I respect Mandela but ...

Published: Sunday | December 15, 2013 Comments 0
A mourner is led away by a policewoman after paying his respects to former South African President Nelson Mandela on the final day of his lying in state in Pretoria, South Africa, last Friday. - AP
A mourner is led away by a policewoman after paying his respects to former South African President Nelson Mandela on the final day of his lying in state in Pretoria, South Africa, last Friday. - AP

Orville Taylor, Contributor

We named a highway after him and a park as well. Indeed, the symbolism surrounding Nelson Mandela is awesome, because no one in the past 50 years has captured the imagination of the world in the way that he has.

In the 1970s in Jamaica, the struggle of the peoples of southern Africa was ours. We poor black youth dreamed about a world where there would be social equality and economic progress, especially in the Third World. Mandela was but one of many figures who solidified our African identity and sense of solidarity. His compatriots Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba fed us a diet of exquisite songs, with the latter's renditions becoming the subject of mischievous parodies rewritten with unpublishable Jamaican language.

We identified with the martyred Steve Biko, the venerable Walter Sisulu, and, of course, Mandela's loyal wife, Winnie, the epitome of black womanhood. Still, Mandela was different, because he had been locked away for more than a decade and progressive youth in the African diaspora launched our own versions of protests, calling down fire and brimstone on John Vorster and his evil counterpart in Rhodesia, Ian Smith.

Evil system

The system of apartheid was malevolent. Initiated in the post-World War II period, it essentially dictated that whites and non-whites were segregated in all spheres of society and involved the denial of citizenship, and sanctioned state violence and the separation of the various black ethnicities into geographically bound locales called Bantustans.

Perfected in South Africa, it was adopted by the white minority in Rhodesia in the 1960s. Hundreds of thousands of Africans (some sources say millions) were murdered by the State. However, it is undeniable that the social deprivation and poverty contributed to millions dying.

South Africa's struggle was ours, and at the grass-roots level, we took it as such. In the conservative Catholic St George's College, which allowed Rastafarian students to wear their locks, we met weekly in the African Studies Club. Reggae artistes, led by Peter Tosh and many others, kept the message going.

It was an issue around which all Jamaicans coalesced. In 1957, under Premier Norman Manley, Jamaica, still a colony and without any official right to independent foreign policy, was the first nation to initiate a trade blockade against South Africa. Of course, our neighbours to the north had no moral authority to act then, because it was in the throes of segregation, a civil-rights struggle, and African Americans were ostensibly denied full citizenship, because of the poll tax that prevented the majority of them from voting.

The 1970s saw Jamaica going to the forefront among 'free' nations in the struggle against apartheid and South African imperialism. We aligned ourselves with the South West Africa People's Organisation, Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), and many others.

Jamaica hosted Mozambique's Samora Machel, from Gaza Province, and a cartel of African and Third World anti-apartheid leaders of many colours. We stood with protagonists Joshua Nkomo and ungrateful Robert Mugabe as Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) fought upwind of South Africa. It is no accident that the Zimbabweans knew Marley's song Zimbabwe more than their own national anthem when they celebrated independence in 1980.

Without the military might to stop the spread of a marauding South Africa, hell-bent on pushing its border northward, Michael Manley, in the late 1970s, backed Cuba in sending its army to protect the vulnerable Angola. Opposing the US's Henry Kissinger, whose foreign policy was intolerant of any transnational military action by Cuba, however benevolent, Manley ultimately suffered recriminating measures from Washington.

Yes, with the fall in trade and aid from the US, we experienced major economic hardships because of how we chose to fight apartheid. We were one with South Africa and we felt it in our blood. Ask the Rastafari and call Angola.

On June 8, 1990, I was privileged to be one of the first Jamaicans to see a free Mandela. As a delegate to Anti-Apartheid Sub-Committee at the International Labour Conference in Geneva, I stood in awe as this icon spoke of, and promised, peace and reconciliation, with no obvious bitterness or vindictiveness.

Like a shameless groupie at a rock concert, I almost compromised my dignity by leaning over into the corridor in the Palais des Nations, sticking my Kodak 120 camera towards the approaching hero. Thankfully, no security officer pushed me back into my place. But then again, I was not even attempting to pose a question.

Nevertheless, this might seem sacrilegious, but for all that Mandela represents, does he deserve the veneration that he has been given? After all, he was in prison for 27 years; true, for doing what was proper, by standing up for his fellow black countrymen's rights. But being a political prisoner doesn't mean that we should simply make him a hyper-hero.

After all, we also grew up with the epic of the life of Mahatma Gandhi, and for all his heroism and the later impact he had on Martin Luther King's civil-rights struggles, and Mandela, all he has in Jamaica is an obscure road in Waterhouse. Mandela himself had consistently said that he did not want to be worshipped because he was just as flawed as other men.

While not diminishing his star or exaggerating the impact of Jamaica's support for the South Africans, I still have to ask if there is a monument or street in Johannesburg named Manley Boulevard, or do they have a Jamaica Park?

Impression

Moreover, why didn't the Jamaican political leader speak at his memorial? Apart from 'World Boss' Barack Obama, I cannot think of a country whose leader has more right to, given our historical support. And this time I doubt that the black, gold and green of the ANC gave her the impression that it was the Jamaican press in attendance, thus ensuring her silence.

Nonetheless, the lasting legacy of Mandela clearly has to be his spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness. His honesty, in doing what he said he was going to do, must be an example for our campaigning politicians. What have we learnt? Well, at least the Jamaican music lovers have forgiven entertainer Beenie Man for his 'Hey Green Arm' debacle in 1991 at the concert in Mandela's honour which led to his unceremonious removal from the stage under protest.

Today, Beenie, having made good use of his second chance, is doubtless one of those who have kept Jamaican music on the map. He, I am sure, has forgiven the 'Ghetto Girl' toll overpass on the Mandela Highway that gave him a wicked slam in 2004.

The period 1992-2002 marked an epoch of political peace, in Jamaica, as P.J. Patterson took the lead and forgave his opponents for the disrespectful things said and done in the race to succeed Manley. Yet, ironically, it was followed by a period of increased societal violence, as homicides climbed incessantly, peaking at more that 1,600 in 2005. Interestingly, the same thing happened in South Africa, as more blacks were killed by blacks in the 10 years after Mandela became president in 1994 than were murdered by the whites in the previous decade.

One also has to ask, why did Nelson leave Winnie after three decades of loyalty, if not faithfulness? Is it because she succumbed to the natural accumulation of hormones, that Mandela himself ignored in prison; unless we think the unthinkable?

Yet, as we honour Madiba, as we rightly should, can we say that we have treated our own with respect? As we embrace his mantra of forgiveness, why is it that successive generations of JLP and PNP governments have not sought to pardon Garvey, who was imprisoned in 1930 for seeking a higher standard of justice and jurisprudence than was in existence?

Finally, back to the highway. Isn't it ironic that this main corridor is the alternative route for the Portmore residents, who are forced to pay to go home? Given the agreement with the toll operators, no expansion of the thoroughfare can take place to accommodate additional traffic flow. Thus, commuters are packed, apartheid-style, during peak hours, like the residents of the Bantustans. Furthermore, unless one drives a government yellow bus, one can't use the dedicated lane.

I love and respect Mandela, but I hold my venerations until Garvey is pardoned and Tacky is a national hero. Jamaica first.

Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host. Email feedback to columns@ gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.

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