Un-canonizing Nelson Mandela

I posted this article to Facebook when we were all thinking about Nelson Mandela’s death this week. It lists six things that showed how politically radical he was. For many of us, and for me, it was an encouragement. Surprisingly, twenty-four people “liked it” and 14 others shared it! So as Mandela is canonized by the media and by history books this week, I want to return to his radicality and use it as an inspiration. The Think Progress articles articulated his radicality and framed in the way a Westerner might understand:  he argued against the U.S.’s War on Terror, criticized American imperialism, believed that everyone should be free of poverty, called out racism in the U.S., allied with Castro, Gaddafi, and Arafat, and even support labor unions.

This week and this year, the mass media will try to enshrine Mandela as an international hero—but not without taking away his power to subvert and revolt. Let’s not make a mistake: Mandela made his legacy because he fought racism, classism, and the evils of colonialism. But he did so violently, too. He’s not our ultimate example, but let’s learn from him as best as we can. His flaws don’t make him irrelevant as much as being falsely propped up as an idol do.

His power to fight the powers that be, to resist apartheid (by any means necessary), and to fight one of the ugliest displays of human inequality ever. Mandela is a great example of a metropole resister, an advocate for the periphery.

Nicholas Kristof, a favorite of mine, noted that his favorite moment in Mandela’s life was when he invited his white jailor to his inauguration as the president of South Africa. Kristof writes: “It was a sign of the magnanimity, warmth and absolute lack of vindictiveness that marked Mandela.” Kristof continues his glowing obituary—no one else in his generation “epitomized public service and sacrifice more.”

Much like Kristof writes, we are all remembering fondly the great South African leader that Mandela was. Yesterday, the Eagles took a moment of silence for the fallen hero before their snow bowl. And right after his death, after we printed calendars for 2014 that highlighted people who inspire us, we regretted not having Mandela represented. But I’m not sure we should have, and if the Eagles really wanted to represent the revolutionary, their advertisers may not have appreciated the moment of silence.

As much of a freedom fighter and as much of a great example that Mandela was, I don’t want us to simply sculpt him as a benign man worthy of sainthood. Maybe the only way to fight South African apartheid was through violence—I want to be gracious with the struggles of South Africans, but I don’t want to paint Mandela as nonviolent.

I don’t think his violent record removes his great example and the power of his life as well as his influence to all sorts of periphery. But as a person committed to loving my enemy, as Mandela masterfully showcased, I can’t turn my back to his violent record. Natasha Lennerd, in her piece of Salon, tells us his violence was a “tactic” and explains it away that way. She walks the liberal “peace” line while making sure to not offend the other liberal anti-colonialism line.

Desmond Tutu, writes Christopher Dickey, said that Mandela’s time in jail calmed down his anger which resulted in guerilla warfare. Mandela himself defened geurilla warefare and that African National Congress’ use of it because it “inflicted the least harm against individuals.”

Dickey continues, “So, when it came to the use of violence, as with so much else in his life, Mandela opted for pragmatism over ideology.”

Violence is a difficult question when talking about oppressed groups. It’s a no-brainer in conversations about an armed government’s foreign policy (although even the Syrian question earlier this year had long-time peace activists wondering), but when it comes to the Palestinian whose house has been destroyed by an Israeli tank, violence can be seen as a revolutionary “tactic.”

Mandela’s violent record can be defended, but for me, it can’t be followed. As the head of the UmKhonto we Sizwe (MK), the violent wing of the ANC, he confessed to 156 acts violence. Women and children were killed by the MK, too.

But even if Tutu was right and his violence calmed down when he was in prison, he militarized South Africa as president. He spent billions of dollars bolstering the military, instead of allocating his resources elsewhere. It’s hard to be a good president, I know. The office, all over the country, corrupts even the best people. It turns community organizers into international war criminals, it turns Texas oilmen into worldwide oilmen, it turns Hollywood actors into manipulative despots (that was Obama, Bush, and Reagan, by the way).

Who knows? In his situation, I might have done the same thing. But as we glorify his great accomplishments this week, let’s be conscious of the whole man. I believe that is what will do him the most justice. He is an inspiring revolutionary to the disenfranchised Palestinians, the oppressed Arabs in Bahrain, and the imprisoned dissidents in Beijing. He is inspiring to me today—and I honor him. But I will also not forget his violent record and the mistakes he made fueled by his anger.

Don’t let his violent record keep us from learning from him though. He deserves our honor this week. But we’re all flawed. No one is all bad or all good. So let’s learn from him and keep his legacy alive. Let’s build on it, too.

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