The Multifaceted Mandela

No, he did not exemplify your political ideology (or mine)

The New Yorker magazine's front cover

The New Yorker magazine’s front cover

It is inevitable that someone as widely revered as Nelson Mandela that many his admirers will praise divergent aspects of his life. Hence people from different places on the political spectrum see Mandela rather differently. And since his death there’s been a clash over which of these interpretations is valid.

In particular, I’ve noticed on facebook and twitter feeds a lot of people reminding us that he was a radical. For example this article in the Independent by Musa Okwanga:

Dear revisionists, Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel. Over the next few days you will try so, so hard to make him something he was not, and you will fail. You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X. You will try to hide his anger from view. Right now, you are anxiously pacing the corridors of your condos and country estates, looking for the right words, the right tributes, the right-wing tributes. You will say that Mandela was not about race. You will say that Mandela was not about politics. You will say that Mandela was about nothing but one love, you will try to reduce him to a lilting reggae tune. “Let’s get together, and feel alright.” Yes, you will do that.


Well, try hard as you like, and you’ll fail. Because Mandela was about politics and he was about race and he was about freedom and he was even about force, and he did what he felt he had to do and given the current economic inequality in South Africa he might even have died thinking he didn’t do nearly enough of it. And perhaps the greatest tragedy of Mandela’s life isn’t that he spent almost thirty years jailed by well-heeled racists who tried to shatter millions of spirits through breaking his soul, but that there weren’t or aren’t nearly enough people like him.

The problem is that one could probably as easily portray Mandela as a moderate. Most obviously one could point to his use of his position as president to promote reconciliation when many black South African (understandably) wanted revenge. We could also note that he belonged to the ANC not the more hard line Pan Africanist Congress. And indeed the fact that – rather surprisingly for someone with Marxist sympathies – his government was broadly free market.

That’s not to say Mandela was a moderate. For all the reasons Okwanga and others point out that label is inadequate. But that’s rather the point. The larger a life, the more difficult it is to capture it with simple ideological labels. Someone like Mandela changes what these categories mean. The complaint about conservatives eulogising Mandela, when their forebears were often so critical of him misses the point: he brought about a change in what it meant to be conservative – making it unthinkable for any of them to support apartheid or a system like it. He also changed socialism, liberalism and a whole host of other ideologies.

His iconic status should not blind us to the fact that Mandela was an individual from a particular place and time, and we can’t presume to claim him for our own specific political point of view. We can all point to things in Mandela’s life and ideas that resonate with us. But that doesn’t mean any of us can own him.


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