Remembering Mandela as a man more than his quotes.
By Samantha Thompson
I remember when I first learned about Nelson Mandela. Fittingly, I was in South Africa. We were in Soweto, one of the nation’s better-known townships, which was where Mandela used to live. I had heard much about Mandela since arriving in Johannesburg, but it was in that moment that I felt as though I had finally caught a glimpse of what Mandela meant to South Africa. From the house I went to Robben Island, and peered into the cell that imprisoned Mandela for 18 years. It was clear to me then, that Mandela had fought long and hard for what he believed in.
There is no leader of a country, past or present, that compares to Mandela. Not specifically in his actions, but how much love so many of the people I met held for him—it was unrivalled by anything else I’ve ever seen. Unlike most world leaders, and Raffi, I never met Mandela. But yet I left South Africa determined to learn everything I could about the man. He inspired me at a very young age, as he did for many people around the globe. There is no question that his influence on South Africa and the world was great.
However, one of the most dangerous things that can happen with the death of revolutionaries like Mandela is the media’s (and politicians, etc.) innate ability to portray only the side that provides comfort to the people. Mandela was one of the “nation’s greatest heroes,” he was “brave,” and Harper called him one of the world’s “great moral leaders.” He is made out to be a sort of symbol of the state, but when he first started fighting the system, he was called a terrorist.
Some of his most quotable quotes emphasize his love for peace and reconciliation, and these are values he held dearly throughout his life. In the media coverage surrounding his death, his non-violent approach to change was emphasized. However, Mandela’s journey as a revolutionary was not entirely peaceful—it couldn’t be. He was fighting against powerful forces, and at the time the idea of people of colour being made equal to whites was outrageous.
When we remember him only as someone who achieved great change with peaceful actions, it is a disservice to all he fought for, and all he went through. Mandela was committed to non-violent protest, but eventually he cofounded a militant group called Umkhonto we Sizwe, which planned on overthrowing the apartheid government. He reached a point in his advocacy where non-violent means were no longer an option, which sadly is frequently what happens in many of the world’s most famous fights for human rights. In these earlier years Mandela was extremely controversial, and it was not until he was released from prison that his activism began to be internationally recognized. Even then, he remained on the Terrorist Watch List in the U.S. until 2008.
Unfortunately, the privileged voices that write history will remember him in a way that does not encourage revolution or uprising. It happens with any revolutionary who is remembered fondly in history. Those who aren’t, like Malcolm X for example, are portrayed of lovers of violence even if they only resorted to violence because they felt it was the only available option. With Malcolm X, he wasn’t always a proponent of violence as a means of sparking change. But he looked at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s peaceful protests, and felt they were too easily ignored by America. Although King now is remembered as an American hero (even though he, too, suffered the trials of historical misrepresentation of ideals post-mortem), it can be argued that X’s approach to the civil rights movement enabled King to accomplish what he did with peaceful means—the government, in particular, saw him as a less radical alternative to X that they could actually work with. Without X, it is very probable that King would not have been successful in his quest for equality.
A blog called Class Snuggle recently posted a piece in response to Mandela’s death, and the media’s reaction to it. “Nelson Mandela used peaceful means when he could, and violent means when he couldn’t,” the post reads. “For this, during his life they called him a terrorist, and after his death they’ll call him a pacifist — all to neutralize the revolutionary potential of his legacy, and the lessons to be drawn from it.”
Non-violent approaches to change are unquestionably favourable, but history has proven that too often some form of violence is needed in order to get the wheels moving. It happened with the American civil rights movement, and it happened with the eradication of South Africa’s apartheid. It is crucial that we recognize all that was sacrificed in order to make gains for human rights, instead of ignoring the uglier side of a historical event because it makes us uncomfortable. Each time a revered leader who had radical ideas in life passes on, it is sadly crucial that they be portrayed as someone aligned with the state and its systems, instead of as someone working against it. If they are not portrayed this way, capitalist states that exist the world over run the risk of losing all their power, because a figure like Mandela dying could finally be the spark that jumpstarts a widespread fight for equality.
Mandela was a great man, but realistically the racism and classism that he fought against all his life still exist, including in Canada. He is an inspiration, but he has the potential to motivate a full-on revolution. The longer we act as though nothing is wrong with our society, the worse things will become. Mandela’s legacy will live on, but our fight is far from over. We cannot allow the media’s portrayal of Mandela to make us forget about all he was up against in the struggle to end apartheid.
It is our turn now, to do something—even if it means leaving our comforts behind.