By Benjamin Fogel
In the course of his lifetime, Nelson Mandela saw his elevation in the West from terrorist to secular sainthood. The world’s media continues churning out headline after headline on his life and legacy, remembering him as one of the exemplary moral figures of the 20th century alongside the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Mandela is lauded as a hero by everyone from Lindsey Lohan to ex-apartheid apologists like British Prime Minister David Cameron. Yet he wasn’t a pacifist, a tame advocate of nonviolence, an non-ideological figure of singular moral righteousness. He was an exemplary revolutionary, fueled by political commitment.
Yet while Mandela was certainly a “great historical figure,” too many of the obituaries and tributes published so far have been unable to move beyond hagiography or platitude. Far too little critical reflection on his actual political legacy or analysis of the nature and dangers of the Mandela mythologies has been written so far. The image of a progressive “rainbow nation” generally on the right track invoked in many of these pieces bares little relation to the actual social realities of post-apartheid South Africa.
The truth is that in South Africa much of what constituted apartheid still exists, enforced no longer through the laws, decrees and brute force of the state, but by new forms which reproduce themselves through the market. It from this basis that an honest assessment of Mandela’s legacy must begin. But in order to do this, one needs to separate Mandela the myth from the actual Mandela.
There were really two Mandelas. The first is that of the revolutionary, the lawyer, the politician, flaws and all. The second is a sanitized myth: the father of the nation, the global icon beloved by everyone from the purveyors of global humanitarian platitudes to even the erstwhile enemies of the African National Congress. This Mandela is removed of his humanity and touted as an abstract signifier of moral righteousness.
The first Mandela was willing, along with tens of thousands of others, to lay down his life in the struggle against a racist system. He was a lifelong anti-imperialist who never hesitated to stand up to the US on matters of foreign policy, and never ceased in his solidarity with the Palestinian struggle or with countries like Cuba who stood as allies in the struggle against apartheid.