There appears to be an unwritten code of conduct in most societies I know that you speak good of the dead or hold your peace and let them rest in peace.
In the last few days I have longed for some people to do the latter and not pollute the spiritual balance of the Universe by rewriting history, making self indulgent claims and choosing to dissociate the goodness of Nelson Mandela from the evil he laid his life on the line to confront. Some commentators proclaim as if Mandela’s ‘terrorist’ belief in the legitimacy of armed struggle against a genocidal regime was cured in the furnace of Robben Island, thus qualifying him to return to the fold of decent, peace loving citizens the world over.
Bizarrely, the Los Angeles Times carried an article on 7 December 2013 with the headline Robben Island: The place that changed Nelson Mandela. Changed from what to what? This writer does not say. But, writing in the same paper the day before, David Horsey noted:
Mandela was a militant black man with a raised fist and that scared many people. But the revolution in his heart freed him from narrow ideology or racial enmity and made him able to seek the national reconciliation that led to a more complete liberty for all the citizens of South Africa, no matter the color of their skin. Yes, he was just a man, but he learned a key lesson that most revolutionaries, politicians and world leaders never learn: before you can change the world, you must change yourself.
Both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan denounced Mandela as a ‘terrorist’ and the ANC as a terrorist organisation. In 1987, Thatcher stated with all the authority at her command as British Prime Minister:
The ANC is a typical terrorist organization … Anyone who thinks it’s going to run a government is living in cloud-cuckoo land.
Thatcher was then head of a government that was buttressing the murderous apartheid regime in South Africa and breaking sanctions liberally and unapologetically. The suffering people of South Africa had been calling on the international community not just to take a stand in respect of the daily dehumanising grind of the state orchestrated barbarism of apartheid, but to refuse to do business as usual with the apartheid regime on account of massacres against an oppressed people who dared to act collectively against unjust laws and practices. Peaceful protest against the crushing pass laws brought the masses face to face with the military might of the state and resulted in the Sharpeville Massacre on 21 March 1960.
Protests by some 20,000 school students against the imposition of Afrikans, the language of the oppressor minority, as the medium of instruction in schools, led to the Soweto massacre on 16 June 1976 in which an estimated 700 school children lost their lives, although the official figure was given by the apartheid regime as 176.
How can one ever forget the deeply distressing image (right) of Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying the limp body of 13 year old Orlando West High School student, Hector Pieterson, with Hector’s sister Antoinette Sithole running alongside her, an image that came to symbolise the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ in Soweto? Hector was the first child to be shot when the police opened fire on the students.
After that massacre, South Africa was not allowed to return to business as usual. The ANC in exile galvanised support for the liberation struggle from across the world. The international movement to ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ and to isolate South Africa as a nation state intensified. If the apartheid regime had set out to conscript the nation’s youth to the liberation struggle through using their military might against unarmed children, they could not have been more successful. The young people of South Africa determined after 1976 that it would be resistance till death if necessary.
Meanwhile, in spite of such atrocities and the daily denial of fundamental human rights endured by the African majority in South Africa, those such as Margaret Thatcher who supported the apartheid regime dared to talk about ‘terrorism’ and the harm that would be done to the people of South Africa if the economy of that country were brought to its knees through sanctions.
I worked at the time with the British Council of Churches and in that capacity with the World Council of Churches Programme to Combat Racism (PCR). The PCR supported the ANC and the Anti-Apartheid Movement. A regular topic of discussion both within the Council of Churches and at our PCR meetings was the number of churches in Britain that were withdrawing their financial support for both organisations on the grounds that they were opposed to any church funds going to the PCR because it was supporting ‘armed resistance’ and ‘terrorist organisations’. No doubt they, too, are now embracing the purified ‘terrorist’, Nelson Mandela, and projecting him as someone who stands head and shoulders above most others worldwide in epitomising Christian values.
Mandela did not just ‘teach us all to love’, or ‘teach us what true forgiveness is all about’. He taught us to love justice and uphold the right of every individual to live free, with respect and dignity, irrespective of whatever characteristics define us. At the Rivonia Trial in 1964 that many of his supporters expected to end with him being given the death penalty, Mandela was moved to depart from his written defence statement (as he narrated later), look the judge straight in the eye and proclaim fearlessly:
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 will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
Needless to say, there are many who believe in the Second Coming and among them those who believe it has come and gone in the life, suffering and death of Nelson Mandela. But, therein lies the danger.
Those citizens across the world and especially those leaders of state who are prepared to invest Mandela with supernatural status and attributes would no doubt prefer us to focus on his magnanimity, infinite capacity for forgiveness, generosity of spirit, lack of bitterness, abhorrence of vengeance, etc., rather than on his abiding and never diminishing commitment to justice, human rights and human liberation, and to dismantling the systems and structures that perpetuate oppression and the denial of fundamental human rights.
Doubtlessly, for generations to come, Mandela’s life and the totality of his sayings and writings would, just like the Bible or the Qur ‘an, be used to justify or condemn any number of passionately held positions and the dubious practices arising from them.
