“Now he belongs to the ages.” Those were Edwin Stanton’s words upon the passing of Abraham Lincoln and they seem an apt epitaph for the late Nelson Mandela, the world’s last great political icon. Belonging to the ages is a state of post-mortem immortality in which the deceased figure is claimed and counterclaimed by various factions for various purposes. Madiba’s name and image will become even more ubiquitous, gracing everything from t-shirts and currency notes to airports, stadiums and universities. His story will be told and retold in books, movies and songs assuming the resonance of legend and popular mythology.
With his place in the pantheon of immortals established, Mandela’s spirit will be invoked by a bewildering range of diverse and even opposing interests to sanctify their own aims and ideologies. This is part of the price of immortality. Lincoln is invoked in this way by both Democrats and Republicans and cast either as a liberal conservative or a conservative liberal depending on the argument being made. This is the posthumous fate of many political icons. The African-American scholar Michael Eric Dyson once remarked that Martin Luther King Jr., another immortal, has been given “a national birthday, iconic ubiquity and endless encomiums” but has also “been idealized into uselessness…immortalized into a niceness that dilutes the radical politics he endorsed. His justice agenda has been smothered by adulation.” King’s critiques of structural poverty, inequality and militarism – the sinews of American imperialism – have been subsumed in the vortex of popular cultural iconography.
Che Guevara who died trying to spread Marxist revolution in South America is now a hip revolutionary figure idolized in the distinctly capitalist trafficking of merchandise and memorabilia. Being banalized, trivialized and commoditized is part of the price of immortality. Six months before his death, Mahatma Gandhi complained, “Everyone is eager to garland my photos and statues – nobody really wants to follow my advice.”
In South Africa, where Gandhi first encountered repression and the earliest stirrings of the compulsion to fight it, Mandela’s political legacy will be contested by various groups. Both the African National Congress and a clutch of opposition parties will attempt to appropriate Mandela as the guiding spirit of their competing political projects. The ANC still casts itself as the liberation movement which Mandela led to the attainment of black majority rule. The opposition parties will invoke Mandela’s moral stature as a rebuke against the ANC’s cronyism. The country’s restive youths will also appropriate Mandela’s earlier incarnation as a young militant leader who eluded apartheid authorities while masterminding sabotage operations directed at the white supremacist state. Mandela in this guise becomes the prophet and portent of black youth revolt against the as yet unfulfilled socioeconomic promise of the post-apartheid era.
But Madiba’s legacy possesses an enduring resilience that resists any attempt to conform it to a narrow and permanently partisan mould. He belongs to the ages not to any tendency; his ultimate significance is universal not sectarian; temporal and national but also transcendent and global. If Mandela were an idea, he would belong in the public domain but as a person, he has entered into the cosmic domain where he cannot be patented or copyrighted.
Much is said about how Mandela readily relinquished power when he could have clung on as South Africa’s president. In so doing, he avoided the trajectory of many once esteemed liberation fighters who have become autocrats desperately clinging to their thrones. Yet Mandela’s lessons are for the world at large.
It is too soon to forget that the Western governments that released odes to Mandela preferred him in the dungeon at the time that they favoured maniacs such as Idi Amin and Mobutu. Or that their countries led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (two acclaimed champions of freedom whose vision of liberty did not extend to black South Africans) essentially supported the apartheid regime. The White House considered Mandela a terrorist at precisely the time that it was collaborating with real terrorists like Angola’s Jonas Savimbi and more scandalously, a certain Osama Bin Laden.
His spirit of compromise and progressive pragmatism is distinctly missing from Washington where partisan recalcitrance has gridlocked American politics. It is often said that the Israeli – Palestine conflict would have been resolved if either side had a Mandela-type figure.
Black majority rule could so easily have become an occasion for vengeance against whites. The Afrikaner nightmare was that black rule would ignite a racial holocaust directed against the former overlords. This is the path that Mandela averted for his country. His genius was intuiting when to beat his sword into a plowshare. He discerned that militancy had done its work and had created conditions conducive to negotiations. To have continued to push the revolutionary card further would have been to invoke anarchy. By initiating dialogue with the apartheid regime while still in prison, he moved ahead of the curve establishing his leadership among a very distinguished cast of liberation luminaries such as Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, as well as younger lions like Chris Hani and Thabo Mbeki. Mandela’s transformation from militant to peacemaker in many ways prefigured his country’s transformation.
War-weary yet battle-hardened soldiers, vigilant veterans tempered by the unremitting toll of conflict and the limits of violence as a political tool, often make the most dogged peacemakers yet they also pay a steep price for their conversion. Anwar Sadat who made peace with Israel was assassinated by Egyptian extremists who saw his peacemaking as treason against the Arab cause. Yitzhak Rabin was killed by an Israeli zealot for conceding Israeli land in a peace deal with Palestine. Sadat and Rabin were both veteran warriors. They were also Nobel Peace Prize laureates as was Martin Luther King. In opting for non-violence and dialogue, Mandela rendered himself vulnerable to both black and white extremists intent on a racial apocalypse.
In a world of extremists, zealots and military-industrial complexes, peacemakers are an endangered species precisely because they threaten the powers built on the perpetuation of hate and strife as well as the fortunes based on the commercialization of conflict.
It takes courage to fight for one’s beliefs. It takes courage and wisdom to change tactics when violence has exhausted its usefulness and yield to other means. Sometimes, it can become far easier to kill and die for one’s principles than to live by them. Violence can easily become its own motive, purpose and reward. Mandela moved from Gandhian non-violence to armed struggle in response to the brutish totalitarianism of the apartheid state and, even so, chose sabotage operations because they did not involve loss of life and offered the best hope for future racial reconciliation. Mandela’s violence was not a fundamental blood thirst and when the utility of violence had expired, he was courageous enough to change his tactics again.
The hardest thing to ask of the victimized is that they relinquish their right to morally justifiable vengeance. Forbearance is lovely in theory but fiendishly difficult in practice. Mandela undertook this task on behalf of himself and his people with grace and dignity, forgiving enemies, and releasing his country’s destiny from the spectre of interminable cycles of racial violence. In this he equaled the prophetic stature of Dr King whose valiant pacific labours ensured that a black intifada or for that matter, a black al Qaeda, did not arise as an entirely understandable response to the atrocities of white supremacy in America.
It is profoundly significant that while South Africa was transiting from apartheid state to rainbow nation in 1994, Rwanda was showcasing the catastrophe that South Africa had narrowly avoided by the grace of Mandela as that small nation surrendered to the demons of ethnic hatred and genocidal depravity. These two possibilities – multiracial democracy and sectarian hate – continue to stalk our age.
All images sourced online