A bit late on this, but here you go:
The natural death of Nelson Mandela is the end of not only a monumental life but also an historic era. Like any spectacular cultural icon, Mandela was many things to all of us. Yet if we are to be true to his complex life and precious legacy, we must pierce through the superficial surfaces and market-driven fanfares. Mandela was a child of his age and a man who transcended and transformed his times. He was a revolutionary South African nationalist who embraced communists even as he embodied his Christian faith and enacted his democratic temperament. He was a congenial statesman whose prudential style and message of reconciliation saved South Africa from an ugly and bloody civil war.
Mandela the man was rooted in a rich African tradition of soulcraft that put a premium on personal piety, cultural manners and social justice. Ancestor appreciation, gentle embrace of others and fair treatment of all was shot through the “soul-making” of the young Nelson Mandela. The fusion of his royal family background, high Victorian and Edwardian education and anti-imperialist formation yielded a person of immense self-respect, moral integrity and political courage. These life-enhancing qualities pit Mandela against the life-denying realities of the dark underside of European imperialism—realities of pervasive terror, chronic trauma and vicious stigma. Yet though deeply wounded and perennially scarred by these realities, Mandela emerged from such nightmarish circumstances with sterling character—a militant tenderness, subversive sweetness and radical gentleness even acknowledged by his foes. To put it bluntly, Mandela the man chose to live a life of wise remembrance, moral reverence and political resistance rather than a life of raw ambition, blind avarice and personal subservience. More pointedly, Mandela refused to be intimidated by the Goliath-like powers of an authoritarian regime.
Mandela the statesman tried to hold together a fragile emerging multiracial democracy and heal a traumatized society against the backdrop of a possible civil war. This incredible balancing act highlighted the spiritual qualities and moral sentiments of Mandela the man—and made him the democratic saint of our time. Yet this gallant effort also downplayed Mandela the revolutionary movement leader who highlighted targeting wealth inequality, corporate power and sheer corruption and cronyism in high places. Mandela is the undisputed father of South African democracy because the freedom movement he led broke the back of old-style apartheid. Yet his neoliberal policies—much to the delight of corporate elites and new black middle-class beneficiaries—failed to address in a serious manner the massive unemployment, inadequate housing, poor medical facilities and decrepit education. The masses of precious poor people—disproportionately black—have been overlooked by the full-fledge integration of the South African economy into the global capitalist world.
I asked the great Nelson Mandela about this grave situation after I gave the Nelson Mandela lecture in Pretoria a few years ago. I lambasted the Santa-Clausification of Nelson Mandela that turned Mandela the man and the revolutionary leader into an unthreatening, huggable old man with a smile with bags full of toys—especially for cheering oligarchs like the Oppenheimers or newly rich elites like Cyril Ramaphosa. Even global neoliberal figures like Bill Clinton and Richard Stengel of Time Magazine become major caretakers of Mandela’s legacy as his revolutionary comrades fade into the dustbin of history. As I approached him, he greeted me with a genuine smile of deep love and respect, expressed in the most elevating and encouraging language his appreciation of my righteous indignation in my speech and told me to be steadfast in my witness.
The most valuable lesson we can draw from the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela is to be neither afraid nor intimidated by the neoliberal powers that be. We must create our own deep democratic forms of soulcraft, social movements and statecraft—forms that resist the dominant forces of privatizing, financializing and militarizing that overlook poor and working people. Nelson Mandela met the most pressing challenges of his day with great dignity, decency and integrity. Let us confront the free-market fundamentalism, escalating militarism and insidious xenophobia in our day with his spirit of love, courage and humor.
We lost a hero on December 5th. But for his legacy to stay true to the values he stood for, his life and achievements must not be misunderstood. Let em know what you think in the comments.