Be Nelson Mandela

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.

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34 Responses to Be Nelson Mandela

  1. Tim, this is why you are one of the greatest–most insightful, most challenging, most humble, most controlled–writers in the Blogosphere. Thank you for the thoughts which this post has given this morning; they’ll stay with me all day.

  2. Withywindle says:

    With some anger, no. Tim used the occasion of Mandela’s death, among other things, to rehash his two-minute hate of me and mine. It’s a tramp-the-dirt-down moment; ugly, disfiguring.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh well, do feel free to write an essay about how you appreciatively remember Nelson Mandela as a man who would have endorsed Guantanamo and drone warfare and the invasion of Iraq.

  4. Withywindle says:

    It would disfigure me to use the death of any man I loved as an occasion to speak with anger.

  5. Jo VanEvery says:

    Thank you for expressing this so clearly.

    The graduate student in London in 1990 part made me wonder that our paths have only crossed recently and suspect that we may know many people in common. I did not study South Africa nor am I a historian, but I was working on my PhD in 1990, in Colchester (not London) with many South African friends and colleagues.

    Your post articulates for me a whole lot of inarticulable (because my knowledge is so much less detailed than yours) discomfort with the nature of the coverage of Mandela’s death.

  6. Hi Tim,

    I discovered you via this essay (RT’d by someone) and I’m so glad I did. Thank you for this honest and insightful piece.


  7. lynnhballen (@lynnhb) says:

    Thanks for this – the complexity of all of who Mandela was over the arc of his life. And the definition of what a statesman should truly be.
    I would add that he was also the product of an entire movement – he never stood politically alone nor strategised alone. The ANC leadership in those years were collective & collaborative in many ways. And that was a generation that (at their best) stood together & worked together for something larger than themselves.
    Also – the US govt did not have a great track record of ‘wanting apartheid gone’ prior to Reagan. There’s some serious proof of CIA involvement in Mandela’s capture in the early ’60s, plus years of covert support of SA as a strategic ally.

  8. “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.”
    Gladly sharing this piece with others. Thank you for writing it.

  9. Joey Headset says:

    An excellent piece. Really, the only smart thing I’ve read in the wake of Mandela’s death.

  10. En Emm says:

    A useful entry with much food for thought, although I will have to defy you at the end and dare to remove the notion of uTata as a neoliberal. I think that he re-entered society as the Berlin Wall was crumbling and Marxism’s popularity was walking out of the door. If it was up to him, he would have favored a rather less laissez-faire economic regime than the Washington Consensus. It seems that his great priority was making a success of unity and allowing his fellow walkers to plot the economic path. Some of these walkers had by then been influenced by Western bling, if I may put it that way. Here’s an anecdote: standing outside the convention center in Cape Town with one of these people, he said in semi-hushed tones that he did not join the Struggle to be poor. My poor young mind! Today he is a billionaire and maybe I lacked some vision. As a local leader I had the chance to invite another local leader to address one of my meetings. Standing outside on the pavement he surprised me with his candor about how he was going to ensure that every opportunity went through his office and his hands. I didn’t know why I deserved to know this. Today he is a national minister.

    In the coming days it will be interesting to see whether people again fault Madiba for failing to reign in the real neoliberals around him for they have popularized an ideal which has put Madiba’s goal of unity even further out of reach by failing to raise sufficient numbers from a crushing poverty.

  11. Billy Lennon says:

    Absolutely fantastic piece.

  12. David William Cohen says:

    Tim, this is very fine. Thank you. I think you have well called us to an obligation to rethink our times, our lives, our mistakes. Such hard work, but a foremost responsibility. Thanks for this.

  13. Jerry Hamrick says:

    Ausgezeichnet, Herr Doktor Burke, auszgezeichnet.

