Nelson Mandela: His Meaning for Us Today

When Nelson Mandela died one year ago on December 5, 2013 at the age of 95, the outpouring of praise from the political and economic power elite and establishment media figures around the world was overwhelming. Mandela was often described as the world’s most admired human being. In larger-than-life terms, he was lionized, romanticized, and praised in the highest terms. As President Barack Obama stated, Mandela was such an incredible man, not only for us, but now for the ages.

In many ways, such praise is encouraging in our age when the wealthy and powerful, usually lacking any admirable values, are held up by their mass media as our success stories. In a world with such dehumanizing, violent, and unjust images and unworthy role models, the overwhelming praise for Mandela is hopeful. His was a life of dedicated struggle for freedom, self-sacrifice, suffering, courage, and admirable moral, economic, and political values.

The Hypocritical Repackaging of Mandela as Celebrity

In other ways, such praise is hollow, hypocritical, self-serving, and troubling, especially when uttered so easily by many who condemned Mandela during his lifetime of struggles for freedom and who continue to uphold the most anti-Mandela priorities and values. The wealthy and powerful, so lavish in their praise for Mandela, conveniently fail to mention how our economic and political elite favored white apartheid, racist South Africa and classified Mandela as a “terrorist.” During the Nixon Administration, the Kissinger Doctrine singled out white supremacist, apartheid South Africa as one of our key, global, pivotal allies. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher opposed the anti-apartheid divestment movement, despised the “terrorist” Mandela, and opposed his release from prison. Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense and later Vice President under George Bush, was extreme in expressing his hatred and contempt for Mandela, and he viciously labeled Mandela a terrorist who should not be freed from prison.

In general, those with corporate economic, political, and military power in the U.S. identified with the anti-Mandela white power elite in South Africa, who were pro-Western, anti-Communist, and provided access to South Africa’s diamonds and other vast economic resources and their exploited labor. Indeed, our power elite, now professing such admiration for Mandela, conveniently fail to note that he remained on the U.S. terrorist list until 2008, even while he served as President of South Africa’s first multiracial democratic government!

The U.S. and global power elite now praises Mandela by emphasizing his great humanity and his ability to forgive his enemies, even those who imprisoned him for 27 years. However, they do a Mandela makeover, ignoring the real Mandela and his values. They conveniently omit his radical critique of U.S. and other unjust relations of domination, corporate capitalism, imperialism, inequality and exploitation, militarism and war making, racism and other forms of oppression.

It is important to distinguish between celebrating Mandela, in which there is so much to celebrate in appropriating what we can learn and apply from his life and his values, and packaging and commodifying him as a celebrity. This is similar to what has happened to Martin Luther King, Jr., seen most clearly on the annual King Day celebrations in January. King is selectively repackaged as a kind of Hallmark Greeting Card, and those with anti-King values, priorities, and policies can so easily and shamelessly praise this great man. In reducing Nelson Mandela to a celebrity, those with power define how we should celebrate him. They selectively celebrate, soften, and depoliticize a completely political person who repeatedly proclaimed “the struggle is my life.” We get a fake, comfortable, depoliticized Mandela as icon, not a real complex human being with strengths and weaknesses. We do not get his real legacy, which should focus on his central message of the need to dedicate our lives to the long struggle for freedom, justice, and equality.

What exacerbates this problem of the powerful reducing Mandela to a lovable, forgiving, depoliticized, safe celebrity is the widespread global yearning of so many who suffer, including many exploited, oppressed, and impoverished South Africans, to regard the very human leader as a kind of Messiah figure. We find a powerful Messianic, redemption politics, with the leader presented as a larger-than-life deified figure, and this easily plays into the larger-than-life celebrity status. In fairness, Nelson Mandela also contributed to this transformation of Mandela into a celebrity, especially during the last two decades of his life. Partially based on very practical calculations, but also enhanced by some personality weaknesses, Mandela, for all of his integrity and admirable values, enjoyed being flattered and enjoyed rubbing shoulders with and being praised by media celebrities, entertainment stars, the rich and the powerful.

