Note: This piece was written in December 2013.
The tributes commemorating Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela show the almost universal agreement that his cause was among the greatest moral achievements of the last century.
Mandela was committed to justice and on his release from prison was a prophet of forgiveness. Much of the eulogising has focused on his explicit and unwavering dedication to reconciliation, and this is indeed an inspiring element of his story.
The moral evil of Apartheid is so stark that our view of Mandela easily morphs into a simple story of good vs. evil that becomes an obstacle for deeper moral and social reflection. Others have commented on Mandela’s own rejection of the view that he was a saint, and how the mass mobilization and persistence of others was just as vital to the wider struggle.
Here I want to comment on something else, namely the content of Mandela’s fight, which was against racial injustice specifically. We must be clear-sighted about what this meant, and continues to mean. We should also reflect a bit more on how Mandela’s framing of and response to racial injustice affected black people in particular. This is not to say that white people or indeed other ethnic minorities cannot or did not share a belief in and commitment to the cause, but to recognize the true nature of the moral harm perpetuated on black people by Apartheid, and why Mandela was and remains such an inspiration.
Apartheid was the most extreme manifestation of the moral view that black people are inherently inferior. This view typically extends across every element of human life, and is not limited to political representation or employment opportunities. Fundamentally, racists believe that some people do not have equal moral worth. In the case of black people in South Africa, not only were they denied citizenship, jobs and subject to brutality and violence, but they were also viewed by white people as intrinsically less capable of reason, self-control, dignity and more prone to violence.
Unfortunately such beliefs were and are not limited to South African white people. The denial of equal moral worth and the assumption of lower ability has not simply been an abstract claim, or one that just motivated Afrikaans policeman slaughtering innocent black South Africans. Rather it is one that black people have felt walking the streets of London, New York, Selma, London, Paris, or Rio – and is sadly still expressed by those at the very top of our societies.
Nelson Mandela nailed the lie that black people were incapable of reasoned thought, prone to violence, or incapable of self control or self-government. Of course this was always a lie – and one possible only when black people are viewed as inferior. Those who called Mandela a terrorist and continue to deny his greatness are dipping into a poisonous well that denies the value of equal human moral worth and dignity, thereby justifying the prejudicial treatment of others.
This is why reminding the world of the opposition to Mandela by the powerful around the world is not just picking at a scab. It is to help us understand the particular evil that defined Apartheid, to recognise its presence outside South Africa, and to guard against that way of thinking as we continue to struggle for racial justice. When people of all different sorts of world views say Mandela was a hero, we must focus a bit more deeply on the nature of his fight and not collectively read his life as a simple bedtime story where good triumphs over evil.
Through Apartheid, black people experienced thousands of daily slights on their worth and dignity, with those in power in South Africa obviously showing little concern for the consequences on black people everywhere. But white people outside South Africa who depicted Mandela as a violent unreasonable terrorist were also blind to the effects on black people everywhere – if armed struggle was morally unjustified even against the Apartheid state, then black people seeking equality elsewhere in the world were painfully reminded of the inability of white elites to see their shared humanity or the justice of their cause.
And yet here stood Mandela: calm, reasoned, committed to justice, and breathtakingly gracious towards his one-time enemies. The pressure on this man, this one individual, was enormous, and played out on an unprecedented public stage. That he carried himself with such grace and such dignity was of course a crucial element in his success and why he is so praised. Yet for black people everywhere, he was a spokesman and a representative.
There is little doubt that he was unaware of this burden. It is one that successful black people everywhere continue to feel – that they must do better than their white colleagues to nail the lie of racists everywhere. It is hard not to conclude that Mandela needed to be such an exemplar of compassion if his cause was to succeed, and that any variance from this saintly ideal would bring the sceptics of black leadership and those who questioned the possibility of racial justice back out of their wilderness.
Remembering Mandela also requires looking more closely about what he did to positively pursue justice, and not just to commend his acts of reconciliation. When Mandela spoke of the need of reconciliation in the early 1990s following his release from prison, he obviously was deeply committed to it as a fundamental value. That doesn’t mean, however, that he wasn’t also aware of the practical need to placate white South Africans of their place in a future South Africa – and of course to guard against well armed white militias. The danger of bloodshed was real.
But even those white South Africans who were not deeply committed to Apartheid, or willing to take up arms against a black-led government had an unequal place in this process. When we speak of truth and justice, black and white South Africans were not equally placed, nor would they identically benefit from that process. We must not forget that one side of the party was doing the forgiving and seeking justice, while the other needed to show remorse and recognize how they benefited from and did not stop injustice.
This, then, explains why Mandela’s government adopted affirmative action and black economic empowerment. He knew that economic inequalities continued (and still continue) to mar South Africa, and that radical, practical action was needed, and not just on historical or compensatory grounds. Though there are real questions about its implementation, affirmative action was adopted not simply to benefit a few black South Africans. Rather the aim was to provide more opportunities, wider social networks and indeed increased pride and power to all black South Africans. Furthermore, these policies would benefit all South Africans, including white South Africans, by enabling them to live in a more just society in which they would not remain complicit in the wrongs of a system that benefited every one of them, whatever their political allegiances.
We all miss Nelson Mandela for his commitment to justice and reconciliation. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by this sadness, and to be struck by the clarity of his moral struggle. The world – and so the lives of around a billion black people – is better that he lived.
Yet we must not just forgive, though forgive we must, but continue to fight against racism. Black people and ethnic minorities around the world still do not have equal opportunities or dignity and so will particularly benefit from greater focus and practical action on this cause. As the case of South Africa shows, everyone benefits from being able to believe that our society is indeed a more just one. This may be Mandela’s greatest achievement: to make us all realise that a more just world is possible, and that living in such a world is something that can inspire all of us. We best commemorate his life by continuing to demand – and call for policies that achieve – racial justice and justice everywhere.