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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Mandela the 'Terrorist' (Part 2)

This is part two of BTSF's look at Nelson Mandela's legacy, and the world's response to his work.

The Green Mile
(see also: Bruce Almighty)
Despite years defamation, Mandela's name and message are now co-opted for an array of politicized messages. But to do so undermines the very self-determinism for which he fought.

Mandela is sometimes treated as a real-life 'magical negro.' Abagond describes this common plot device as a character "who comes out of nowhere with strange powers or deep wisdom to help white people, sometimes even giving his life...Their strange powers allow them to escape white stereotypes of blacks as incapable. It allows them to deal with whites on equal terms."

This stereotype not only paints Mandela in a one-dimensional light, it implies that everyone else of his race remains depraved. Specifically, it backhandedly perpetuates the stereotype of angry, violent mobs rising against benevolent benefactors for no good reason. "Can't we all just get along? Can't we all just be peaceful, like Mandela was?" But he wasn't.

Musa Okwonga observes that politicians and media pundits "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 make out that apartheid was just some sort of evil mystical space disease that suddenly fell from the heavens and settled on all of us, had us all, black or white, in its thrall, until Mandela appeared from the ether to redeem us. You will try to make Mandela a Magic Negro and you will fail. You will say that Mandela stood above all for forgiveness whilst scuttling swiftly over the details of the perversity that he had the grace to forgive."

When politicians, who for years ignored (or even despised) Mandela's policies, suddenly become hyper-adulatory after his death, they belittle his work and his daily courage in speaking to power. Mandela is not a mascot to be appropriated at our political whim. Instead, his nuanced beliefs and polices deserve to be remembered for what they actually are, even if it doesn't always align with our own agenda. So let's remind ourselves of Mandela's capacity to forge his own way for South Africa:

Mandela's Continued Defiance of Power
Mandela was not afraid to speak up against injustices he saw around the world. It is perhaps this perspective for which we have the greatest need today.

United State's prolonged support for Apartheid South Africa was often justified by calls for 'freedom and democracy' in the face of the inconvenient communist political affiliations of the African National Congress (ANC), and the opportunity for economic profit. Mandela saw parallels between this behavior and the United State's 'defense of democracy' in Iraq, saying that “all that [Bush] wants is Iraqi oil.” Mandela believed that in both cases the the USA's rhetoric and actions were to the detriment of liberties of the citizens of the countries in question.

Having been labeled as a terrorist himself, Mandela was critical of the 'War on Terror.' He stated that "if there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don't care for human beings." In contrast, he characterized Fidel Castro as “a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people."

The point is not that Mandela should be reviled, any more than it is right for him to be idolized. The point is to allow him to be a hero, fully remembered for who he was, without twisting him to fit our own agenda. Mandela did not believe that the Western democracies were pure and holy. Neither should we.

The Whitewashing of History
The practice of whitewashing our collective heroes is not a new one. It happens to Martin Luther King, to Abraham Lincoln, and even to Jesus Christ himself.

Jesus too was hated during the hay-days of his activism. He spoke truth to power, and agitated authority. He lived among the marginalized, and was vilified by the establishment. He made controversial statements, and was condemned as a traitor to his country. Jesus preached forgiveness and peace, but he did not shrink from confronting corrupt authority with searing words. He too has been on the political terrorist watch list. But we often remember him simply as a shepherd with his lambs, or as a sweet little baby lying in a manger.

In these stories of resistance, there is also a theme in which 'moderates' call for patience and temperance, rather than standing up for justice. The 'Birmingham 8' clergy urged King to wait, saying the "cause should be pressed in the courts...and not in the streets." The Western powers made tepid calls for gradual negotiations with the Apartheid regime of South Africa. And the Pharisees hoped to mollify the Roman rulers by keeping the local peace. These were the 'moderates', and they all ultimately found themselves on the wrong side of history.

There is nothing safe or comfy about the radical love of Christ. As with Mandela, if we forget these aspects of Jesus's character, we become complacent to our roles as God's hands and feet in the world today. Being a follower of Christ isn't easy, and we shouldn't expect to be cozy with the voices of privilege. If we are, perhaps we are doing something wrong.

Hannah Heinzekehr wonders if perhaps "we’ve 'sainted' all these peacemakers as a way to make them seem superhuman or beyond what any normal human can accomplish. In this way, we can simultaneously celebrate them and also wash our hands of any expectations that we can emulate them." Indeed, rather than "feel[ing] like we’re part of the choir that Mandela is preaching to, we also need to see ourselves as the subjects of his critique."

Our challenge after Mandela's passing is to avoid reducing him to a brand name of revisionist history. We must continue (or begin) to learn his history by reading his books and speeches so that we have a better understanding of what it takes to be a 'Hero for Christ.'

Peter Beinart notes that "American power and human freedom are two very different things. Sometimes they intersect; sometimes they do not. Walking in Nelson Mandela’s footsteps requires being able to tell the difference." The same goes for walking with Christ. 

Special thanks to the following tweeps, whose great writing helped bring much-needed clarity to the media swirl of the past week: @graceishuman,@deluxvivens, @jamiekilstein, @AntheaButler, @Blackamazon, @GradientLair, @zellieimani, @JeffSharlet.


  1. MLK was 11 year YOUNGER than Mandela. Had he lived, King would be 85. They were contemporaries. None of this history is in the distant past.

  2. Wow - thank you so much! I was having trouble understanding what was going on - on one hand, people were vilifying Mandela on the other they were nominating him for sainthood. The divergence seemed to be severe!

  3. Exactly! Both extremes serve to delegitimatize the truth of the history.


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