Free Mandela again

History will judge him kindly as a firebrand and as a conciliator

By Mahir Ali (Perspective)

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Published: Wed 17 Jul 2013, 8:17 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:14 PM

When leading members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), including President Jacob Zuma, gathered around the ailing Nelson Mandela at his residence for a photo op back in April, some of the latter’s family members were scathing in their criticism of the opportunistic politicians.

Their anger seemed justified. Visual evidence of the encounter suggests South Africa’s first post-apartheid leader was barely aware of his starring role in the propaganda footage.

More recently, Mandela’s eldest daughter, Makaziwe, lashed out even more strongly at the international media maintaining a morbid death watch around the hospital in Pretoria where her father has been ensconced since early June. “It’s like truly vultures waiting when a lion has devoured a buffalo, waiting there for the carcasses,” she fumed.

The anger is understandable. But if blame must be apportioned for self-seeking efforts to strip Mandela of his dignity, the family itself can hardly be exonerated. The sordid feud over the burial place of his deceased children — and, by implication, that of Mandela himself — that was resolved in court earlier this month, after having pitted Mandela’s eldest grandson, Mandla, against Makaziwe and other family members, is only the latest episode in a saga that essentially revolves around pecuniary interests.

Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop and Nobel peace laureate who served as a linchpin in the struggle against apartheid, recently pleaded with Mandela’s family: “Please, please, please may we think not only of ourselves. It’s almost like spitting in Madiba’s face,” using the clan name by which Mandela is affectionately known.

In a limited sense, the squabbling over his assets could be construed as a microcosm of the broader tussle over Mandela’s legacy. Ever since he resurfaced in 1990 after 27 years of incarceration, displaying a remarkable lack of rancour, politicians of various stripes in many parts of the world have been keen to bask in his aura. This included those who not long before were inclined to dismiss him as nothing more than a terrorist.

Well into the 1980s, Mandela was hardly a mainstream cause célèbre in the West. Even organisations such as Amnesty International were reluctant to adopt him as a prisoner of conscience, given his tactical support for armed struggle. After all, Mandela had been instrumental in the emergence, at the cusp of the 1960s, of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, or MK), as a wing of the liberation struggle distinct from the ANC, which was committed to non-violent means. MK was explicitly a response to a situation whereby peaceful protests invariably attracted violence by the state.

There was some international interest when Mandela and some of his closest comrades faced the Rivonia trial nearly 50 years ago on charges of sabotage, and it may have helped prevent death sentences. But in the two decades that followed, publicity for their cause was largely restricted to the efforts of dedicated anti-apartheid activists.

There was Third World solidarity and support from the socialist bloc, but Margaret Thatcher resisted as long as she could a near-consensus in favour of sanctions among Commonwealth nations, and the United States Congress had to override Ronald Reagan’s veto in its effort to outlaw economic dealings with the apartheid state.

It also took considerable effort on the part of the organisers to put together a landmark London concert for Mandela on his 70th birthday in 1988 — which, with an estimated worldwide TV audience of 600 million, was instrumental in creating a popular swell against his continued imprisonment. The Fox network, which had broadcasting rights in the US, went to considerable lengths to censor explicit political content.

Facing international isolation and dogged domestic resistance, the apartheid regime eventually had few options other than to cave in — but its Western friends helped to ensure that the transition to a more inclusive democracy was deftly managed. There is little evidence that the ANC’s leadership indulged in too much soul-searching before effectively jettisoning the organisation’s longstanding commitment to a socialistic economic order.

Notwithstanding the popular perception of his moral stature, Mandela has always shrugged away the mantle of sainthood. Chances are that history, even when written from a distance, will judge him kindly — both as a firebrand and as a conciliator, although it is possible to argue that in the latter capacity he went a little too far. His inevitable departure from the mortal world will be a monumental loss. But he’s done what he could. He turns 95. If the remaining signs of life in his frail frame are being maintained chiefly by artificial means, surely it’s time to set him free once more.

Mahir Ali is a journalist based in Sydney

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