According to the Gini Index, the US is one of the most economically (income) unequal countries in the world, ranked around 40 depending on the year and type of inequality. (Remember that by “economically,” we simply mean to what extent the society provides for its people.) The most economically unequal countries in the world include South Africa, ranked at #2, depending on the year and the ranking institution. I had the privilege of living in South Africa for a few years and seeing and experiencing first hand this inequality. When Madiba died a few weeks ago, it struck a chord with me, specifically because he spent his entire life fighting against inequality and injustice. Believe me, the system of apartheid was primarily an economically based system as much as it was a racial one. By that I mean that it had economic motivations and that it primarily dealt with the redistribution of society’s provisions for its people within South Africa. It was a system in which wealth was accumulated in the hands of a minority, an injustice which surrounded the life of this man, Nelson.
I think one reason I really like him is that most of the really amazing men and women, who are heroes to me, are dead. He’s the first of that caliber of people (like a Gandhi, Jesus, Teresa, Day, Romero, King Jr.) who was actually alive during my time, a person who I saw leave prison, a person who I saw work hard to fight for an end to apartheid even after coming out of prison, a person who helped his country transition peacefully to post-apartheid, democratic rule, a person whom I’ve met.
But even after briefly meeting the guy, I didn’t think much super-special of him at the time. I just knew he was a bit of a legend. Even when first arriving in South Africa to live and work, I didn’t think much. After all, just as you can see in this fellow Nigerian’s meeting with Madiba, I saw that South Africa still suffered from at least four, interconnected, debilitating problems: a crippling disease burden including rampant HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria; a housing crisis in which so many poverty-stricken citizens lived in townships, shanty towns, and worse, informal settlements that were most vulnerable to disasters, crime, and disease; an economic inequality unrivaled by any other country other than maybe Namibia with most of the wealth concentrated in a minority of even the white minority; and, directly related to the economic inequality, a crime rate so high that house break-ins, car hackings, and muggings are just a question of “when” for people in Johannesburg and not “if.”
However, Nelson himself was quite aware of all of this, and he would respond that the end of apartheid is a victory enough, the first democratic elections were victory enough, electing the first black president of South Africa was victory enough. Most importantly, peacefully ending apartheid without any retaliatory bloodshed, and bringing the people together through peace and reconciliation fueled by forgiveness (and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—hugely important) was an immense victory. More importantly, the issues of economic inequality, crime, disease, and housing were going to take some time to work out and still are taking time to resolve. But none of that work that is now still going on would even be possible if South Africa, the Rainbow Nation, didn’t get past the first step, the paramount test—could a nation of various white, black, yellow, and brown ethnic groups come together, covered in forgiveness, walking in peace, as one nation? I will be the first to tell you it’s not perfect. There are still people who have no truly deep relationships with people of a different ethnic group, there are still Black people there that don’t trust white people, any of them. But I will also tell you the nation passed this first test. And that is due in large part to Nelson Mandela.
So it’s strange to me to think of someone, a bit of a giant, was alive during my time. Usually giants are magical beings, long dead, the stuff of legend and lore, myths. And as we know, it makes no sense to question whether a myth is true or not. That is completely irrelevant and a misunderstanding of what truth is. The only important question about a myth is whether it is alive or dead. Is it alive? Or is it dead?
Nelson, is a bit unlike some of the other giants of lore. He was married multiple times (never at the same time). But that’s weird to me. People like Romero and Teresa never married. And Gandhi and King Jr. stayed with the same spouse their entire lives. So it’s weird to think of that. It’s weird to imagine that Mandela has children who felt neglected by him due to his work or a son he never sees because in Mandela’s first divorce, the son sided with Nelson’s first wife. It’s a bit strange. But then when you look at all of our saints or my saints, none of them was perfect, not one. And yet, it’s not the perfection of the saint that sanctifies him or her, is it? No, it’s rather how the saint overcomes imperfections and, in spite of them, grabs onto some universal truth and begins to live life according to a reality that has not yet arrived. And yet, in that one life, that reality has arrived. It’s the very definition of faith. Faith, in the lives of these saints, in the life of Nelson, is not a belief of equality, it’s living life as if we are equal even though we are not yet. Nelson was able to live counter-culturally according to a reality that was soon to come and by living that way, so usher it in, so usher us into this imagined way. That is the work of a prophet. That is the work of a true saint. And it has nothing to do with perfection, it has everything to do with faith.
