Mandela and Politics – The Art of Protest
It was quite a day. Just as many of us were settling down to commemorate Mandela’s funeral, word came that Kellogg’s, a major food plant in London, was shutting down with the loss of some 500 jobs. It was all so bittersweet, and made all the more difficult by the intrusion of politics into both situations in a manner that took attention away from a great individual and from some 500 other productive citizens. When President Zuma of South Africa rose to speak, the loud chorus of “boos” filled the stadium and took away from what the day was supposed to be about. He had political enemies and they opted to act on a day in which they should have just observed and reflected.
Despite the fact that Nelson Mandela was only in politics for five years, almost his entire life was affected by politics and its ability to destroy or build. For too many years he witnessed the former, as Apartheid architects reached into every part of the country. Later in life, he suppressed his rage at the sheer injustice of Apartheid; but when he was young he let it all out. Much has been written of those early years (and mostly overlooked since) about how he became a protest leader. But for South Africans there remains a physical reminder. Just outside the Magistrates Court in Johannesburg stands a statue of the young leader as a boxer, virile and obviously powerful. A lawyer by training and an amateur boxer, he held to Malcolm X’s axiom – “by any means necessary.” It was such statements that caused others to see him as a terrorist.
Much of this is foreign to us, but for too many years more peaceful options just weren’t available to the blacks of South Africa – they couldn’t alter their oppressive circumstances by legal means. Any accepted political solution just wasn’t on the table, and so he, and others, resorted to unacceptable methods.
Put simply: Nelson Mandela was a protest leader – a visionary with ideals and a backbone to match. But they often weren’t peaceful, nor were they pretty. The world chooses to view him as a peaceful saint; Africans know the truth. Poet and author, Musa Okwonga, put it as plainly as anyone can:
Over the next few days you will try so hard to make Mandela something he was not … You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X. You will try to hide his anger from view. Right now, you are anxiously … looking for the right words, the right tributes. You will say that Mandela was about nothing but one love. You will try and you will fail. Because Mandela was about politics, race, freedom, and he was even about force.”
There it is. The politics of Mandela’s early years were not just all about change. He went further and the knowledge of what he did makes many uncomfortable. But what else was there? It was racism, pure and simple, and the black South Africans had no avenues to plead their case, except occasionally to world opinion.
Surely he must have wondered at the political privileges granted to us in the West. When we offer that our elites just don’t listen; that our efforts at democratic reform are stonewalled; that politicians only do what their party says, he would surely nod his head in understanding. Then he would simply ask: “But you can vote, right? There’s nothing stopping you as citizens from organizing yourselves and pressing for change, correct? You have a free press and human rights legislation, don’t you? Then why don’t you just change it?”
There is no getting around this logic. One of themes that will continue to appear in these posts is that we have developed remarkable skills at venerating great people yet don’t undertake such great works ourselves. All it would take would be political parties coming together on common ground, just like Mandela accomplished. Citizens could come together for the sake of equality and economic fairness. We could gather in coffee shops, school gymnasiums, places of worship, street corners and assembly halls to debate issues and find consensus. We could come together and demand that our politicians represent us rather than some distant partisan construct.
But we don’t. If we looked into Mandela’s eyes knowing this, we couldn’t hold our gaze because we know that he went through so much, accomplished remarkable tasks, without the freedom to do any of these things. We don’t have to burn buildings, stage violent riots, or take power by physical force. We have at our disposal every single right and liberty that Mandela never had, and yet he made it work when we can’t even come together.
Make no mistake: these are days that demand citizen protest of the highest order, perhaps even a new wave of peaceful civil disobedience. These were the kind of days Mandela used to pave the way for the coming reforms. And let’s be honest. Right now we don’t really need an elderly statesman who draws wonderful platitudes from world leaders. We need activists, reformers, political agitators, economic rebels, and citizen leaders of all ages. We greatly require a new generation of Canadian Mandelas, and they can’t possibly come soon enough. Let’s honour the memory of a great man by recapturing our own society with all those means already open to us. Maybe then we could hold our gaze to his.