Therefore, in assessing the meaning and significance of Nelson Mandela for us today, we are confronted with many contradictory questions: Which Nelson Mandela? Which Mandela narrative? Which Mandela values and legacy? Do we accept the misleading and often completely false Mandela narrative, promoted by those with wealth and power and with their anti-Mandela values and policies, and in which Mandela is reduced to a celebrated celebrity? Do we accept a kind of depoliticized and disempowering narrative in which Mandela is celebrated as a kind of Messianic leader who will save us and overcome widespread evil and injustice? Or do we accept a Mandela narrative, more consistent with how he actually viewed his life and struggles and more consistent with the values and commitments of a remarkable but also flawed human being; a profound and complex narrative that we can selectively appropriate and reformulate in ways that are contextually relevant to our peace and justice struggles?

The Real Mandela and His Legacy

My original intention was to develop each of the following Mandela topics in this article. However, because of space limitations, I’ll do little more than delineate a list of such topics that address the meaning and significance of Nelson Mandela for us today

1) Mandela was most concerned with the suffering of the most disadvantaged, those living under the greatest injustice. He was primarily a revolutionary, a freedom fighter for equality and justice. He reacted strongly against injustice, and one of his frequent responses was “This isn’t right.” As he developed as a freedom fighter against injustice, he developed his remarkable capacity for self-control, controlling his emotions, self-discipline, strength of will, focus, and seeing the world with its injustices clearly so that one could respond intelligently and most effectively.

2) Mandela emphasized the central importance of core principles and values. One could then work out appropriate tactics and strategy. He was a radical egalitarian, who believed in the core principle that everyone should have equal rights. During the 1980s while in prison and after his release on February 11, 1990, he focused on the core principle that South Africa should become a multiracial, democratic, constitutional, unified nation with a one-person, one-vote basis.

3) Although he experienced so much racism, classism, exploitation, injustice, humiliation, and inhumanity, Mandela believed that human beings are basically good. He was always trying to see the good in others. This was central to his remarkable focus on forgiveness. Evil was not innate. Not only are human beings basically good, but also if you approach them as if they are good, this will more likely bring out the best in them.

4) In contrast to our dominant Western view of the separate individual with one’s individualistic orientation, Mandela emphasized the basic interconnectedness and unity of life. This is often expressed through the African concept of Ubuntu. I am an integral part of a meaningful whole, and I am human only in relation to others. This was part of the tribal decision-making process of Mandela’s youth, in which group consensus was valued over conflict; in his view of his African National Congress as a collective, in which others were “comrades” and part of a unified community; and his emphasis on restorative justice, forgiveness, depersonalizing evil, and struggling for freedom, justice, and equality in which each one of us can realize our true interconnected unity with others.

5) Although Mandela should be seen as a freedom fighter in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, who spent 21 years in South Africa, and Martin Luther King, Jr., he did not fully endorse their views of nonviolence. Mandela personally disliked violence, but he disagreed with earlier African National Congress policies upholding nonviolence starting with its founding in 1912; the position of Chief Albert Luthuli, the proponent of nonviolence and head of the ANC, who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960, as was Mandela in 1993; and the philosophies of Gandhi and King, both of whom he greatly admired. For Mandela, nonviolence is not an absolute principle, philosophy, or way of life. In different contexts, where nonviolence is not possible or effective, the use of violence may be justified.

Contextualized Limits and Mandela Controversies

Nelson Mandela’s real life and legacy raise difficult questions about the need to understand the specific contexts within which Mandela and we live and how these contexts reveal real limits of what we can achieve. These contextual power structures and relations are both limiting and enabling. From his youth and throughout his life, Mandela was willing to take big risks, defy authority, challenge or evade status quo limitations, and radically change his own positions. But there were always real economic, political, military, cultural, and historical limitations on his remarkable achievements. In other words, in dealing with the real world, and not some utopian world of his imagination, Mandela had many personal and political setbacks, and he was necessarily limited in the extent to which he and his comrades could reshape their South African world in ways that reflected his vision, ideals, and values.

It is certainly open to debate as to how Nelson Mandela understood the changing limits throughout his life, and whether he redefined his positions in the most adequate ways. A small sample of such topics on contextual limits would include the following: Mandela’s earlier anti-white, Africanist view of the African National Conference as only open to blacks and his later formulations of a multiracial ANC and South Africa; his earlier anti-Communist views and exclusion of Communists from the ANC and his later embrace of important Communists as among his mentors and closest comrades in the ANC; his conclusion that policies of nonviolence had become ineffective and suicidal, with his launching of the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, the Spear of the Nation) in 1961 as the arm of the ANC dedicated to armed struggle directed at weakening the hold of the white apartheid regime; his conclusion while in prison that the liberation forces could not defeat the white racist regime through armed struggle; his subsequent decision, defying the ANC positions on negotiating and on collective leadership, that he would negotiate on his own with representatives of the white power structure; and most controversially, in my view, his secret meetings and negotiations with the most powerful white economic leaders after his release from prison that led to radical shifts in his own values and policies.

