I expected to hear the news. I did not know when it would arrive. I did not believe that he had much longer to live. So, when, this afternoon, i heard that Nelson Mandela, at the age of 95, had passed away, i was nevertheless surprised at my reaction. Actually there were two reactions.
The first reaction was that of the loss of an elderly relative. I know that sounds melodramatic but i feel that i grew up with Nelson Mandela. From my earliest days as a young radical i heard the name “Nelson Mandela”. I learned about the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress, and later the other forces that contributed to the South African Freedom struggle. His picture was in my home in the form of a poster. He was present in my life. And, at the age of 95, one could not be surprised in hearing of his passing.
The second reaction was very different, and i am almost afraid to share it. It was one of celebration, that is celebrating the very fact that this man lived and made the immense contributions that he made. Celebrating his commitment and integrity; celebrating the extent of his courage, a courage that few of us can every imagine. I found myself celebrating his comrades, some alive, many dead, who, against all odds, took up a multi-decades struggle for freedom and social transformation. I celebrated the fact that Mandela believed so passionately in organization and did not wish to be worshiped as the ‘supreme leader.’ He saw in organization, that is the organization of the people, the key to liberation.
Nelson Mandela will be mourned and celebrated. But something else will happen. There will soon, probably very soon, be efforts to reinterpret his life. I do not mean leaving things out, as happened in the otherwise excellent film just released about his life. Rather, as we have experienced here in the USA with great leaders like King and Malcolm, there will be efforts to convert Mandela into a very safe character in order to advance the ends of the global elite. We will, for instance, not hear much about Mandela’s refusal to renounce armed struggle against apartheid, even though such a renunciation could have resulted in his release much earlier. We will not hear much about his expressions of gratitude to the Cuban people for their consistent support to the people of Angola, Namibia and South Africa who were fighting the South African apartheid regime. We will not hear about Mandela’s consistent, unwavering support for the Palestinian people’s struggle for national liberation.
The battle over Mandela’s legacy will not await his burial nor will it await a period of mourning. It happens immediately. And for that reason how we interpret his life and work will determine which Nelson Mandela we are actually recognizing and praising.
Mandela was not a saint, a point that he himself frequently made. He was also someone who made decisions and choices with which others in the South African movement–people of character and integrity–may not have agreed. None of that should distract us from appreciating his significance. After all, Mandela served to introduce the people of the world to the South African people. He opened a door, through his presence and struggle, to the battle that was waged by millions of otherwise faceless but very human, men and women.
Mandela will be missed. But we cannot end our thought there. We must express our appreciation to the Creator of all things that this planet was blessed with Nelson Mandela and those who stood with him when the global elite declared the situation hopeless.