So is the myth, the legend of Nelson alive or dead? It’s very much alive, I say. And yet there are people who seek to kill it. So to them, I have a few words to address two of their invective points.
Terrorism - One of the reasons I love Nelson is because he stood for nonviolent love and peace to change the system. However, he had a brief period in which he felt this method was failing. To quickly recapitulate the happenings, in 1948 the National Party instituted legalized segregation practices starting the system we call apartheid. By this time Mandela had been married for around 4 years to his first wife. In 1952, he opened up a law practice and helped to defend people attacked or oppressed by the apartheid state. He and Oliver Tambo campaigned against apartheid and in 1956 Mandela and 155 other activists were charged with high treason. During the 4-year trial, Mandela divorced from his wife in 1958 after having four children and 14 unhappy years with his first wife. He married Winnie Mandela in the same year. The charges were dropped in 1960 after 4 years of the trial. Resistence to apartheid grew especially after the Pass Laws which required blacks to have a pass (think passpoprt) which restricted where Blacks could live, work, and travel. In the same year 1960, the ANC (African National Congress, Mandela's political group) was banned and he went underground with his activities. After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 in which 69 young Blacks were shot dead by police, Mandela felt that you couldn’t use nonviolent responses against a regime that was killing your own people. So he resorted to targeted sabotage or economic sabatoge. They would target particular government facilities or a bridge, for instance, and bomb it when there was no one around or in the building or location. He only participated in this for about 2 years before he was arrested a second time and went on trial again. (Some sources say he shifted from economic sabotage to full guerilla warfare before being captured.) It was in this trial that he gave a famous 4-hour speech before he and 11 other saboteurs were convicted to many years in prison starting in 1964.
So that is the background. First, I want to say that terrorism is relative, sadly. I wish it were absolute, but we all know of the trouble that the UN has had to create a single definition of terrorism. Any definition of terrorism that is or has been proposed is one in which some countries are incriminated by it (this includes the United States) and so there is no one definition by which every one, every country can or will agree. So the term, unfortunately, is left to the decision of history (which can be biased of course). As the song “Wonderful” from the musical Wicked says,
A man's called a traitor - or liberator
A rich man's a thief - or philanthropist
Is one a crusader - or ruthless invader?
It's all in which label
Is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don't exist
So often winners of wars become freedom fighters instead of terrorists. Losers remain terrorists. In the case of South Africa, if the world supported apartheid and it was upheld, maybe freedom fighters would be called something else. Today they are praised because the apartheid regime was dismantled and is and was viewed as evil. However, I do applaud people who try to use an absolute definition of terrorism. So the question remains. Was he a terrorist? My first point is that if we keep an absolute definition, we must recognize the apartheid state of South Africa as terrorizing and terrorist. Murdering and massacring Black South Africans would count for me. Secondly, Nelson and his group did targeted economic sabotage (liberation without bloodshed), avoiding citizens which doesn’t fall into the category of terrorism (though they were trying to “terrorize” the government, in a sense, to free non-whites from apartheid and give everyone a vote). Third, a major problem is that people seem to attribute killings by more extreme South Africans to Nelson Mandela while he was behind bars. Yes, people kept pushing for an end to apartheid after Nelson went to prison. Some were extreme in their methods including full guerilla warfare. Yes, Nelson kept in touch with people from prison, but he was not running the organization from prison in any real way. Rather the organization was using him and his name and situation as a rallying cry, an inspiration, a wrong around which to motivate people to act. Fourth, even if he were to have been a terrorist (which he was not), judge the man not by one particular phase in life, but by the man he became. This is the man who worked hard and learned Afrikaans while still in prison to understand and empathize with white South African Afrikaaners including his jailers. This is the man who preached forgiveness and reconciliation while still in jail. This is the man whose white captors wished him well and respected him and liked him. This is the man who embraced extreme black and coloured South Africans when they were captured and sent to the same prison, even when more moderate freedom workers wanted to exclude the extremists in prison. This is the man who told everyone to put down weapons and not to rise up and fight at all when he got out of prison. Nonviolent change. Not terrorism.
