My heart is heavy. The braided life of pain, joy, courage, strength and love – indeed, all that was the brilliant complex persona of Nelson Mandela is no more. Mandela is the most significant public intellectual of my lifetime. He spoke to the many threads of my identity – my Caribbean/African intellectual roots, the historical realities of all Africa’s children labouring to make visible the continuing realities of a formal colonialism largely seen as past, my aspirations for a deeply meaningful life in the law and all my hope for the full realization of Black/African empowerment in my lifetime.
Mandela demonstrated that spiritual politics is not mere rhetoric. It can transform the world. He demonstrated without equivocation that civility, dignity and leadership were indigenous to Africa. He ushered in a model for transitional governance rooted in the South African philosophical ethic of Ubuntu of his forefathers/mothers. In this effort, he joined in solidarity with fellow activists including Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The South African Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) is the aspirational model for non-violent change echoed and desired by many around the world.
One need only read Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa, to realize the complexity of the model. Most importantly, the TRC made the history of South African Black peoples one that could be internalized and claimed by White South Africans estranged, deformed and sometimes yearning through the corruption that was apartheid. As she said in her closing poem, speaking to and about the TRC participants:
Because of you
This country no longer lies
Between us but within
The TRC was a public act of acknowledgement and contrition divorced from any South African state desire to be absolved of legal liability. This came later under other leadership. It was a shining beacon of governance by example. We were witness to forgiveness, as political method, raw and true. South Africans from diverse communities, came together in the fullness of their imperfect humanity. This moment required trust. Trust in their hearts’ yearning for peace. Trust in their spiritual imagination. Trust in their leader, Mandela. Mandela’s generosity of spirit upon his release was rooted within Ubuntu. He had already shown them the path through his own grace upon his release from captivity. Through their participation in the TRC, South Africans embraced their leader and sought to succor him while seeking to alleviate their own pain.
There is absolutely no doubt that Nelson Mandela was extraordinary. In a world where the cult of personality often reduces the actions of individuals to content-less fodder for the infotainment industry – he stood alone. The joy and admiration in his presence and words transcended race, class, age, gender and nation state boundaries. All the boundaries that divide us became ephemera. He was not simply charismatic. He was loved. Loved by his country(wo)men and embraced by the world. His words and actions transformed international governance, as the leaders of the world saw a reflection of themselves as whole souled. For those moments, they were willing to see themselves through the eyes of this unique man, a Black man – a man they wished to emulate.
Mandela’s entire public life was a political call for action. As the elder statesman of the African continent, he sought to harness the collaborative potential of its disparate nations. He sought to empower and galvanize the African Union as a platform for Africa’s control of its continental politics. Today, the same world leaders who rise to applaud Mandela, the icon, remain reluctant to take political direction from Mandela, the African statesman. There was no risk to Western nations in condemning apartheid but there is risk and a conflict of interest in redressing the economic power imbalance between the African continent and the West. There has been an almost total failure by Western nations to critically evaluate and account for the practices of their institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and WTO that consciously maintain the economic subordination of Africa and other nations from the South. There is continued resistance to acknowledge the entitlement of Africa’s multiplicity of nations to equality in the community of nations. The missionary ethic of “rescue” remains, albeit with a shrinking of the alms provided. Mandela’s continental and international leadership in this area is far less comfortable a topic at this moment of mourning.
There is a dangerous seduction in the emphasis of Western leaders on the legacy of Mandela post-release. The man of ideas formed through a crucible of pain is seen in an almost ahistorical manner. His admirable endpoint can easily become a blunt instrument to disempower Black struggle just as easily as he can be a marker of Black contribution to global public life. For how would a young Mandela fare if born today? Would the purpose underlying his militancy have been sufficient to transcend the label of terrorist? Would he still serve a lengthy incarceration on Robben Island now comforted by the companionship of Guantanamo? Would neoliberal trade interests in economic relations with the South African state have cloaked apartheid in the name of amoral capitalism? What of the funding of anti-apartheid activities by those of us abroad – terrorist financing or solidarity? Perhaps in grief, I become fanciful. Yet, I fear that we are best at recognizing the fully formed and verified activist and have very little capacity to recognize them in political utero.
Similarly, we crave peace and appropriately celebrate our unique warrior peacemakers. Mandela was such a man. There is a caution. There is a state interest in raising on high our peacemakers while incarcerating or stigmatizing those who engage in direct struggle. We have seen how functional amnesia about the political history of Black liberation has resulted in the blunting of Martin Luther King Jr.’s politics, Frantz Fanon reduced to a few aphorisms and no recollection of the contribution of giants such as CLR James to the liberation struggles in Africa, America and the Caribbean. The personal history of Mandela, the warrior, that inspires many, can become a toothless Hallmark card sentiment, in the hands of states driven to contain and derail the equality struggles of those they oppress. Mandela’s extraordinary transcendence as a man of peace must not be manipulated to become a weapon of judgement used against Black/African peoples, particularly our youth, who today continue to labour after him. “Lest we forget” is a sentiment that applies to many communities. It should be a call to arms for those of us mourning Mandela’s passing today.
Mandela embodied our dignity as Black peoples. Through every action, he made our history of racism present and our possibility to transcend the stigmata of race/racism, real. It is so very true that Mandela is responsible for catalyzing tremendous change within and outside South Africa. Yet in 2013, Black peoples are vulnerable in every part of the world in which they live. From a Pan-Africanist perspective we are Black/African peoples in grave danger. My pain has been compounded as I watch world leaders genuinely mourning him while failing to see the Black/African peoples within their own body politic. They speak of his legacy of change while failing to account for the destruction of the mechanisms such as untied aid and robust human rights instruments that would ensure the dignity and equality of the Black and other racialized peoples in their midst. Borders become more impenetrable. Black flesh consumed during slavery is no longer as appealing as Africa’s rich resources. The rapacious hunger of over-development fueling Europe and America continues unabated. Wilfully blind they speak. I wait for them to act.
Hearts don’t break but they can be bruised and battered. Mandela wove us together as a global community. A unique and powerful thread has snapped. Our intimacy transmuted into a collective wail … who, how, when? Who will replace the irreplaceable and lead us to a place where we transcend our differences? How will we sustain and advance his legacy of spiritual politics? When will we truly be free? In this place of pain and unknowing, we risk the narrowing of Mandela’s vision. Ultimately, we can all choose to be a living legacy – to break cycles, to sacrifice individual retribution for the greater community and to always live in hope.