Three Myths about Mandela Worth Busting

via Three Myths about Mandela Worth Busting » AFRICA IS A COUNTRY by Tony Karon  DECEMBER 6TH, 2013

I sometimes feel Nelson Mandela is in need of rescuing, trapped in some pretty bizarre narratives that have nothing to do with his own story or politics. Full disclosure: I freely admit that Nelson Mandela is the only politician for whom I’ve ever voted; that I celebrate him as a moral giant of our age, and that I proclaimed him my leader (usually at the top of my tuneless voice, in badly sung Xhosa songs) during my decade in the liberation movement in South Africa. That’s maybe why the “Mandela” I’ve encountered in so much American mythology is so unrecognizable. Herewith, the three most egregious versions:

Mythical Mandela #1: The Pacifist

“Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela…” How many times haven’t you heard that phrase to describe some politician, somewhere, opting for pacificism in the face of a nasty regime. Don’t take it from me, try a google search on that exact phrase.

I understand the compulsion to link figures of great moral authority, but this is a little misleading. Nelson Mandela was never a pacifist. When the Gandhi route of non-violent civil disobedience brought only violence from the state, Mandela declared: “The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom.”

He played a leading role in setting up the ANC’s guerrilla wing, and traveled abroad to gather support, even undergoing guerrilla training himself in Algeria, from the commanders of the FLN who had recently ejected the French colonials.

Mandela was no terrorist, however. Under his leadership, the movement’s armed wing targeted symbols and structures of minority rule, and combatants of its security forces; never white civilians or any other non-combatants. And most importantly, he saw it as always, immediately and ultimately, subordinated to the political leadership.

In these beliefs he remained consistent and proud. Even as the mass non-violent opposition reasserted itself, under ANC guidance, in the 1980s, he reiterated its connection with the armed wing, writing in a smuggled message from prison that “between the hammer of armed struggle and the anvil of united mass action, the enemy will be crushed.” (Of course it didn’t ever work that way– the armed struggle was never particularly effective, and mass action combined with international sanctions did more to topple the regime.) And he, like the rest of the movement’s leadership, never hesitated to take the opportunity to find a political solution for the greatest benefit of all South Africans — but that was the same spirit with which he’d embarked on his armed struggle, telling the court, “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.”

Mandela and his organization suspended the armed struggle only once the apartheid regime conceded to democracy. He was no pacifist; on the contrary, he never hesitated to pick up arms when he perceived his people were confronted with the choice between submission to tyranny and armed resistance. But nor was he a militarist: He never hesitated to take the political path when that presented itself. And in that example, he has much to teach the world.

Myth #2: The “Mandela Miracle”

Google “Mandela” and “Miracle” together, and there are over 3 million citations. This idea has entered American shorthand as follows: South Africa would have exploded in a racial war, and white people would have been driven into the sea, had it not been for the “miraculous” generosity of spirit of Nelson Mandela, who supposedly restrained the vengeful hordes.

Oy, where to begin?

The assumption that black people would seek violent revenge for the violence they had suffered at the hands of white people is racist. (Remember Gandhi’s arch put-down when asked by a journalist what he thought of Western civilization: “That would be a fine idea,” or words to that effect.)

But let’s not even go there. This myth ignores the political culture of the ANC, which Mandela helped form, and which also formed him, and was never dependent on his own, or any other individual’s strength of character. The basic political architecture of the process of reconciliation always inscribed the internal politics of the ANC which was always a non-racial movement that had substantial white membership, and whose policies distinguished between white minority rule and white people. It would be remiss of any historian to understate the role of the South African Communist Party in nurturing this culture. I’ve written some pretty nasty things about the SACP in the past, but nobody can deny that not only were they the first, and for a long time the only organization in South Africa advocating black majority rule; inside the ANC they played the leading role in shaping the analysis and strategy based on non-racialism and drawing whites into the struggle against colonial-style minority rule. When some angry youths who had left to join the guerrilla forces wanted to respond to the regime’s rampant bloodletting in the townships in the 1980s by targeting white civilians with terror strikes, it was the communists — led by Chris Hani, the commander of the ANC’s military wing and later leader of the SACP, who walked the ANC back from the brink.

And, paradoxical as it may sound, it was the Leninist realpolitik of the ANC’s communist intellectuals that led the movement to embrace the path of a negotiated, compromise solution with negligible “rejectionist” backlash.

