The flags are at half-staff here in Irvine, mourning the death, and commemorating the life of Nelson Mandela. President Mandela outlived and outperformed most of his critics, leaving us with an unduly warm and fuzzy picture of a genial elder statesmen.
There’s lots of reporting on Mandela’s life and legacy (I like Mitchell Hartman’s Marketplace piece, which quotes me on the anti-apartheid movement), and entrepreneurial politicians of the left and right are trying to hop in, appropriating the man and the moment to their own purposes. One egregious example is former Senator Rick Santorum’s long struggle against apartheid in South Africa to his own campaign against the Affordable Care Act (and, implicitly, for president).
We should remember that Mandela mattered most when he was far more controversial. He went to jail in 1962, explaining that he endorsed the African National Congress’s decision to employ a variety of means, including violence, to end apartheid. He was labelled a terrorist, not just in South Africa, but also in the United States, and spent 27 years in prison. He claimed, in 1962 and much later, that he never doubted apartheid would fall and South Africa would develop a multiracial democracy. I don’t believe that, but I admire his ability to stay on that lofty message. His cause was supported by Communists, both inside South Africa and outside, and he never renounced those who supported the ANC in difficult times to curry favor with those who did not. I admire this too.
As President, he was stalwart in advancing a vision of a multi-racial state and NOT punishing or even stigmatizing those who had jailed him. Given his experience, this is extraordinary. I think it makes more sense to see him as a man who controlled and managed bitterness and resentment than one who felt no animus about apartheid in general and his own imprisonment. He was after something bigger. He got a lot of it.
In 1990 I was part of a crowd of more than one quarter million on the Charles River Esplanade who greeted Nelson Mandela, recently released from prison, when he visited Boston on a fundraising tour. It was joyous, crowded, multi-racial (unusual in Boston at that time), and inspiring. Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo played music.
Now that others can try to speak for him, we will hear partisans of all kinds of causes attempting to claim Mandela’s strength, spirit, and effectiveness. We would do well to remember how the speakers dealt with Mandela when he was alive–and in need. Conservative Republicans, like Senator Santorum, were actively hostile to the man and the cause. Without recognition of this turn, it’s probably wise to take such claims skeptically.
It’s hard to figure out what Mandela would have said or done absent the man himself, but we might consider those who supported him and the cause when it was far harder to do so. Students who campaigned for their colleges and universities to divest their holdings in companies that did business in South Africa, constructing shantytowns on their quads were among them, facing charges of naivete–or much worse. But they helped get Nelson Mandela out of prison, to visit Boston, and to become president of South Africa.
It’s hard to imagine those people campaigning against immigrant rights or universal health care, or for mindless tax and spending cuts. It’s easier to see their children, now pushing for their campuses to channel their endowments away from carbon pollution, channeling Mandela’s spirit and his supporters’ dreams.