  14. Doug K says:

    just so. I also liked Juan Cole’s post, which concluded:
    “Mandela is not a birthday cake to be celebrated. The funeral with its hypocritical heads of state won’t honor him. He is a pioneer to be emulated. We honor him by standing up for justice even in the face of enormous opposition from the rich and powerful, by taking risks for high ideals. We won’t meet his standards. But if we tried, we’d make the world better. ”

    I visited Robben Island as a boy in 1967 and saw prisoners in a quarry. It’s possible Madiba was among them, but I remember only a memory.

    In the Orthodox church we say of the dead, may his memory be eternal. For the troublemaker Rolihlahla this at least is sure.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    Highest praise I could ever ask for in my life, David!

    I should have added that of course I would not have been at that Canadian conference but for the amazing, spontaneous thought that David William Cohen had to take his graduate students there. That was only one thing that started a long process of wholly unexpected transformations in my thinking and my soul. All the good ones have David Cohen somewhere in the credit column.

  16. judith burke says:

    You continue to amaze and inspire me!

  17. notsureyet says:

    When I was at university (10 year ago) I don’t remember rape being a particularly visible talking point. However recently I was mentoring a few American university students and learned from them of its heightened visibility. I wonder if this is because rapes are occurring more frequently (if so that is scary and deserves some attention particularly given the general decline in most violent crime over the past twenty years) or if it has simply become more socially acceptable to report rape or even if the definition of rape has shifted slightly over the past 50 years and particularly more recently. Any studies on this?

    As to your apprehensions about law and culture, your points are well received, but you haven’t done yourself any favour by trying to articulate them using such a sensitive topic.

  18. Timothy Burke says:

    I think you meant this comment for the other thread, notsureyet.

  19. Turkle says:

    Hi, I came here through LGM, who linked to this piece. This is by far the best piece I’ve read on Mandela, and I’ll be sharing. Thank you for writing this challenging and insightful remembrance.

  20. Patrick says:

    According to Withywindle:
    “Please be minimally polite not only to what is written here but to conservatives and Republicans in general; at the very least, phrase your critiques with civility, not venom.”

    I guess Withywindle thinks civility applies only when speaking to a conservative. The inherent prejudice is severely disturbing.

  21. notsureyet says:

    Yep, I did.

  22. Tehanu says:

    Tim Burke: I too came here from LGM and I’m impressed. I hope someday, somebody might say something of me that was 1-100th as insightful — and that maybe I’d even deserve it.

  23. Withywindle says:

    Patrick: I put that notice up after some trolls from the left started playing hit-and-run on my blog. I suppose I could rephrase it; but I’ve never found it necessary, since my commenters on the right are uniformly civil in their critiques of the left.

  24. Doug says:

    Tamp the dirt down? Charles Pierce shows how it’s done:

    “It’s too late now to seek absolution at the bier of Nelson Mandela, who is dead and can’t speak for himself. Back in the era in which you all opposed him, all you chickenhawk bastards, keeping your campus sandwich joints safe from the Sandinistas, you did so because your politics and your world view were formed in an abattoir, built on the bones of butchered civilians in El Mozote an a hundred other places, steeped in the blood of people like Sister Jean Donovan. You opposed Mandela when it really counted for the same reason you cheered on murderers in this hemisphere. Ronald Reagan was a dim hack who did horrible damage to almost everything he touched. You can own him and be welcome to him, but you don’t get Nelson Mandela.”

  25. In the provinces says:

    Like the other two of the three greatest statesmen of the second half of the twentieth century, Deng Xiaoping and Willy Brandt, Mandela was a person with very strong and very radical ideals, who realized the need for compromise and pragmatism in attempting to implement these ideals.

  26. Mirza Ghalib says:

    The anti-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela is no more. Our heartfelt condolence to the bereaved family. May God wipe away their tears and gives solace to all. May his soul rest in peace.

  27. Anna says:

    This is wonderful. Thank you. Like many other commentators, I especially appreciate the last paragraph.

