Monday, December 9, 2013

In Memoriam: Nelson Mandela 1918-2013

Political activist. African National Congress leader. World-Famous Political Prisoner. President of South Africa.

I had the honor to meet Nelson Mandela, and I heard him explain his forgiveness of his captors of 27 years by saying hatred and bitterness is destructive--the power is in love and forgiveness.

--Dick Gephardt, former U.S. congressman

Humanity has lost a tireless fighter for peace, freedom, and equality.

-- Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto

One individual can begin a movement that turns the tide of history. Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement, Mohandas [Mahatma] Gandhi in India, Nelson Mandela in South Africa are examples of people standing up with courage and non-violence to bring about needed changes.

--Jack Canfield, best-selling author of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

In the next couple days, you're likely to see a lot of quotes about the late South African freedom fighter with words such as "peace"  and "nonviolence" in them. Nelson Mandela, however, was no Gandhi, at least not in the years leading up to his arrest and decades-long imprisonment. At the time he was a co-founder and leading light of a faction within the African National Congress called Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation") or MK for short, which was dedicated to the violent overthrow of South Africa's white apartheid government.

If you're not familiar with apartheid, it was a system in which the black majority (as well as others termed "coloureds") was kept separated from the white minority, usually in the more arid and economically underdeveloped parts of the country called "homelands", where they received inferior government services, such as schooling. Blacks were only allowed to enter the pleasantly tropical white areas if they had menial jobs to perform. In a way it was just the usual contrast between the haves and have-nots that you find in most countries, including the U.S., but with one importance difference. This contrast had the force of law behind it. Pulling oneself up by the bootstrap, winning the lottery, or being named in a rich uncle's will were simply not options for the have-nots. The only upward mobility was if the well that you drew your untreated water from happened to be on top of a hill. 

As I said, Nelson Mandela and his MK cohorts hoped to change all that with armed force. Unfortunately, the white government had bigger, more powerful guns. So the freedom fighters resorted to asymmetrical warfare. They blew a lot of things up, scaring the hell out of white people. In due time, this did lead to acts of terrorism in which civilians were killed, but Mandela himself was arrested before any blood could be found on his hands. Would they have remained blood-free had he not been caught? We'll never know for sure, but his life sentence did deter him from doing anything that might have compromised his future reputation as a nonviolent peacemaker.

Nelson Mandela didn't create and wasn't even the most important person in the anti-apartheid movement before he went to prison in 1964, but he had been a rising star. Now the government wanted to extinguish that star, hoping people would forget about him. That didn't happen. The memory of him grew, and, as he was locked up for 27 years, his place of residence is what he became best known for. Blacks, and maybe even some whites, wondered about him. Had he been beaten? Literally beaten? Was he beaten? Figuratively beaten? Did he know what was going on outside? Did he care what was going on outside? Was he even still alive? They would say if he died, wouldn't they? It was years before any of those questions were answered. A mystique grew up around him. His forced retreat from public life had now ironically put him more in the public eye than ever. He became a legendary, almost mythic figure, and a living symbol of the anti-apartheid movement, which he had not been before his sentencing.

As a living symbol, he did have some competition from time to time. There was Steve Biko, who coined the term "Black is Beautiful". In 1977, he was interrogated to death by the Port Elizabeth police, and became a martyr for the cause. Admirable perhaps, but it also meant he wasn't coming back. Mandela always could. Later there was Desmond Tutu, who won a Nobel. Finally, there was the wife he left behind, Winnie Mandela, who became even more militant as time went on (she once advocated "necklacing", the practice of sticking an inner tube filled with gasoline around an enemy's shoulders and arms, and then striking it with a match; it gave a whole new meaning, if not a NASCAR trophy, to the term "burnin' rubber.")

Still it all came back to Nelson Mandela, who had yet to come back. And it wasn't just South Africans who were kept waiting. You may have thought it was too glib of me when I called Mandela a world-famous political prisoner at the top of this post, but that's exactly what he became. How far did his fame spread? All the way to what at the time was the very heart of American popular culture: The Cosby Show. Cliff and Claire's daughter gave birth to boy and girl twins named Nelson and Winnie. During sweeps yet!