Of course communist discourse had a downside: I remember cringing when freed Robben Island prisoners would tell me things like “In Moscow, comrade, when you come out of the subway, there’s just piles of fruit there, really good fruit, and it’s just there for anyone to take, free, for everyone…” And I nearly fell off my chair when reading a statement Mandela released to the media in Cape Town from prison late in 1989 proclaiming German reunification such a spectacularly bad idea that if released from prison, he would personally fly to Germany to try and stop it. Let’s just say he was a product of a different age.

But the broader point here is that it was not some epiphany on the part of Nelson Mandela that led South Africa to its inspiring outcome. There were no angry hordes baying for revenge. Everyone understood what freedom meant, and it had nothing to do with revenge. To imagine otherwise is to insult the millions of ordinary South Africans who struggled and sacrificed to free Mandela, and bring him to power.

Myth #3 Marcus, Malcolm, Mandela and Me — It’s a Black Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand

When I first saw that on a T-shirt being sold in Chinatown, Manhattan, in 1991, I laughed out loud. And actually, when watching Spike Lee’s Malcolm X movie at an ANC fundraising premiere in Cape Town, I’ll never forget how the audience of Mandela loyalists erupted in raucous laughter when their good-natured leader appeared in the final “Spartacus” scene, intoning “I am Malcolm X.” The implication that their leader was inspired by a figure entirely unknown in the South African liberation movement discourse was pretty funny.

Louis Farrakhan was probably a little surprised when he visited South Africa in 1995, and received a verbal dressing down from Mandela over his separatist politics.

My own favorite encounter with the Marcus-Malcolm-Mandela myth came one night in 1997, at a media party where I was chatting with a well known hip-hop scribe and his girlfriend, who ended up giving me a ride home in their rented limo. I should have known trouble was coming when girlfriend said to me “So, what was it like coming to America and meeting FREE black people?” I told her that I had worked in the struggle, and although the black people I met there were viciously oppressed by a colonial regime, their minds were always free.

But the scribe and his girlfriend simply could not accept that I, a white boy — a Jew, to boot — had been in the ANC. “Mandela didn’t work with white people,” he insisted. Uh, actually, of the eight men on trial with Mandela in 1964, three were white (all of them Jewish, actually). By the time the regime fell, there were thousands of whites in the broad liberation movement led by the ANC. A minority of the white community, to be sure, but a consistent presence in the ANC. Neil Aggett was killed in security police detention, just like Steve Biko. David Webster was murdered by a police assassin, just like Matthew Goniwe. Of course the vast majority of the people waging the struggle and bearing its sacrifices were black. But there were always a handful of whites alongside them. And so I went on, but none of this was making any impression.

Finally, the limo driver turned around, exasperated. He was Palestinian, he informed us. From Ramallah, where he’d been active in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist faction of the PLO. “And we always had Israeli Jews in our organization,” he said. “Not many, but always a few. Because we were against Zionism, not against Jews.”

And so it went on. The South African Jew and the Palestinian leftist trying, in vain, to explain Mandela’s basic non-racialism to the hip-hop philosopher who preferred the Mandela of his own fantasies. Only in New York.

COMMENTS

WORDPRESS: 18
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    maisokwazo 7 years ago

    Well despite any mythical insinuations about Mandela he remains a world selfless icon true son of Africa saintly and humane and a complete contrast of the murderous corruption infested dictator Mugabe and shall be so until eternity and will go into the annals of history as the best Africa had produced matched by none but vindicated by distractors whose evil legacy exposes the dark side of African politics of intolerance and cruelty.

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    Greatguy but he also permitted a few top Anc clique like Tokyo sexwale etc loot obscene wealth under the guise of a bogus black empowerment indiginisation which was precursor of corruption with impunity. I believe he was haunted ashamed of his successors the inane mbekis zumas. R.I.p. Madiba

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    Ganyamatope 7 years ago

    You say I have already said that but I can’t see the comment, why?

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    Ganyamatope 7 years ago

    Can anyone explain to me, in plain terms, the logic behind Mandela’s offering to PW Botha, the world renowned murderer of an African people in S/Africa, a hero status and indeed a graceful resting place at the S/African Heroes acre. Please, excuse me guys but let me air my view – I do not think this Mandela who passed away a couple of days ago is the original Nelson Madiba Mandela who was taken to Prison. When did these unforgiving and unrepentent blood-sucking whites start to praise the black skin- in whichever form it might appear(I refer to the niceties the white were piling on this Mandela like the over-publicised b/day bashes/galas where these whites always took centre stage.

