Ninety-five and infirm, his Rainbow Nation not yet ready to relieve him of duty, Nelson Mandela remains a towering presence on a world stage largely bereft of national leaders equal to the challenges of our time. So it is that South Africa’s hero is celebrated by many far removed from his struggle and especially by those lacking his virtues. Deliberately, too, the Mandela who compromised with global capital (as one of his lieutenants now admits) is celebrated at the expense of the transcendental Mandela who defied, organized, and revolted to achieve his minimum demands. But if we are to meaningfully address the challenges of our times—resurgent racism, global climate change, democratic rollbacks, economic dysfunction, and militarized international relations—it is the game-changing Mandela who must be emulated, if not celebrated.
So who is this Mandela?
He is the man who at the height of the Cold War helped forge a non-racial movement powered by youth, communists of all colors, and unionists, to consult broadly and revision their country with a lyrical Freedom Charter.
In the face of U.S.- and European-backed racism, that Charter boldly asserted that all South Africans shall “share in the country’s wealth,” and that further “the land shall be shared among those who work it.”
But ruling class indifference led to defiance, not despondence. And when violence and repression answered peaceful dissent, Mandela the strategist emerged to author the M-plan. It aimed to organize workplaces and neighborhoods from the bottom up… something that those inspired by Mandela would achieve 3 decades after this plan was mooted.
As militant organizing met more violence, Mandela led the turn to meet fire with fire. Always aware that the battlefield consisted of hearts and minds rather blood and terror, his was a measured turn – destroying the symbols of the system and not civilians.
By the time widespread urban uprisings, labor strikes and military victories created the conditions for his release after nearly 3 decades of imprisonment, Mandela was ready to talk with the enemy but never to compromise on the ideal that all South Africans must have an equal hand in determining their government in a single, unified state.
With the rollback of revolutions in the Global South, signaled by the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990, and a seemingly ineluctable neo-liberal tide, Mandela and his partisans were ill-prepared to wield state power in a transformative way. Unfortunately, Hugo Chavez’s left reforms would come more than a decade after Mandela reached his compromise with global capital. Despite these limits, it should never forgotten that Mandela, then long retired from government, tried to rally world opinion against the impending invasion of Iraq.
Today, the transcendental Mandela must surely be satisfied that South Africans inside his party and many (more?) outside his party now take up the challenges of unprecedented inequality, corrupt government, and an unresponsive economy on the terrain of the democratic freedoms he helped midwife. So today we have a “Democracy from Below Movement,” a “Workers and Socialists Party,” “Economic Freedom Fighters,” and many others engaged in the struggle for a new new South Africa.
Confronting as we do in the U.S. the rollbacks of our rights to vote (Supreme Court), to equal protection (Trayvon), to pensions we’ve earned (Detroit), to a healthy environment (Keystone and more), the immortal Mandela that belongs to us is surely this uncelebrated, uncompromising one.
~ Suren Moodliar serves as Director of Global Democracy Programs in the Democracy Branch of the Green Shadow Cabinet of the United States.