  28. Ernest Ezis says:

    Your brother sent me here. I am the first to confess that I am a hard-to-please curmudgeonly bastard accustomed to disappointment. But that’s not what I found here. This is an exceptional piece of writing with sound reasoning and wonderful sentiments. Where I might differ a bit is in the final call to activism; it’s wonderful to be sure of your values and have long term plans to live up to them, but they might not be right for everyone. I value tolerance much more highly than activism and think it’s probably the right answer most of the time — activism in unextraordinary circumstance and unexceptional minds is a rather frightening thing to me. But in the extraordinary circumstances I stand with you and I am happy for our Ghandis and Mandellas. Brilliant work. It was a pleasure to read.

  29. T says:

    Withywindle: Your opinions bring me back to the first chapter of E.H Carr’s ‘What is History?’. Carr selectively criticizes a section of historians who refute the very meaning of any event or happening and are comfortably ensconced in their own bubble of what makes a difference or what does not. First of all, the whole argument about how writing on the occasion of somebody’s death is not aesthetically (or maybe spiritually) accepted to you is a frail, dead duck. A writer should have the freedom to write on anything and any occasion(be it death, birth, anything!). “It would disfigure me to use the death of any man I loved as an occasion to speak with anger.” What does that even mean? How can you discard the merits of a piece of writing on the basis of such a lame argument? This is such a comfortable weapon you employ, find the most inconsequential point and refute the whole argument . and go ahead and use ‘in my opinion’ so that nobody else in the world can refute your point because you are such a free, independent thinker and nobody has the right to question your opinion. right?

  30. If only our African leaders and the others world over could read this. An insightful piece

  31. Withywindle says:

    T: I did not attempt to refute the argument. I said this was not the time or the occasion to make it. The Westboro Baptist Church has broad freedom to speak; I do not think it decorous for it to exercise its right at funerals. You tempt me to a polemic about Carr, but that is far afield. My own comments above I think are reasonably comprehensible; although if you cannot understand them, I suppose you cannot disagree with them. I gladly submit all my writings to the judgment of all readers; I share with you a distaste for the use of the phrase “in my opinion” to ignore all contrary argument–although a dollop of uncertainty to leaven one’s certitudes never hurts.

  32. AF says:

    Deeply felt, clearly articulated, exceptional writing. The seeming contradictions of this man’s life have been raised time and again ; you’ve pieced them together into a meaningful synthesis.

  33. As a compliment to you work, if i may, here is…
    My personal tribute to:

    Madiba – Mandela
    ©2013 Reuben Tom Kee

    Madiba, Madiba – you suffered hard and long
    Proving you to be durable and strong
    Many can be said to be more skilled than you
    But not many are as forgiving and true

    Mandela , Mandela – only good words we often hear of you
    For accepting the fate thrust upon you
    To lead your people to freedom from apartheid
    Despite the 27 years that no one can hide

    Madiba, Madiba – your penchant for compassion knew no bounds
    Thankful that God gave you such virtue sound
    But under that streak of goodness alas is the grumble
    That a vast majority reap no benefit and may lead your country to a tumble

    Mandela, Mandela – here’s hoping that those you left behind
    Will tackle and solve that dilemma in due time
    The Love you fought for, among children of all race and colour
    Must continue to be priority on the roster

    Madiba, Madiba – we shall have no fear
    That the legacy you have left us to bear
    Will resonate through future generations
    Giving us hope to influence all nations

    Madiba – Mandela – rest in heaven
    Continue your dialogue – all is forgiven
    Speak with your heavenly Father
    Fight no more, this I know you’d rather!

    Ottawa, Dec 08, 2013
    ©2013 Kee Reuben
    Hill & Gully Publications

  34. Tim Muirhead says:

    Reading this at my slightly messy kitchen table, in a country who’s political debate is consistently reduced to petty squabbles about which party will make you richer, and who can be crueller to refugees, I had a moment of remembering that being human can be, if we take it on with passion, a profound and glorious challenge.

    Thanks heaps for this. A little leg up to get back on the horse of emulation.

    Tim. Australia

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