AS South African leader Nelson Mandela is laid to rest amid nearly universal praise and admiration, we are witnessing a struggle in real time for how one of the most prominent figures of the 20th century will be understood in the future.
We would do well to consider what we are highlighting from his life, and what we are at risk of forgetting. We should remember he was first and foremost a revolutionary.
Media coverage of his death has focused heavily on Mandela’s ability to forgive those who sentenced him to prison for 27 years for his work against apartheid and his pursuit of reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. But forgiveness is part of, not an exception to, his identity as a revolutionary.
Mandela supported reconciliation rather than retribution because he believed it offered the best way forward for the revolution, and because he was fundamentally devoted to universal human dignity. Remembering him for reconciliation without giving equal weight to justice misrepresents his political values.
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He always understood himself as just one small part of a much larger revolutionary movement. “Free Nelson Mandela” did not become the slogan of the anti-apartheid movement by chance or by force of Mandela’s own ego. While he was in prison, the African National Congress made a conscious, strategic choice to make Mandela the face of its struggle within South Africa and internationally.
After his release, Mandela consistently, insistently identified himself as secondary to the collective leadership of the party and the wider movement.
Talking heads describe Mandela’s humility as a charming personality quirk or as a beatific character trait rather than the resolutely disciplined stance of a revolutionary who put the movement first.
Mandela understood that the revolution remains incomplete. Statements he made toward the end of his public life indicate that he was satisfied that he had done what he could. But they also show an unwavering belief that the struggle would continue beyond his lifetime.
He acknowledged that South Africa continues to grapple with immense social inequality defined primarily, though not exclusively, along racial lines. Militarized police opened fire on striking miners in Marikana last year, echoing state violence from the apartheid era. Gender and homophobic violence continue at epidemic levels.
Mandela forcefully spoke out about what he considered ongoing human rights violations — massive global poverty, the oppression of the Palestinian people and American imperialism in Iraq and elsewhere.
As politicians across the globe seek to bask in Mandela’s afterglow, we should take care not to forget all Mandela stood for. One can admire the person without agreeing with all of his positions.
One should not, however, lionize the person for his political commitments from a safe historical distance while ignoring the implications of those commitments for the present.
Mandela’s legacy may indeed be the uplifting story of a remarkable man who overcame personal tragedy and injustice to forgive his persecutors and move toward a better future for his nation and world. But it is also the story of a tireless campaigner who suffered many successes and failures in a lifetime of ongoing struggles for justice at home and abroad.
To reduce those successes to “Madiba magic” or “Mandela’s miracle” erases the decades of work by countless activists in democratic movements within and beyond South Africa. It reduces the measure of a man who was the movement’s most visible leader and one of its most dedicated activists.
And it absolves us of the responsibility to carry on his work.
Ron Krabill is associate dean of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at UW Bothell. He is the author of “Starring Mandela and Cosby: Media and the End(s) of Apartheid.”