The real Mandela: Don’t let
his legacy be abused
By John Wight
December 07, 2013 The manner in which Nelson Mandela’s legacy is being misinterpreted and appropriated is an obscenity. This has been brought into sharp focus in the immediate aftermath of his passing.
The driving force and inspiration of the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa, Mandela was a man driven by a fierce belief in justice as the universal right of all people – regardless of race, religion, nationality or wealth. He stood utterly opposed to the notion that justice is a gift of the rich and powerful, either in South Africa or anywhere in the world. This makes it all the more nauseous to witness the likes of Tony Blair and David Cameron issuing public tributes to him. While Nelson Mandela was a champion of the dispossessed and oppressed throughout his life, people such as Blair and Cameron are servants of the rich.
Likewise, the sight of President Obama paying giving a public eulogy in Washington also reflects hypocrisy. The only thing that Nelson Mandela had in common with Barack Obama was the color of his skin. Other than that, along with Tony Blair and David Cameron, Obama is a moral dwarf compared to a man who endured untold privation and hardship during the struggle against apartheid, especially as Obama is the CEO of an empire the barbarity and violence of which is unparalleled in human history.
The current US President’s visit to Robben Island earlier this year came at a time when prisoners incarcerated at Guantanamo were engaged in a hunger strike, demanding an end to the harsh conditions they are subjected to. The fact that Guantanamo still exists at all as an offshore US penal establishment, where hundreds of prisoners are being held in a state of legal limbo, is an indictment of Obama’s presidency. Worse is the drone war he has waged throughout the Global South, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians, including women and children.
But even for the rest of us, the danger of misinterpreting Nelson Mandela’s legacy is clear. Regarding him solely as the benign and universally loved elder statesman that he certainly became in his later years would be a travesty. When engaged in the struggle for the freedom of his people, Nelson Mandela was a lion who refused to countenance any compromise when it came resisting the evil of apartheid. As a consequence he was widely reviled by many of those who are now seeking to outdo each other in eulogizing the man upon his death.
In the UK, Thatcher and the Tories regarded Nelson Mandela as a terrorist, while the current Prime Minister, David Cameron in 1989 accepted an all-expenses paid trip to apartheid South Africa while Mandela was still in prison, funded by a firm that was lobbying against the trade and economic sanctions that played a key role in finally bringing apartheid to an end one year later. Cameron’s visit was manna from heaven for an apartheid regime desperately seeking allies around the world at the very point when its legitimacy was crumbling.
While we’re at it, it would be immoral to airbrush from history the peoples and nations that stood with Mandela and the ANC when their struggle wasn’t the cause celebre it later became in the West. Prime among those is Fidel Castro, the first leader Mandela visited after being released from prison in 1990. Cuba’s role in defeating the South African apartheid forces in Africa in the late 1980s Mandela always acknowledged as a seminal moment in the destroying the myth of white superiority.
Mandela said of Cuba’s solidarity with his people:
The former Soviet Union supplied the ANC with money and weapons at a time when the West was a strong supporter of the apartheid government in South Africa, as did the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. During a speech he gave in Libya in 1999, just before retiring from political office, Mandela said:
“Long live the Cuban Revolution. Long live comrade Fidel Castro… Cuban internationalists have done so much for African independence, freedom and justice. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of a vicious imperialist campaign designed to destroy the advances of the Cuban revolution. We too want to control our destiny… There can be no surrender. It is a case of freedom or death. The Cuban revolution has been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people. “
“It was pure expediency to call on democratic South Africa to turn its back on Libya and Qaddafi, who had assisted us in obtaining democracy at a time when those who now made that call were the friends of the enemies of democracy in South Africa. Had we heeded those demands, we would have betrayed the very values and attitudes that allowed us as a nation to have adversaries sitting down and negotiating in a spirit of compromise. It would have meant denying that the South African experience could be a model and example for international behavior.”
Nelson Mandela and everything he stood for was once vilified and despised by many of those who are now paying tribute to him upon his death. In this regard, history doesn’t lie.
John Wight is a writer and commentator specializing in geopolitics, UK domestic politics, culture and sport.
In the desire to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s life — an iconic figure who triumphed over South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime — it’s tempting to homogenize his views into something everyone can support. This is not, however, an accurate representation of the man.
Mandela was a political activist and agitator. He did not shy away from controversy and he did not seek — or obtain — universal approval. Before and after his release from prison, he embraced an unabashedly progressive and provocative platform. As one commentator put it shortly after the announcement of the freedom fighter’s death, “Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel. Over the next few days you will try so, so hard to make him something he was not, and you will fail. You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X. You will try to hide his anger from view.”
As the world remembers Mandela, here are some of the things he believed that many will gloss over.
1. Mandela blasted the Iraq War and American imperialism. Mandela called Bush “a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly,” and accused him of “wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust” by going to war in Iraq. “All that (Mr. Bush) wants is Iraqi oil,” he said. Mandela even speculated that then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan was being undermined in the process because he was black. “They never did that when secretary-generals were white,” he said. He saw the Iraq War as a greater problem of American imperialism around the world. “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care,” he said.
2. Mandela called freedom from poverty a “fundamental human right.” Mandela considered poverty one of the greatest evils in the world, and spoke out against inequality everywhere. “Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times — times in which the world boasts breathtaking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation — that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils,” he said. He considered ending poverty a basic human duty: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life,” he said. “While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”
3. Mandela criticized the “War on Terror” and the labeling of individuals as terrorists without due process. On the U.S. terrorist watch list until 2008 himself, Mandela was an outspoken critic of President George W. Bush’s war on terror. He warned against rushing to label terrorists without due process. While forcefully calling for Osama bin Laden to be brought to justice, Mandela remarked, “The labeling of Osama bin Laden as the terrorist responsible for those acts before he had been tried and convicted could also be seen as undermining some of the basic tenets of the rule of law.”
4. Mandela called out racism in America. On a trip to New York City in 1990, Mandela made a point of visiting Harlem and praising African Americans’ struggles against “the injustices of racist discrimination and economic equality.” He reminded a larger crowd at Yankee Stadium that racism was not exclusively a South African phenomenon. “As we enter the last decade of the 20th century, it is intolerable, unacceptable, that the cancer of racism is still eating away at the fabric of societies in different parts of our planet,” he said. “All of us, black and white, should spare no effort in our struggle against all forms and manifestations of racism, wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head.”
5. Mandela embraced some of America’s biggest political enemies. Mandela incited shock and anger in many American communities for refusing to denounce Cuban dictator Fidel Castro or Libyan Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who had lent their support to Mandela against South African apartheid. “One of the mistakes the Western world makes is to think that their enemies should be our enemies,” he explained to an American TV audience. “We have our own struggle.” He added that those leaders “are placing resources at our disposal to win the struggle.” He also called the controversial Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat “a comrade in arms.”
6. Mandela was a die-hard supporter of labor unions. Mandela visited the Detroit auto workers union when touring the U.S., immediately claiming kinship with them. “Sisters and brothers, friends and comrades, the man who is speaking is not a stranger here,” he said. “The man who is speaking is a member of the UAW. I am your flesh and blood.”