Back in South Africa, the effects of apartheid and  the efforts to quell the uprisings against it had contaminated the entire country. Postpone a civil liberty here, abridge a freedom there, censure this, ban that, and, before you knew it, even WHITE PEOPLE were living under martial law. International banks stopped lending money to South Africa, and country after country drew up sanctions against it. One western nation did remain on good terms almost to the very end. I'll give you a hint. The country has in a harbor this giant statue of a woman holding a torch, kind of like what you see at the beginning of a Three Stooges short.

The new president of South Africa, F. W. de Klerk, normally a very conservative fellow, saw the situation as untenable, and decided to release Mandela, in the hope that it would calm things down. He also hoped it would demythologize the now 70-year old prisoner, that he would be somewhat diminished once people got a good look at him.

Nelson Mandela walked out of prison on February 11, 1990. He was much thinner, much more frail, then the burly former boxer who went in 27 years earlier. Prison had been hard on him. There had indeed been beatings in the early years, and several illnesses since then, including a recent bout of tuberculous. In other ways, he wasn't diminished at all. His serene manner and beatific smile (both of which belied an intelligent, calculating mind) in time would enhance his mythology, and electrify a world then in the earliest stages of the 24-hour news cycle. Mandel visited America, and, like any celebrity, did the talk show circuit. He left Ted Koeppel speechless. He spoke before both houses of Congress, flanked  by Speaker of the House Tom Foley, and Senator pro tempore (and former Klansman) Robert Bryd. He was invited to the Bush White House, which now supported the elimination of apartheid. Back home in South Africa he went from being a symbolic to an actual head of the African National Congress. It was around this time I first read comparisons--made by people who lived outside of South Africa but were mesmerized by the man's charisma--of Mandela to Gandhi, who preached nonviolence.

However, Mandela never publicly repudiated the use of violence, though he did say it should be purely defensive. A reasonable enough stance, perhaps, but it knocks him out of Gandhi's league. An aggravating factor in all this was a rival group that had cropped up called the Inkatha Freedom Party. Though, or perhaps because, both groups wanted the same thing, they sometimes spent more time inflicting harm to each other than their white opposition. Those were bloody days indeed.

Fortunately, such days passed. Even if he refused to come right out and say it, by most accounts Mandela genuinely wanted South Africa's political transformation to be a peaceful one. Such nonviolent forms of opposition as nationwide strikes--turns out there were quite a lot of menial jobs that needed to be performed--soon got de Klerk and Mandela sitting opposite each other at the negotiation table, earning both men the Nobel Peace Prize. All-race elections were held, and Mandela became South Africa's first black president.

If Mandela was no Gandhi, as President he was no Robespierre, either. Wishing to avoid a post-apartheid Reign of Terror, he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated abuses by both the former white government AND the ANC, relying on individual amnesties in order to do so. One of the persons who didn't fare all that well was Winnie Mandela, accused, and later convicted (with a suspended sentence) of orchestrating the death of a township youth she suspected of being an informer. Nelson and Winnie eventually divorced (shhh--don't tell the Huxtables.)

Though some have suspected, and others have downright accused, Nelson Mandela of being a Bolshevik at heart, there was no confiscation of property. While he did introduce some modest forms of progressive taxation, the rich remained rich, and they repaid that favor by not taking their capital out of the country.

Mandela was president for a single four-year term. While he couldn't solve a lot of the country's many problems, such as crime or AIDS,  neither did he run it into the ground. Though plenty of whites fled the country following the end of apartheid, it seems many more have decided to stick it out (statistics vary.) Or, if you will, look at that OTHER African country that used to have apartheid, Zimbabwe, formally called Rhodesia. There but for the grace of Mandela could've gone South Africa.

By putting Nelson Mandela in prison, where he had time to think, reflect, and, I suspect, strategize, the white apartheid government inadvertently turned him into Mahatma Gandhi, or as close to Gandhi as he would ever likely get, thus dooming their whole immoral system.

Some beating they gave him, huh?




  1. His 'Long Walk to Freedom' might be the best, most interesting autobiography I've ever read

    1. Given all the time he spent in prison, I imagine much of that walking was in circles. Thanks for commenting, notacynic.

    2. That's what made it so long, I guess. He couldn't go in a straight line ...

      ; )