Yesterday, the world lost one of its greatest thinkers, political leaders and revolutionaries, former South African president Nelson Mandela. His death at the age of 95 — an age the vast majority of radical revolutionaries never reach — has prompted an outpouring of tributes, many of which either gloss over the United States government’s support of apartheid or whitewash Mandela’s own complex history and beliefs. With that in mind, here are short excerpts from articles that truly honor Mandela’s legacy and should not be missed. (Above, the “free at last” speech Mandela delivered on May 2, 1994, the day he won the South African presidential election.)
“Don’t Sanitize Nelson Mandela: He’s Honored Now, But Was Hated Then,” The Daily Beast:
As with [Martin Luther] King, it is this subversive aspect of Mandela’s legacy that is most in danger of being erased as he enters America’s pantheon of sanitized moral icons. But it is precisely the aspect that Americans most badly need. American power and human freedom are two very different things. Sometimes they intersect; sometimes they do not. Walking in Nelson Mandela’s footsteps requires being able to tell the difference.
“Mandela Will Never, Ever Be Your Minstrel,” OKWonga.com:
Dear revisionists, Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel. Over the next few days you will try so, so hard to make him something he was not, and you will fail. You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X. You will try to hide his anger from view. Right now, you are anxiously pacing the corridors of your condos and country estates, looking for the right words, the right tributes, the right-wing tributes. You will say that Mandela was not about race. You will say that Mandela was not about politics. You will say that Mandela was about nothing but one love, you will try to reduce him to a lilting reggae tune. “Let’s get together, and feel alright.” Yes, you will do that.
“Mandela Was No Care Bear,” Washington Monthly:
…while both Mandela’s personal charisma and his willingness to extend forgiveness to his bitterest opponents were morally magnificent in their own rights, they were just as much political tactics as they were dedications to a moral principle. Popular media tends to vastly understate the extent to which nonviolence is about power, struggle, and victory. Mandela was not a pacifist (in fact, under his presidency, the South African military briefly invaded Lesotho), he wanted to obtain freedom for his people by the best route possible. The same can be said about his post-Apartheid dedication to reconciliation.
Make no mistake, Nelson Mandela was a great leader, a moral beacon, and in my view the finest diplomatist of the 20th century. Calling him the George Washington of South Africa, with respect, doesn’t give him nearly enough credit. This is why the more rough-edged facets of his character being airbrushed out of popular history is so offensive—it was precisely because of these that he had such brilliant success.
The Iconicity Of “Peaceful Resistance,” Medium:
Before it falls down the memory hole, it should be noted that the online US edition of the New York Times marked the sad passing of the great Nelson Mandela with this odd headline: “Nelson Mandela, South African Icon of Peaceful Resistance, Dies”. (They’ve since changed it to “South Africa’s…Moral Center”, which sounds like a place FIFA could have held business ethics conventions during the last World Cup.)
“Icon of Peaceful Resistance” makes it sound like Mandela was an advocate and practitioner of nonviolence. He wasn’t. Apartheid was above all a socioeconomic system of structured viciousness: the whites were not going to give up their advantages without a fight. The struggle against Apartheid was necessarily bloody. The symbolic force of an “icon”, no matter how noble its martyrdom, could not have defeated Apartheid. It had to be defeated at the cost of lives. Mandela always knew this.
“Six Things Nelson Mandela Believed That Most People Won’t Talk About,” Think Progress:
In the desire to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s life — an iconic figure who triumphed over South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime — it’s tempting to homogenize his views into something everyone can support. This is not, however, an accurate representation of the man.
Mandela was a political activist and agitator. He did not shy away from controversy and he did not seek — or obtain — universal approval. Before and after his release from prison, he embraced an unabashedly progressive and provocative platform. As one commentator put it shortly after the announcement of the freedom fighter’s death, “Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel. Over the next few days you will try so, so hard to make him something he was not, and you will fail. You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X. You will try to hide his anger from view.”