Communism - Yet, Margaret Thatcher dismissed him as a terrorist, and initially he was not supported by the U.S. government. This is one of those times as a student of the world, you begin to understand that democracy is not synonymous with freedom and communism is not synonymous with oppression. So when governments like the U.S. promulgate that they are in a particular country to spread democracy which is freedom, always try to read between the lines and understand ulterior motives of all sides. In the plight of non-white South Africans, ask yourself an important question: was Democracy or Communism on the side of freedom for these South Africans? Well, if you don’t know, it wasn’t the democracy of the United States. It was the communist regime of Cuba, the dictatorship of Gaddafi, and Yasser Arafat of the PLO. The thing is that if the democracy of the US is truly equated with freedom, it would seek out and support freedom movements whenever and wherever they are. It may not support certain methods, but definitely the ends should be supported. However, there are other geopolitical concerns of nations like the U.S., and so Mandela and the freedom movement took help and support wherever they could receive it. Mandela famously said in a town hall meeting at NYU in 1991 “The mistake that political analysts make is that they think their enemies are our enemies.”
Nelson was not a communist. It’s possible to see him as a communist sympathizer and some sources say he joined the party for a short time. He definitely read widely including from communist leaders. He took help from whomever offered help. And because the PLO and even Castro’s group in Cuba were primarily seen as liberation movements, there was an immediately identity-based connection to those groups. In other words, the fear that we should not let communism take hold in Africa because it will be a threat to freedom is a bit . . . strange. If you fear freedom is threatened, you support freedom where you see it. If you don’t, then the reverse can be said of you by communists. In reality, the Cold War between the US and Russia, especially, fought in Africa often was not honestly framed when framed as freedom vs. oppression, not if the US supported oppressive regimes or failed to support the freedom of particular peoples. In this way, Nelson took help from these groups without explicitly questioning their internal affairs. When critiqued,he once said that it is hypocritical to accept that black and coloured South Africans take help from the US without questioning the internal race relations problem and inequality and discrimination in the US (yes, even in the 1990s) and to reject when South Africans take help from Cuba or Libya or the PLO without questioning their internal issues. His paramount concern was gaining freedom for his people and he didn’t feel he was in a position to critique those people and groups (including the US) before apartheid ended. When asked if he would support a communist or capitalist system when South Africa was freed, he admitted that he has no allegiance to any system, he only cares about what works. I like this. He was not into labels which allowed him to work with Communists or Democracy-proponents. He was not a communist as one committed to an "ism". Interestingly enough, if you go to South Africa today, communists are a welcome party in South Africa and communist ideas or quotes by famous communists are a part of the dialogue in a much more open way than in the U.S. today.
Yes, he was stubborn. And he was loyal to friends who supported him even when they acted poorly. His paramount concern was freedom and first enacting or enabling that. It’s another trait of a saint—universalism. Look at the quote that has been over quoted in the past few weeks after his death.
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
What is great about this mythical and truthful quote, yes, is the fact that he is willing to die for this act of creative and prophetic imagination—a nation where we all come together and everyone has a voice. I know a lot of people who are willing to fight for such things, but I don’t know many (almost none) who would be willing to die for it (not kill for it). This is what sets him apart. I keep asking myself if I can say that about anything or if I could have said that at that time, that I would die for democracy, die for true freedom. I don’t think I can or could. I don’t think I would have said that. I would have wanted that to be true for me, it’s such a purely noble thing, but I don’t think I’m there yet. One day, maybe.
But the greatest part of the quote is perhaps many times eclipsed by the end of the quote. Look at his words. He says “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination.” This was not in the 90s. He said this back in the 60s. This is universalism at its best. He is saying, his fight isn’t against white people, that’s too proximate, local, temporal, and provincial. His fight, to be a true fight for freedom, is a fight against oppression, wherever it is found, whoever commits it. This is a great truth he is grasping. This is universalism. It’s why people who say they are on the side of freedom should oppose oppression itself, anywhere, anytime. And it shows a keen understanding he has experienced of oppression. An oppressive system enslaves both sides: it is not only the oppressed that need to be freed, but the oppressors also need to be liberated. Thank you, Madiba.