I have no doubt that many of those who preside over oppressive states and routinely deny human rights and equal opportunities to their long-suffering people are even now busying themselves to travel to South Africa and ‘big up’ Nelson Mandela for the colossal champion of human rights and freedom that he was.
It is 50 years since Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for sedition, treason and conspiracy to overthrow the government of South Africa by way of armed struggle. It is almost 24 years since his release from prison and 20 years since he received the Nobel Peace Prize (see video – right).
All those current and former leaders of state who are now speaking grandiloquent words about Mandela’s qualities, what he gave to the world, what he has inspired in them and the legacy he has left us might do well to remember that. If his example meant so much, if his leadership so inspired them, if they could now declare so passionately their commitment to his ideals, I am led to wonder why it is that they did not seek to honour him while he was still alive, alert and capable of making common cause with them, by demonstrating that commitment in their own policies, leadership and the treatment of their own.
In his Nobel lecture in 2003, Nelson Mandela shared with the world his vision of the society he was committed to spend the rest of his life building:
(…) A society which recognises that all people are born equal, with each entitled in equal measure to life, liberty, prosperity, human rights and good governance. Such a society should never allow again that there should be prisoners of conscience nor that any person’s human right should be violated.
We live with the hope that as she battles to remake herself, South Africa will be like a microcosm of the new world that is striving to be born. This must be a world of democracy and respect for human rights, a world freed from the horrors of poverty, hunger, deprivation and ignorance, relieved of the threat and the scourge of civil wars and external aggression and unburdened of the great tragedy of millions forced to become refugees.
The challenge for the world that mourns the passing of this great man is to embrace Mandela’s vision and make it a reality in every community and among every people. This means learning from the entirety of Mandela’s ‘Long March’, beginning with the struggles of his Ancestors which gave him inspiration, direction, fortitude and determination.
As far as South Africa itself is concerned, it is only by owning that vision and building a future that is shaped by it that the deep divisions that are part of the fabric of that society that is still emerging from its devastating past would be healed rather than become encrusted.
On my visits to South Africa in the last decade I discovered that there are across the population many former activists within or supporters of the resistance movement, let alone people who lost loved ones or/and lost or were denied careers on account of apartheid, who are deeply disillusioned not just with the pace but with the direction of change in post-apartheid South Africa. Hours of debate with them reveal positions which they articulate in the following terms:
We have a class of former militants who have inserted themselves into the positions of the whites and kept us out. We might have democracy, but poverty, hunger and poor housing are still widespread among those of us who suffered worst under apartheid and showed that we were prepared to die to bring down that nasty regime.
They left everything in place, just as it was during apartheid. We are yet to see the benefit of all that Madiba promised when he became President.
If Nelson Mandela wanted to make peace with de Klerk and those people, that was for him to do. Changing the Constitution was definitely the right thing to do, but I don’t believe anybody had a right to give Amnesty to those people who murdered our children. Many of them got promoted. We were left to bury our children and live in poverty. How could you forgive people on behalf of a whole nation after all that brutality and suffering? You forgive on behalf of yourself. What have the whites lost? Nothing. What have they handed back to us? Nothing. What were they made to give up? Nothing.
20 years after Mandela was released, Soweto is still the same. We have a museum to our suffering. I can show my grandchildren what happened to their uncle and their aunt, but we are still in the same situation as when those people rolled up in their armoured trucks and killed our children.
Winnie Mandela and Steve Biko did more for us and for the struggle than most of the people you see in power now. Truth and Reconciliation came and went. The person who was put on trial and was never reconciled was Winnie. All those same people who killed men, women and children for years, killed Steve Biko and the leaders of the youth movement, escaped trial and were able to walk free from Truth and Reconciliation. Any yet, if it wasn’t for Winnie and all the risks she took, down to serving time in solitary confinement for leading a campaign to free her husband, the movement would have got nowhere fast. Yet, Winnie is the one who has been thrown on the dump heap. Guilty as charged. No reconciliation for her.
All of this raises a number of important issues, not least in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death and the volume and tenor of the newsprint and broadcasts there have been. Much has been made of Mandela’s lack of revenge and avoidance of bitterness and vengeance, as if one cannot have or demand justice and restitution without revenge, bitterness and vengeance. Why should it be assumed that to hold people to account and to seek justice for systemic wrongs and orchestrated oppression cannot be done without bitterness and vengeance?
Why should those millions of people whose lives were marred by the crime against humanity, which apartheid was, not feel aggrieved that from their vantage point, all that appears to have happened is that they now have free movement and freedom of expression, but that economic relations within the society have not made them better off or able to envision a brighter future for their children, while those at the helm, who were once on the other side of the barricades from the operators of apartheid operate the same economic system that served to keep them poor and lacking in equal opportunity?
Mandela will undoubtedly rise in glory and walk among his Ancestors.
As for resting in peace, one would hope, rather, that his colossal and indefatigable spirit will continue to roam across South Africa and inspire all of its citizens to work together to build the society of his dreams…. ‘a society which recognises that all people are born equal, with each entitled in equal measure to life, liberty, prosperity, human rights and good governance’.
Picture (home): “Nelson Mandela tributes in Parliament Square” by John Pannell (Flickr – CC BY 2.0)