The ongoing debate often focuses on what limits necessitated changes in values, priorities, and policies and which changes were not necessary but reflected disastrous shifts, concessions, and even betrayals. This is significant in terms of Mandela’s ineffectiveness in realizing many of his major goals during his Presidency. It is especially significant when examining Mandela’s post-apartheid, independent South Africa with growing class inequality, incredible poverty and frustration and violence among the black masses, continuing white power and privilege, and the rapid emergence of a corrupt, wealthy, black elite. What happened to Mandela’s progressive agenda?

Through his secret meetings and negotiations with the white power elite, with all of their carrots and sticks, Mandela accepted loan arrangements with the International Monetary Fund and its structural adjustment requirements, endorsed what has been labeled as “the U.S. Consensus Plan,” and adopted policies of neoliberalism promoted by globalized corporate capitalism. The results for the overwhelming majority of South Africa have been disastrous.

In fairness, the situation that confronted Mandela was very complex and daunting with South Africa’s large debt; the collapse of the Soviet Union and the aggression of triumphalist globalized capitalism; the fact that Mandela and the ANC were part of a freedom movement with limited knowledge of economics and of the politics of running a nation; and, most importantly, Mandela’s understandable immediate priority of avoiding a likely civil war, with an incredible bloodbath, and creating a unified, multiracial, democratic nation that would not repeat the patterns of extreme divisiveness, dictatorship, tribalism, religious hatred and violence, and genocide found throughout Africa.

It is easy to second guess and have a critical analysis in hindsight, recognizing what has happened to South Africa and the globalized world, but it is fair to ask whether Nelson Mandela was pressured, flattered, and seduced by those with dominant power in ways that greatly sabotaged and subverted his vision, core values, and priorities, often expressed upon his release from prison and to the end of his life. Mandela is often praised for adopting a more “mature” and realistic “pragmatism,” but questions remain as to whether he compromised too much and unwisely gave away concessions that were not pragmatically necessary. Did he give such a high priority to overcoming the fears of whites and winning over their trust that he deemphasized his previous emphasis on the needs of the exploited and disadvantaged masses and what was needed for radical changes in the unjust power relations?

And, perhaps most troubling, did Mandela betray the faith he had always had in the power of revolutionary struggle of the freedom movement to bring about the societal changes at the heart of his vision, values, and priorities? Did he instead attempt, rather successfully, to control and subvert Chris Hani and other revolutionaries in the ANC and the revolutionary mass struggle of which he had been such an inspirational leader?

Those who disagreed with Mandela’s changing priorities and policies at the time raised such questions earlier, and they are increasingly raised by his comrades who now question whether they had betrayed their earlier confidence in the power of the people. Were they too eager to reach reactionary unjust agreements with those with dominant power globally and in South Africa?

The University of Maine and Mandela

“Apartheid” is a Dutch Afrikaans word in South Africa meaning “separateness.” It was the name used for an economic, political, legal, and social system of the separation and control of black Africans and other nonwhites by the dominant white minority. It finally became the official system of apartheid or “separate development” of the Afrikaner National Party that ruled South Africa from 1948 until 1994.

Educating ourselves and others about the system of apartheid, showing solidarity with the liberation movement in South Africa and throughout the world, and exposing U.S. and University of Maine complicity in profiting from apartheid became major issues at UMaine, starting in the late 1970s and continuing for a decade. We had the Maine Peace Action Committee South Africa subcommittee that met every week and planned numerous activities. The Maine Peace Action Committee Newsletter, now in its 40th year of publication, contains numerous articles documenting different stages of this struggle for peace and justice. At UMaine, the anti-apartheid movement involved doing research and raising consciousness; arranging numerous South African speakers, films, and cultural programs; and engaging in dialogue, lobbying, demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins. In 1982, the University of Maine (and the Maine System) agreed to divest all of their holdings in corporations and banks doing business in South Africa (one-third of the principle portfolio). We became one the first ten universities in the U.S. to divest completely. It took six more years of intense organizing and struggle before the semi-private University of Maine Foundation agreed to divest its large holdings in apartheid South Africa. We had the sense of a spectacular, rare, significant, and meaningful victory.

