One of the ironies of 21st century historical discourse is that despite significantly increased access to information, historical narratives are shaped by economic and political interest and ideology more than ever before. Widely distributed accounts about iconic political figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King stun those of us who are knowledgeable about the times in which these figures lived. Real historic figures get lionized, sanitized and most importantly redefined as defenders of the ongoing order rather than activists who committed their lives to revolutionary changes in the economic and political structures that exploit and oppress people. Most of the media reviews of the life and achievements of Nelson Mandela fit this model.
However, most of my remembrances of Nelson Mandela are different.
First, he committed his life to the cause of creating an economic and political system in his homeland that would provide justice for all people.
Second, Nelson Mandela was part of the great wave of revolutionary anti-colonial leaders who participated in the mass movements for change in the Global South in the 20th century. These movements for independence led to the achievement of liberation for two-thirds of the world’s population from harsh, inhumane white minority rule. The campaign against apartheid in South Africa was part of this anti-colonial struggle. Mandela shared the vision of such figures as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharial Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah, Amical Cabral, Franz Fanon, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. These leaders were spokespersons for mass struggles that transformed the world in the 20th century.
Third, Nelson Mandela gave voice and inspiration to young people in the Global North who sought peace and justice in their own societies. Mandela inspired movements that went beyond the struggle against racism and imperialism to address sexism and homophobia as well.
Fourth, Mandela made it clear to many of us (despite sanitized media frames) that he saw himself as part of the movements of people who themselves make history. He worked with all those who shared his vision of a just society: grassroots movements, the South African Communist Party (SACP), the South African labor movement (COSATU), the Black Consciousness Movement, and progressives from faith communities. To quote from Mandela’s first speech upon release from prison on February 11, 1990:
On this day of my release, I extend my sincere and warmest gratitude to the millions of my compatriots and those in every corner of the globe who have campaigned tirelessly for my release.
I send special greetings to the people of Cape Town, this city which has been my home for three decades. Your mass marches and other forms of struggle have served as a constant source of strength to all political prisoners.
I salute the African National Congress. It has fulfilled our every expectation in its role as leader of the great march to freedom.
I salute our President, Comrade Oliver Tambo, for leading the ANC even under the most difficult circumstances.
I salute the rank and file members of the ANC. You have sacrificed life and limb in the pursuit of the noble cause of our struggle.
I salute combatants of Umkhonto we Sizwe….who have paid the ultimate price for the freedom of all South Africans.
I salute the South African Communist Party for its sterling contribution to the struggle for democracy. You have survived 40 years of unrelenting persecution.
I salute General Secretary Joe Slovo, one of our finest patriots. We are heartened by the fact that the alliance between ourselves and the Party remains as strong as it always was.
I salute the United Democratic Front, the National Education Crisis Committee, the South African Youth Congress, the Transvaal and Natal Indian Congresses and COSATU and the many other formations of the Mass Democratic Movement.
I also salute the Black Sash and the National Union of South African Students. We note with pride that you have acted as the conscience of white South Africa. Even during the darkest days in the history of our struggle you held the flag of liberty high. The large-scale mass mobilisation of the past few years is one of the key factors which led to the opening of the final chapter of our struggle.
I extend my greetings to the working class of our country. Your organised strength is the pride of our movement. You remain the most dependable force in the struggle to end exploitation and oppression….
I pay tribute to the many religious communities who carried the campaign for justice forward when the organisations for our people were silenced….
I pay tribute to the endless heroism of youth, you, the young lions. You, the young lions, have energised our entire struggle.
I pay tribute to the mothers and wives and sisters of our nation. You are the rock-hard foundation of our struggle. Apartheid has inflicted more pain on you than on anyone else.
On this occasion, we thank the world community for their great contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle. Without your support our struggle would not have reached this advanced stage. The sacrifice of the frontline states will be remembered by South Africans forever.
Finally, Nelson Mandela inspired many of us in our own ways to commit to the historical march of people to make a better world. That commitment is powerfully described by a friend, Willie Williamson, a retired teacher from Chicago:
“As a young man I learned about Nelson Mandela serving time in prison in South Africa. At that time I was politically ignorant about international affairs, but became curious about the Apartheid racial system because it reminded me so much of the small Mississippi town that I grew up in. Already angered, after completing a stint in the Vietnam War, I became outraged and somewhat withdrawn. But it was the fight to free Mandela that brought me around to understanding that I had to become a part of a movement with justice at its core. I have Mandela to thank for my understanding of how to relieve an unjust power of its stranglehold. The fight must always be for justice throughout the world!”