July 17, 2008 - Issue 286
It is humbling and unsettling attempting to appraise the significance of an icon, especially at the time of that icon's 90th birthday. Nevertheless, we must honor Nelson Mandela while at the same time situating him in a broader and complicated context.
In important respects there are several different “Nelson Mandelas.” For many of us who were active in and around the anti-apartheid support movement, Nelson Mandela became the face of the South African liberation struggle. This was true not only for activists, but also for much of the rest of the sympathetic world. In this respect the campaign to free him was much more than a demand for the freedom of one individual, but represented a mass means of protesting the illegitimacy and injustice of the apartheid regime.
The “second” Nelson Mandela was the post-prison/pre-president Mandela. Here we witnessed Nelson Mandela serving as the hero, negotiator, and unifier. Taking charge of the African National Congress's efforts to bring about democratic rule, he, ultimately, decided upon significant compromises that ended apartheid. Mandela should not be credited or criticized for the decisions of this era as if they were done by one individual alone. The ANC had concluded that a military victory over the apartheid regime was unlikely and, with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, a new international political situation had emerged. The 1994 democratic elections are a tribute to the work of Mandela and the ANC leadership, but the compromises that were made during the period of negotiations were controversial. Political rule was turned over to the Black majority, but the economy remained largely in the hands of the whites who had dominated the country.
“third” Nelson Mandela could be seen during his term as President of
South Africa. While steps were taken immediately to eliminate all vestiges
of the apartheid regime, the ANC - under his leadership - chose to reject
a previous progressive economic development approach and, instead, institute
a very pro-privatization/pro-”free market” program known as “Growth,
Employment and Redistribution” (GEAR). GEAR turned the entire pre-liberation
approach of the ANC on its head and instead emphasized integrating
“fourth” Nelson Mandela is the post-Presidency Mandela. Generally speaking
he has been an outspoken human rights advocate taking very strong and
public stands against the
this said, it is important for us to recognize that the triumphs and
challenges faced by Nelson Mandela are illustrative of the contradictions
we are living through with the collapse of what Egyptian theorist Samir
Amin terms the “national populist projects.” This is an expression referring
to the post-World War II efforts at national independence and liberation
in the so-called
Nevertheless, Nelson Mandela remains my hero. Precisely because Mandela is human, rather than a god, he is not perfect and not above contradictions. He has been, however, a voice for rationality in a world that seems to increasingly succumb to the irrational; a voice for justice, in a world that often seems to tolerate some of the worst forms of injustice. He has also been a person of tremendous courage who resisted pressures to give up or to despair that many others would not have been able to withstand. For whatever else he will always be the Nelson Mandela imprinted on my old - but preserved - anti-apartheid poster: Defiant and dignified always.
Happy birthday, comrade Mandela!
BlackCommentator.com Executive Editor, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and co-author of the book, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice (University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.
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