Following the death of Nelson Mandela there has been a cascade of condolences, commemoration and support; politicians, celebrities and athletes are keen to show their pride in Mandela and recognise his momentous contribution to the world.
He is being presented as an icon of forgiveness and reconciliation, even in the face of one of the most venomous and viscously racist regimes known to mankind. This legacy is an injustice to a man who stood for far more profound and entrenched ideals.
Mandela’s passing has bought to the forefront a wider societal, political and historical problem. How do we commemorate leaders who successfully fought against unjust systems, people who were vilified beyond belief in their own lifetime, and are now viewed as quasi-divine leaders for human rights? This year saw the 50th anniversary commemorations of Dr Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, and with the sad loss of Mandela the elevation of these leaders has gone unchallenged. These two men are not saints. They each had their flaws and their vices. King was a renowned adulterer; Mandela used violence against a violent and unjust society. We must not allow ourselves to forget the context which created these men.
…Mandela was vehemently opposed to the global spread of oppression through poverty…
The leader-centric perception of social movements is inherently dangerous; it understates and ignores a myriad of individual agents. However, this vision of history is even more menacing in the context of Mandela and King; rather than acknowledging our own complicity and guilt in facilitating these racist structures we focus on the exemplary and exceptional leadership of a few men, as women have been left almost void of agency in these struggles. The memory of Mandela who symbolically donned a Springbok shirt in an act of reconciliation is far more comfortable to the white power structure than a militant, and rightfully angry, young man. Similarly, the memory of King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech in 1963 is far more palatable than the Democratic Socialist, anti-Vietnam and critical King who emerged in 1967.
The horrors and atrocities of Apartheid cannot be permitted to be forgotten. The elevation of Mandela to perpetual sainthood hides and exonerates the crucial role Britain played in establishing and facilitating the continuation of the Apartheid regime. Mandela was vehemently opposed to the global spread of oppression through poverty, yet coverage has focused almost entirely on his racial struggle. This ostensible and laudable campaign deserves recognition and commemoration, but not at the cost of forgetting how that brutal and potent system of Apartheid effected Mandela, or at the cost of forgetting our own complicity and shame in allowing such a system to fester and grow under the watchful eye of the West without suitable condemnation.