AiW Guest Kristen Roupenian
A surprising number of essays in Transition’s special issue on Nelson Mandela share the same basic argument: in the ongoing transformation of Mandela into a global icon, something important is being lost. Therefore, those who wish to truly honor Mandela should pay attention to the more complex facets of his story, and we should carry on his legacy not by mythologizing him but by enacting social change in his name.
This is not meant as a criticism. As the issue makes abundantly clear, one year after Mandela’s death, it is impossible to think critically about his legacy without addressing the way he is passing into historical memory—as the last of the Great Men, a saintly embodiment of pragmatism, reconciliation, and hope. The writers and scholars who have contributed to the issue manage the difficult task of paying tribute to Mandela while also working quietly to dismantle the most egregious examples of the hagiography surrounding him. So, for example, Megan Healy-Clancy discusses the way that two recently released biopics erase female contributions to the anti-apartheid struggle, while Marvin Dunn talks about how Mandela’s visit to Miami ignited long-simmering tensions between the city’s African-American, Cuban, and Jewish populations. These essays and others add nuance to our understanding of Mandela while also giving us insight into the cultural and social forces that are shaping the way he will remembered.
The aspect of Mandela’s legacy most in need of protection from hagiographic revisionism, several of the contributors suggest, is his history of radicalism—the fact that he fought before he forgave. Abdeldjalil Larbi Youcef writes in detail about the period Mandela spent learning about armed resistance in Morocco with the Algerian National Liberation Front, and the conclusion of Aaron Bady’s essay explores Mandela’s longstanding and controversial relationship with the PLO. Several pieces note Mandela’s status as co-founder of Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”) the armed branch of the ANC. And in “The Dance Is Not Over,” Wole Soyinka chooses to remember Madiba in a moment not of reconciliation but of rage.
In 1995, Soyinka recounts, after the Ogoni Nine activists had been arrested and were facing the death penalty, Mandela phoned the Nigerian General Sani Abacha and obtained his “personal reassurance” that the sentence would be commuted. When Abacha defied Mandela—and the rest of the international community—by executing the Nine, Mandela reacted with uncharacteristic fury, announcing that “Sani Abacha is sitting on a volcano, and I shall detonate it under him.” This is an unexpected choice of anecdote, not least because—as Soyinka immediately points out—Mandela did not manage to detonate that particular volcano. In Soyinka’s words, “The protagonists of political pragmatism in his government compelled him to backpedal from whatever course of action against the dictator he found appropriate.” There is an unmistakable whiff of critique in the way the story is delivered. For all that Soyinka praises Mandela for his impassioned outcry against Abacha, he is also careful to point out that he himself was never tempted to accept “personal reassurances” from a man he knew to be evil.
But perhaps the most thought-provoking essay is by Xolela Mangcu, a longtime critic of Mandela’s who offers an even bleaker assessment of Mandela’s legacy of compromise. Although he acknowledges that it would be absurd to blame Mandela for all of South Africa’s post-apartheid struggles, Mangcu argues that Mandela’s decision to privilege “democratic state-building and racial reconciliation over racial transformation” put the country on its current course and set the stage for an “unprecedented crisis of leadership” in South Africa’s black community. For Mangcu, despite all of Mandela’s indisputable achievements, his failure to adequately address his country’s legacy of racism and its deep structural inequalities make him a fundamentally tragic figure.
These are only flickers of dissent in an otherwise appropriately laudatory tribute, but they suggest nonetheless that Mandela’s legacy of peace and reconciliation may make him an uneasy match with the current geopolitical moment. Transition is a magazine of the African diaspora based in the US (only about half the contributors to this issue are South African) and editor Alejandro de la Fuente opens the issue by reciting a litany of state sanctioned violence against black men—not in South Africa but closer to home: “We are not ready to let Mandela go. Not now. Not yet. Not after Michael Brown, the teenager from Ferguson, Missouri. Not after Trayvon Martin, the teenager from Miami Gardens, Florida. Not after Eric Garner, the cigarettes guy, of Staten Island, New York.” Maybe it was because I had spent the night before at a protest against racialized police brutality that was several thousand strong, but as I paged through the issue, I thought I could detect, in the contributors’ insistent return to the subject of Mandela’s youthful radicalism, and their sensitivity to the risks of putting peace before justice, an echo of disappointment in a different icon. At the protest I was at, the organizers began by trying to lead the crowd in a chant of “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” an optimistic line inextricably linked to the 2008 Obama campaign. But the chant didn’t catch; it was too long, and people kept stumbling over it. The words the crowd eventually seized on had nothing to do with pragmatism, or compromise, or hope. They were a cry of pure frustration: we can’t breathe.
Kristen Roupenian teaches in the History and Literature program at Harvard University.