It’s interesting to note, especially in light of the dominant Mandela narrative of the mass media, that Nelson Mandela was not the central focus of our many lectures by South Africans and others, films, plays, articles, demonstrations, and demands. The focus was on the history, economics, and racism of the apartheid system, the many components of the freedom movement, U.S. and UMaine unjust complicity, and what we could do to change this. We, of course, were always aware of Mandela’s imprisonment, and when he was dramatically released from prison, we held our own huge, impassioned, wonderful celebration. At this celebratory event, I read some of Mandela’s heroic and defiant speech at the Ravonia Trial in 1964 before his imprisonment. This included his words that had so inspired us, proclaiming that he was prepared to die for freedom: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.” Mandela continued: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

In 1990, after his dramatic release from prison, Mandela went on a tour of the United States that included being honored at a huge evening gathering at Yankee Stadium in New York. A group of us, who had been anti-apartheid activities for many years, gathered during the day at a church for workshops and celebrations. Suddenly, to our great surprise, Nelson Mandela appeared, much to the overwhelming tearful and joyful responses of the activists. I’ll always remember his words. “Tonight, all of the famous influential politicians and dignitaries will praise me. However, I want you to know that I’ll never forget who my real friends are, those who struggled all those years against the apartheid system and for my freedom.” In the last years of his life, Mandela made similar kinds of statements.

Mandela Gives Us Hope

While preparing several Nelson Mandela talks after his death and in writing this article, it struck me how most students and community members easily admire Mandela and his message and genuinely believe in equality, freedom, democracy, and the need to overcome the injustices and oppressions of economic exploitation, racism, sexism, and environmental destruction. But we feel powerless, are so easily discouraged, and are often cynical. When one begins to appreciate what Mandela went through, his suffering and sacrifice and long struggle, it really puts into perspective how easily we become discouraged, feel hopeless, and give up.

This gets at the real legacy of Nelson Mandela and his meaning for us today. Mandela leaves us with a legacy of hope; that even in the darkest of times, we can live meaningful value-based lives of integrity and bring about dramatic, qualitative changes in the unjust status quo. Mandela shows us that we can live lives of admirable courage, even when we have deep fears and insecurities, as he often had. In an age when we are socialized to desire instant rewards and gratifications, Mandela teaches us the necessary value of disciplined will power and perseverance, as evidenced in the title of his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, and in his frequent declarations that we must view what we are doing “in the long run.” Mandela shows us the core importance of having worthy principles and values, of clarifying what we really believe, and then, as he quoted Gandhi, “Be the change you seek.”

In an age when I am socialized to view myself as separate, isolated I-me, egotistic individual, who lives in an adversarial world of win-lose competitions and learns to calculate what is in my own narrow self-interest, Mandela teaches us that such aggressive self-interested individualism is false and destructive; that I am really an integral part of interconnected unified wholes in which others are a necessary part of who I am and how I can live a meaningful life.

Mandela’s legacy and meaning for us today, as informed by the topics delineated in the second section of this article, teaches us that while dedicating our lives to struggles for justice based on living lives of integrity with worthy values and ideals, we can also reach out to others with a sprit of forgiveness, truth, and reconciliation.

So what is Nelson Mandela’s legacy for us today? We know the legacy being presented to us of the establishment, depoliticized, commodified and branded Mandela as celebrity. But there is so much more to the real Mandela, as a truly incredible but also flawed human being, his remarkable achievements, and his hopeful, significant, and relevant message today. It is now up to us to understand, appreciate, and selectively appropriate what is of lasting value in Mandela’s vision, values, and ideals and to contextualize his legacy in ways that inspire us, give us hope, and inform our lives as integral to an action-oriented interconnected movement working for a much better world.

Doug Allen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maine. He has been a peace and social activist since the early 1960s. He is Coordinator of the Marxist and Socialist Studies Program at UMaine, and he has lectured and published extensively on the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi.

Doug Allen is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maine in Orono, Maine. He is the author of Gandhi After 9/11: Creative Nonviolence and Sustainability published by Oxford University Press (2019).