid that I ever should have had them. My friend, who had been involved directly in the internal struggle of the 1980s and has spent time with some of the political leadership of the new South Africa, says, “It’s foolish to have heroes. Though it’s perfectly fine to have people you like and don’t like, people you trust and don’t trust.” You could like Walter Sisulu or Cyril Ramaphosa, you could hate Ronnie Kasrils, says my friend. Mandela is too remote and protected for my friend to think of as someone you like or don’t like, though there was a warmth, charm and humility there too real to be faked.
Like many of us, perhaps more than some if less than others, I’ve grown up with Nelson Mandela somewhere in the frame of my life. Which is why it seems important to me to get him right now as everyone scrambles now to claim that they always were on his side and he was always on theirs. That claim is not just a preoccupation of outsiders. That scramble has been underway in South Africa for years, arguably ever since his presidency ended. And for the most part, people, including some of his heirs, get him wrong, and usually because they can’t afford to get him right.
They get him wrong because he offered in his life to be gotten not-quite-right. To be just enough the man and leader his possible and committed allies needed him to be, to throw a rope to those who needed him to be revolutionary, to be a saint, to be a moderate, to be a nonracialist, to be a nationalist, to be angry or sad, to be statesmanlike. To throw that rope and let any who would climb on board.
That speaks to something I suppose we could call pragmatism. But that implies a kind of insincerity, a manipulator’s willingness to tell people what they want to hear. Mandela had his eyes all the time on his goals, and what he said and did were not just a means to that end but the end itself.
So he was a strategist. This, too, is a commonplace thing to say about Mandela. More than a few of the well-prepared obituaries that have been circulating since yesterday afternoon have repeated Ahmed Kathrada’s oft-told tale of a three-day chess game that Mandela played against a new detainee on Robben Island, until his opponent surrendered. But this too isn’t quite right, if it’s meant to confer superhuman acuity on Mandela. As he himself was quick to say for much of his life, he made a great many mistakes as both leader and man. The ANC’s approach to the political struggle in South Africa, whether under the active leadership of Mandela and his circle or not, has been full of bone-headed moves. Mandela’s commitment to the armed struggle was a strategic necessity and a political masterstroke, but the actual activities of MK were mostly a sideshow to the real revolution fought in the townships after 1976. It’s not as if Mandela sat down and said, “Ok, so now I go into jail for 27 years and come out a statesman”. His life as both revolutionary and president was, as any political life is, a series of improvisations and accidents.
His improvisations were far more gifted than most, in part because of his disciplined approach to political selfhood. That’s the thing that made Mandela’s strategy and his adaptations stand out. All of his selves and words and decisions were an enactment of the enduring nation he meant to live in some day. I think that is the difference between him and many of his nationalist contemporaries who ascended to power in newly independent African states between 1960 and 1990. (This, too, needs remembering today: Mandela came to nationalism in the same historical moment as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba, Kenneth Kaunda, and so on.) The difference is that Mandela was always looking through the struggle to its ultimate ends, whereas most of the nationalists could see little further than the retreat of the colonial powers from the continent and the defeat of any local political rivals. Perhaps that was because Mandela and his closest allies, even during the Youth League’s insurgency against the old ANC leadership, could see that the endgame of apartheid could never be as simple as making a colonizer go back home. Perhaps it is just that he was a better person, a bigger man, a greater leader than most of them.
Or indeed, most of all the leaders of his time in this respect: to keep a long view of the world he ultimately thought his people, all people, should live in. He is the head of his class on a global scale, standing tall not just above his African contemporaries but above most other nationalists and certainly above the neoliberal West, whose leaders seem almost embarrassed to have ever thought about politics as the art of shaping a better future for all.
I suppose as a historian that my knee should jerk at any invocation of the great-man theory and cite the masses and parties and structures that brought Mandela to power. And as a lightly depressive middle-aged man attached to my comforts, I should embrace my friend’s warnings against having heroes. At least Mandela can no longer disappoint anyone who lionizes him, not that he ever did. That is perhaps most of all what we all admire about him: that with every opportunity in the world, structural and personal, to stumble on feet of clay after 1990, he never did. (Winnie Madikizela-Mandela begs to differ, I know.)
But that knee won’t jerk and perhaps I can still have a hero or two. The problem with the wave of admiring appraisals of Mandela as hero and great man is not that he was not a hero or great man. The problem with those celebrations (even before Mandela’s death) is that few of them oblige the people offering them to rethink anything at all about their own times, their own lives, their own mistakes. At best, they occasion the grudging admission, “I thought he was a terrorist or a revolutionary, but it turns out he was a great man.” But put one foot in front of the other and soon you’ll be walking out the door: the next step might be to recognize that he was a terrorist and a revolutionary and a great man.
