We pause this day to celebrate Nelson Mandela, “Madiba,” and to reflect on what his life and the South African freedom movement has to teach us. Inevitably, this involves reflecting on our own lives and our own social justice commitments.
Like countless others, many in PRA’s family have been involved in the anti-apartheid and broader South African freedom movements. We organized churches to support the African National Congress when it was still designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, occupied university buildings in pursuit of divestment, raised funds, and boycotted businesses. (As a ten-year-old, I made and carried my first protest sign outside a Broadway theater showing the South African play Ipi Tombi.) We supported the movement not only as individuals but also through our organizations. In 1985, Political Research Associates challenged President Reagan’s bankrupt “constructive engagement” policies toward South Africa’s White minority regime with an exposé, Apartheid in our Living Rooms: U.S. Foreign Policy and South Africa, by our dear colleague Prexy Nesbitt. PRA’s commitment to Africa, forged in the cauldron of the anti-apartheid movement, continues in different forms to this day.
We took both inspiration and direction from the leadership of South Africa’s freedom movement, and I’ll venture to say that all of us received more than we gave through our ultimately modest contributions. But, combined with the actions of so many thousands of others, we helped to make possible a remarkable social transformation in South Africa and transformed our own lives in the process. Inspired by that movement, untold numbers around the globe made lifelong commitments to social justice. That is what a well-organized, creative, visionary, and disciplined social justice movement can achieve.
When I read that we have “lost” Mandela, I fear I am reading the words of those who would just as soon close the book on the South African freedom struggle and, by extension, the struggle for racial, economic, gender, and broader social justice across the African continent and beyond. As with the legacy of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. here in our own country, the celebration of extraordinary lives –whether well-meaning or cynical–can be used to contain rather than to kindle freedom fires. Even those who once denounced the man as a terrorist now rush to laud his accomplishments, and it is only a matter of time before his legacy is invoked in the name of reactionary causes. Such are the indignities of becoming, however unwillingly, an icon. Mandela had to contend with much myth-making about him even while he was alive. To his everlasting credit, he consistently resisted story-telling that elevated his contributions far above those of hundreds and thousands of his comrades and other, everyday heroes of the freedom struggle.
The eulogies flooding in for Mandela rightly recognize his extraordinary wellspring of compassion and spirit of Ubuntu. But Mandela was also fierce in his commitment to justice for the dispossessed, unyielding in his confrontation with oppression and inequality, and deeply democratic in his commitment to pass the torch of leadership to others. This combination of fierceness and love, commitment and compassion were bound together with the conviction that love is the most powerful force for justice. It is an approach to being in the world to be emulated, as well as celebrated.
Mandela lived a long life punctuated by almost unimaginable accomplishments. If we are to mourn as well as celebrate his life, let us mourn that key parts of his freedom dream remain unfulfilled. His mortality reminds us of the limits of what even the most dedicated and talented social justice organizers can achieve in their own time. Mandela–along with his comrades in the African National Congress, Confederation of South African Trade Unions, and the South African Communist Party–understood that to make change one must build power. And these women and men built and sought to exercise power not to dominate–not to emulate their oppressors–but to liberate. What they achieved is truly remarkable: a liberal racial democracy in place of a White supremacist state maintained by racial terror and the complicity of the so-called democratic world. What they sacrificed for that achievement is equally noteworthy–not just in unspeakable violence (much of it, somehow, spoken through the truth & reconciliation process) and fallen colleagues, but also in dreams deferred, commitments unrealized, and compromises made.
Mandela and his comrades fell well short of their goal of realizing a just economic order in South Africa. The unearned power, privilege, and wealth of White racial dominance were not swept away by the democratic transition, and the free-market capitalism that prevails in today’s South Africa cannot deliver economic justice for the Black majority or for the poor of other racial groups. Of course, this is true not only of South Africa. As Mandela famously said during his first trip to the U.S. after being released from Robben Island, “A luta continua.”
The U.S. relationship with South Africa is long and complicated. South African apartheid was modeled on the U.S. Jim Crow South, and today the U.S. is a pioneer in maintaining White racial dominance without old school segregation. As Whites in the U.S. lose majority status, this is becoming increasingly challenging.
The opportunity to celebrate Nelson Mandela offers a fig leaf to those elected officials and highest officers of the court who gut the Voting Rights Act, systematically disenfranchise African American and other targeted communities, preside over mass incarceration, mobilize local and national security forces to surveil and police communities of color, deport rather than provide a path to citizenship for millions of unauthorized immigrants, and continue to rob and exploit the indigenous peoples of this land. The South African freedom movement was an anti-colonial struggle led by the indigenous peoples of that land, along with defectors from the White colonial elite. Mandela emerged first as a tribal leader of the Xhosa, and the movement that he helped to lead united many disparate communities around a shared quest for freedom. Honoring the South African freedom movement requires that we confront the continuing oppression of indigenous communities and commit ourselves to decolonization as we journey along our own long walk to freedom.
Nelson Mandela and the South African freedom struggle stoked embers of justice around the globe. As we take time to celebrate the “movement Mandela” and mourn his passing, may we honor his legacy by kindling new fires for justice and setting our sights beyond the horizon of the possible as we stay the course towards freedom.