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      Hatidzokeko 7 years ago

      You are talking nonsense. South Africa has no heroes acre. And Botha was never accorded hero status

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        Mthwakazi 7 years ago

        @Hatidzokeko
        regarding the nonsense from Ganyamatope; that is how the typical gukurawundi ZANU PFer is like – everything is an imagination, never a reality.

        They formulate their veiws about other people or situations not from the facts but from their imaginations and the ZANU PF propaganda that they grew up hearing!!

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      Mthwakazi 7 years ago

      Ganya
      So you think every country is as follish as your gukurawundis wasting state resources on thugs you call heros. Mandela will be buried in his Qunu Village in the Eastern Cape not some gukurawundi thugs acre!!

      To you all white people are the same; they are racist unless they support ZANU PF and Mugabe!!

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    Rwendo 7 years ago

    Talking of Malcom X and Myth #3, there was an interesting comment by Spike Lee when he was interviewed on the morning Madiba died. Spike revealed that when he asked Mandela to include Malcom’s famous words ..”by any means necessary” during Madiba’s cameo classroom appearance in the film on Malcom X; Mandela resolutely declined, saying that he could not say those words. By any means necessary. Fast forward to Zim 2002-2013.

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    Ganyamatope 7 years ago

    It’s funny. When damning posts are directed at the President of this coutry there are no moderations done. Now when we try to aim our arsenel at the real enemy of the people you become sensitive and want to effect some filthy moderations. Regai tivaudze nerwawo rurimi kuti vagonzwisisa – this was said by the late, great, phisically blind but spiritually clear-sighted Legendary Zimbabwean musician,Paul Matavire in his gem of a track track – NYAKUCHENA GANDA. Imi munozviti makafunda asi muchitadza kuona zvaioonekwa nevamaiti mapofo – vana Paul “Matags” MATAVIRE.

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    Rwendo 7 years ago

    And regarding Myth #1, Mandela also reportedly stated that whereas for Gandhi and Martin Luther King Pacifism was a principle they lived and believed in, for him it was a tactic to be used or discarded (as the situation dictated).

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    Ganyamatope 7 years ago

    It’s funny. When damning posts are directed at the President of this coutry there are no moderations done. Now when we try to aim our arsenal at the real enemy of the people you become sensitive and want to effect some filthy moderations. Regai tivaudze nerwawo rurimi kuti vagonzwisisa – this was said by the late great, phisically blind but spiritually clear-sighted Legendary Zimbabwean musician,Paul Matavire in his gem of a track – NYAKUCHENA GANDA. Imi munozviti makafunda, munoona asi muchitadza kuona zvaionekwa nevamaiti mapofu – vana Paul “Matags” MATAVIRE.

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    Ganyamatope 7 years ago

    NewsDay! You lie broad daylight. Heh! we tell it like it is, heh this heh that. How do you explain blocking my post just because I am ushering an untold story to the white cult? If I had condemned our resilient dear Prsident it was going to be one time to your crew which u refer to as editors. It’s about time u have stopped putting too much respect to cash over more valuable bread n d butter issues. Anyway its good bcaus I now know from own experience. Thank you.

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      adam jones 7 years ago

      What r u on about?

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      Mthwakazi 7 years ago

      You can not call a Gukurahundi a resilent President. A Gukurahundi is a thug; a street thug and a bloodsucker!!

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    adam jones 7 years ago

    What are you on about? Asi uriwezanu?

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    Ganyamatope you obviously don’t understand Mandela’s psyci at all. You seem to be so hooked up on the “white cult and their unrepentant bloodsucking ways”. Mandela was a great man and the reason he was a great man is because he fought AGAINST racism and demanded freedom from the oppression of one “person” against another. Whites and / or blacks or any other group of people need to be honoured. “We” need to fight against this oppression and blatant racism where a certain group of people are automatically put into a box and hated just because they are a certain colour or culture. Lets walk as Mandela walked and forgive as he did.

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    Mthwakazi 7 years ago

    Mandela believed in employing both the armed struggle and negotiations to achieve his objectives. This is very much like Dr Joshua Nkomo – this why ZAPU and the ANC got along; and Mkhonto weSizwe and ZIPRA fought side by side!!

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    Mafuta 7 years ago

    Stepping down after one term is a greatness Africa sorely needs.