A characteristic weakness of empires is that they have a hard time telling friends from enemies. Nations have to work to turn citizens within their borders into dehumanized outsiders. Empires, on the other hand, hardly know how to distinguish between grifters who are just taking the empire for whatever it’s willing to give and friends whose autonomous, authentic pursuit of their own political ends happens to coincide with the long-term interests and values of the empire. So the United States and England and France, for example, dumped treasure and spilled blood for Mobutu and Banda and Bokassa and Houphouet-Boigny in all the years of Mandela’s ANC leadership and then imprisonment. And all the while in its secret counsels and whispered conversations, the West was mostly content with its conclusion: Mandela was or would be a dangerous man, and the ANC a dangerous party. From the 1960s on, the U.S. and U.K. wanted apartheid gone (at least until Reagan, when anything that was not communism was good, and perhaps even better if it was sufficiently authoritarian to hold the line) but there were few in those governments seeing the great man in Mandela.
So of course it sticks in the craw to hear those who would have condemned Mandela (and those who did condemn him through word and deed) now speak of his greatness. But again, the point is not to say, “You were wrong this once, because this man”. It is to say, “You are often wrong, and not just because your judgement of individual greatness is wrong.” You are wrong when you can’t be bothered to hear from people who would have been, who were, your friends when they come to testify about how your drones killed their families, wrong when you spy on anyone going into a mosque in New York City, wrong when you let some mid-rank bureaucrat or think-tank enfant play the role of policy-wonk Iago who whispers to you which friends to murder or neglect. You are wrong when you pretend that from Washington or London you can sort and sift through who ought to be allowed to win desperate struggles for freedom and justice and who should not, and wrong when you arm and forgive and advise the same kind of grifters who take your money and laugh all the way to the torture chambers.
You were wrong then and now because you won’t let yourself see a Mandela. But also because you think that the privilege of making a Mandela belongs to the empire. This in the end is his final legacy: that he, and his closest colleagues, and the people in the streets of Soweto, and maybe even a bit (though not nearly so much as they themselves would like to think) the global allies of the anti-apartheid struggle, all of that made Mandela. Mandela made himself, much as he in his humility would always insist that he was made by the people and was their servant.
When you say, “He was a great statesman”, credit what that means. It means that he looked ahead, kept his eyes on the prize, and tried to do what needed doing, whether that meant taking up arms, or playing chess, or making a friendly connection with a potentially friendly jailer. If you’re going to say it, then credit first that there might be great leaders (and great movements) where you right now see only terrorism or revolution or disorder. That so many people were wrong about Mandela should at least allow for that much.
Don’t forget that it wasn’t just the Cold War leadership of the West that was wrong. Other African nationalists were wrong: many forget that for a time, the PAC had a serious chance of being taken as the legitimate representative of the aspirations of South Africans. Of course, some of them were perfectly right about Mandela and that’s why they hated him both early and late, because he had a far-sightedness and a realistic vision of a world that could be that they lacked. For someone like Robert Mugabe, the most unforgiveable thing about Mandela is that having power, he gave it up. And those on the left who just want to remember Mandela the revolutionary have to remember that Mandela the neoliberal was largely the same man, with the same political vision.
What no one really wants to see is Mandela the builder, because nowhere in that sight can we find our own reflection.
That’s why he seems like such a lonely giant, mourned by all, imitated by none. Because who now can boast of a long-term view of the future? Who is looking past the inadequacies of the moment to a better dispensation? Who really works to see and imagine a place, a nation, a world in which we might all want to live and then plots the distance between here and there? Some of us know what we despise, we know the shape of the boot on our neck or the weight on our shoulders. Some of us know what we fear: the shadow of a plane falling on a skyscraper, the cough of a bomb exploding, the loss of an ease in the world. We know how to feel a hundred daily outrages at a stupid or bad thing said, how to gesture at the empty spaces where a vision once resided, how to sneer at our splitters and wankers, how to invest endless energies in demanding symbolic triumphs that lead nowhere and build nothing. Our political leaders (and South Africa’s, too) have no vision beyond the next re-election and their retinues of pundits and experts and appointees are happy to compliment and flatter the vast expanses of their nakedness in return for a share of the spoils.
Mourn the statesman and the revolutionary and the terrorist and the neoliberal and the ethicist and the pragmatist and the saint and don’t you dare try to discard or remove any part of that whole. Celebrate him? Sure, but then make sure you’re willing to consider emulating him.