The whole world is mourning the passing away of Nelson Mandela, affectionately known as Madiba. Many of us are listening to powerful and poignant eulogies, and we should. These are moment to pause, reflect, mourn, and recommit oneself to the healing of humanity.
However, I am also concerned that we are doing the same thing to Madiba that we have done to Malcolm X, and to a lesser extent, to Martin Luther King: whitewashing their radical prophetic legacy into nonthreatening champions of “reconciliation.”
As a corrective, here are three points to keep in mind:
1) Mandela the radical.
We like to remember Mandela as the gentle giant of South Africa, the healer of South Africa. Many of the tributes to Mandela now cast him in the new holy trinity: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mandela. Yes, there is some merit in this, particularly in the way in which all three strove against colonialism. Yet there is also a whitewashing, a de-radicalizing, an appropriating. Mandela was a radical. He stated that unlike Martin and Gandhi, for him nonviolence was not a life-long principle, but a strategy.
It is the Madiba that took up arms in the struggle against South African Apartheid that we are not willing to confront today, the Madiba whose primary commitment was not to nonviolence, but rather to liberation. In remembering Madiba today, let us remember that he was brought up for the charge of “high treason” against the South African state. Let us remember that like Martin, he was willing to confront was “legal” because it was immoral and unjust.
2) The power of forgiveness
There is undoubtedly something extraordinary powerful about the spiritual legacy of Mandela. For many people who have suffered and continue to suffer from the linked and multiple oppressions of colonialism, racism, sexism, militarism, and poverty, Mandela presents us with a powerful legacy of a path where one has the moral imperative to confront injustice and tyranny without allowing that injustice to bring bitterness in one’s own heart. We can bring healing into this world only if we banish with the poison in our own beings. The cup we offer to others should be cleansed, and without the venom that all too often has been projected onto us.
Here is Madiba’s wise words in this regard:
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
This is frankly a profound challenge. The task of carrying on liberation and uplifting of humanity is a process of active involvement in the world, it is also an ongoing commitment to one’s own heart. The big jihad (against the demons of one’s own being) and small jihad (against the injustices of the world) are part of one jihad. The Tikkun Olam of healing the world is connected to the healing of the hearts. The springs of our own heart must be perpetually cleansed from bitterness and rancor, so that the work we do continues to have grace.
Mandela has been and will remain a powerful voice in reminding us that we are not born to hate. We are not created to hate. We are made through love, in love, for love. Hate is taught, and it can be untaught. We can learn something better and lovelier, we must teach something lovelier.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Ultimately, Mandela’s struggle has to be seen as two fold: not merely nonviolence, but the combination of struggle, even armed struggle, with a commitment to reconciliation not revenge. Therein rests the ongoing legacy of the giant that is Madiba.
3) The complicity in keeping Mandela in prison
In the whitewashing of Mandela today, let us also be truthful and firm, without giving in to rancor. Let us remember that there were forces that put Mandela in jail, and kept him in jail. Let us remember that there were forces that recognized their own system of injustice as “legal”, and declared Mandela “illegal.” These forces continue to be with us. Let us remember the Israeli, the British, and the American forces that stood against Madiba then, and in many ways the heirs to Madiba today.
The Israeli Prime Minister Banjamin Netanyahu said after Madiba’s passing: “”He was the father of his nation, a man of vision, a fighter for freedom who avoided violence. He was a humble man who provided a personal example for his nation during the long years he spent in prison.”
Yet Nelson Mandela’s own stance runs directly counter to everything that Netanyahu and his party have done in Palestine/Israel. Mandela rightly connected the struggles of Palestinians for justice to the struggles of South Africans. Mandela himself had said:
“We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
No polite eulogy from Netanyahu should be allowed to eradicate the radical legacy of justice and liberation that Madiba stood for, stands for, and will continue to stand for.
It’s best to remember the words of the jailed Palestinian Marwan Barghouti:
You said: ”We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” And from within my prison cell, I tell you our freedom seems possible because you reached yours.”
Mandela was a strong critic of US foreign policy, and in particular objected to the War On Terror. He critiqued Bush as “wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust” through the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. He repeatedly said that the invasion of Iraq was ultimately about oil.
Let us remember, and never forget, and not allow to be forgotten or whitewashed today, that when the United States was entertaining sanctions against South Africa through the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, that President Reagan repeatedly worked to undermine the support for the African National Congress. The bill imposed sanctions on South Africa due to its hideous apartheid policies. Let us remember that Margaret Thatcher, that UK version of Reagan, was opposed to these measures not because she hated apartheid but because she hated sanctions—they were bad for business.
Let us remember that the Republican assault against Mandela and the African National Congress was spearheaded by Dick Cheney, who continues to insist that Mandela was in fact a terrorist.
Cheney continues unrepentant even today: “I don’t have any problems at all with the vote I cast 20 years ago.”
It’s good to keep in mind the radical, liberationist aspects of Mandela’s legacy, ranging from his critique of racism to support for labor unions that are whitewashed and neglected today.
Let us bury Madiba.
Even more, let us bury the fictitious whitewashed Mandela.
Long live the real Madiba.
Long live the spirit of Madiba.
Long live the radical legacy of justice, liberation, and reconciliation.