Mandela and the crazy baldheads

Published: Sunday | December 15, 2013 Comments 0

Daniel Thwaites, Guest Columnist

Just like some people recall exactly where they were when JFK was assassinated, I recall vividly learning that there was such a place as apartheid South Africa, and such a man as Nelson Mandela locked in a cell. It was, literally, unbelievable.

My child's mind could not accept that this was true. Surely there could never be a whole society organised on such transparently stupid principles as racialist categories, and punishing its heroes. That was the insult and scandal of South Africa.

Mandela was awe-inspiring. Even the rustiest cynic had to admit: Heroes still stalk this earth. But that is, of course, one first terrific caution to take from him: even those beloved by the gods suffer. And greatly. Resourceful Odysseus was away from home 20 years. Nelson did 27! But as Mandela said, remembering his circumcision with a primitive tool at age 16: "A man must suffer in silence."

Anyway, before we completely canonise this savvy politician and old guerrilla, let's recall that after his release, he had to be certified by the US Secretary of State to visit there, because his political party was still listed as a terrorist organisation. And in truth Mandela was a morally complicated man, not one easily beatified by the mass media in the US and Britain, two countries that refused to isolate the apartheid regime.

This was the commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military arm of the ANC. I personally prefer it this way. Mandela was first and foremost a stoical fighter who wanted to chase the racist, crazy baldheads out of town, not a cuddly saint.

In fact, there's something a little obscene about the ecumenical love-fest at Mandela's memorial without the clear acknowledgement that he fought against overwhelming odds, branded a terrorist. It was Cubans fighting for his cause in Angola. Reagan and Thatcher gave succour and support to his jailers. I'd like to hear that discussed some more.

Mandela's political genius

Anyway, I want to look at just one small aspect of Mandela's political genius, because he embodies the canniest and most sophisticated version of the progressive tradition. I think it important because there are no shortage of examples where what used to be called 'the struggle' for social justice perverts the 'strugglers' and turns them into monsters every bit as frightening as the ones they supposedly sought to topple and overcome. Mandela moved beyond that.

Maybe we could start with that word, 'struggle'. Of course, this is miles away from the guy who recently told me that 'the struggle is real!' because he was working with an outdated cell phone. But then there's the chequered history of it in the annals of leftist political action.

Consider how the Chinese communists devalued it almost irrevocably with their infamous 'struggle sessions'. Landlords, modest shop-owners, and even small farmers who held property were stripped, tied up, and given a clown hat to wear, then peasants and villagers and anyone else who had a grouse would 'struggle against them'.

Typical accusations were of being 'counter-revolutionary', a 'capitalist roader', and the one I still use (under my breath, of course): a 'running dog of the imperialist petty bourgeoisie'. Who doubts that many landlords had been in their time cruel to the peasants? So these 'struggle sessions' unleashed, undoubtedly with some justification, the pent-up resentments of the lower class. It was a bloodbath. About two million people were humiliated, then liquidated in a relative hurry.

I'm not pulling on that example randomly, but as an illustration that the moral imperative to right a historical wrong can lead down some pretty shady alleys. Recall the bloodbath that appeared inevitable after apartheid's oppression, and remember that lots of people demanded blood.

I confess that had he strode on to the platform of South Africa's presidency and said, "There are five flights a day to London!" I would have cheered rapturously. Let's face it: there is something so deeply satisfying about saying we're gonna chase those crazy baldheads outa the town. And few have had such personal justification to do the chasing as had Mandela.

'No mayonnaise'

White Afrikaaners locked him away for 27 years to break rocks and garden while the world passed by, and still he resisted the temptation to put them to the sword. Compare that to us ordinary folk. I can't even forgive the guy who made my deli sandwich improperly (I had very clearly said, "No mayonnaise."). I still hold a grudge against the girl who made me watch that chick flick Thelma & Louise, which was two hours of my life wasted about 25 years ago.

So I honestly can't even understand that level of forgiveness, even though they talk about it in church. But if I go to church and the preacher starts to ramble along, I start praying for him to have a heart attack. A mild one!

We know that Mandela considered the options, personally and economically. But he forgave his captors, even bringing his jailer as a VIP guest to his inauguration. More dramatically, he returned from the 1992 World Economic Forum in Davos and announced a momentous change of mind regarding centralised control of the economy to his comrades. Mandela had spoken to the Chinese and the Vietnamese communists, both of whom were looking to privatise previously nationalised sectors, and determined that the ANC's age-old plan to nationalise wasn't the right direction.

"I came home to say: "Chaps, we have to choose. We either keep nationalisation and get no investment, or we modify our own attitude and get investment." As you can well imagine, that caused some issues. Desmond Tutu recalled there were many in the ANC who began to whisper that he was "a lot more useful in jail than outside".

By the way, if this wasn't a totally serious column extolling Mandela as the icon of progressive politics for the coming century, I would pause to note that during the solemn sermonising at his memorial, there was a major piece of awesomeness going on with the fake sign-language interpreter.

I don't really read sign language, but I figured the wild gesturing was just because he was signing with an African accent. Anyway, till now, nobody is exactly sure where he came from, and neither the ANC nor Government wants to take ownership of it. How funny is that?

Mandela's struggles ennobled him, and he emerged without what would have been justified resentment and acid bitterness. By doing that, he personally helped clear away the international pollution of the old South Africa.

The new South Africa has serious problems, including the economic legacy of apartheid that still needs to be slowly and steadily dismantled. Mandela may not have chased them out of town, but he certainly didn't mean to leave them in charge forever.

Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to

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