By Gary Wilder
Since Nelson Mandela’s death on December 5, a world-wide debate about the substance of his memory and the significance of his legacy quickly unfolded.
As expected, established voices of order automatically recuperated the already domesticated image of Mandela as, essentially, a man of moderation. In his New York Times Obituary Bill Keller characterized him as “a peace broker and champion of greater outside investment,” reassuring readers that “except for a youthful flirtation with black nationalism, he seemed to have genuinely transcended the racial passions that tore at his country.” And according to Barack Obama, he was a “practical” man who “taught us the … importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those who you agree with, but also those who you don’t agree with” and “showed in painstaking negotiations to transfer power and draft new laws” the “he was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal.” These characterizations are not wrong but they are selective. And they conflate strategic pragmatism with moderate reformism. More dubious was Andrew Ross Sorkin’s account of a conversion experience that led to Mandela’s “embrace of capitalism and free markets” (which mistakes conjunctural realism and a recognition that nationalization of industry would not ensure social justice for a belief in market fundamentalism.
In response, voices across the landscape of alternative journalism and social media just as quickly offered a corrective counter-image of Mandela (such as Benjamin Fogel in Jacobin and Seaumas Milne in The Guardian) as a revolutionary freedom fighter who embraced armed struggle, had briefly been a member of the Communist Party, envisioned a socialist future for South Africa, was variously allied with Fidel Castro and Muammar al-Gaddafi, and declared solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle. Others questioned Mandela’s post-apartheid choices and weak presidential record, enumerating his inability or unwillingness to convert formal liberty for black South Africans into substantive social restructuring and an improved standard of living.
These efforts to memorialize a Mandela who was more complex, radical, and unruly than that offered by many of his official commemorators are welcome. Yet, we might also wonder whether they share with those who would domesticate Mandela’s memory a desire to settle the record by defining who he really was, by trying to getting the narrative right.
But instead of rushing to narrate, perhaps we should pause to question. And reflect on the legacy of a figure whose greatness may have had as much to do with non-dogmatic uncertainty as with unwavering resolution. As Obama rightly recognized, Mandela’s public life was guided by a shifting mélange of principle and practicality, ideas and action, confrontation and negotiation.
Rather than produce accounts that confirm this or that supposed political truth, we could allow Mandela’s multiplex political life to unsettle inherited truisms, including the idea that politics requires certitude. His long itinerary from liberal lawyer to anti-apartheid militant and from prisoner to president demonstrates that progressive struggle requires impossible choices and risky action whose wisdom, effectiveness, or significance can never been known in advance.
As much as anything else, Mandela’s long freedom struggle demonstrates the radical uncertainty that always accompanies political judgment and acts. Again and again, at decisive turning points, he was compelled by circumstances to make momentous choices and leap into an open and perilous future. His public life was punctuated by decisive decisions among imperfect alternatives, each of which could have been disastrous and several of which might now be second-guessed: to shift from promoting non-violent direct action from within the ANC Youth League to pursuing armed struggle as an outlaw leader of Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation), to risk being executed by speaking to the intolerable political situation rather than mounting a formal legal defense at his 1963 Rivonia Trail on charges of sabotage, to refuse early release from prison in 1985 after 21 years incarceration if he renounced violent protest as a means of effecting political change in South Africa, to enter into secret negotiations with the ruling National Party for a democratic transition to a post-Apartheid regime, to transform the ANC from a revolutionary social movement into a normal political party after his release from prison in 1990, and then, as president, to balance the just case for victims’ retribution against the pragmatic demands of national reconciliation and to accept neoliberal economic norms instead of attempting to create a socialist society in the new republic.
Rather than only debate whether any one of these choices was the right one to make, we can think with Mandela in order to reflect on the very problem of political choice. On the one hand, it is important to resist the neoliberal ideology that informs leaders in the Global South that there is no choice but to accept loans conditional upon structural adjustment because there are no viable economic alternatives to the existing order. On the other hand, we shouldn’t overestimate the range of options and room for maneuver available to small and dependent societies under existing conditions. For Mandela in the 1990s, international pressure and constraints were severe. This is not to say that he made the only or best choice about how South Africa should relate to the world economy or how legitimate demands for social justice within the republic should be balanced against competing desires for political peace (given the fact that former victims and perpetrators would have somehow to coexist within the same society). Rather than focus our discussions about Mandela’s legacy on his personal successes or failures, we might think about how his decisions illuminate the situation that he confronted. We could then ask whether his choices and their outcomes can now help us to grapple with the persistent dilemma of how formal liberty and equality seem to be ubiquitously paired with social polarization and economic stratification (within and between nations) under this form and phase of global capitalism.
And before rushing to judgment about whether the Republic of South Africa represents the triumph or the tragedy of the anti-apartheid struggle, we can reflect critically on the either/or logic and short-term time spans according to which our inherited metrics often instruct us to evaluate political failure or success. Such measures often make it difficult to appreciate how even in emancipatory struggles whose righteousness is beyond dispute, politics typically requires constant and non-self-evident calibration among direct action (legal and extralegal), mass movements, public opinion (whether national, international, or global), dialogue with adversaries (whether in effort to persuade or compromise), and constitutionalism.
Philosopher Slavoj Zizek rightly noted that “if we want to remain faithful to Mandela’s legacy, we should … forget about celebratory crocodile tears and focus on the unfulfilled promises his leadership gave rise to.” But how we understand those unfulfilled promises is another matter. Zizek has no grounds for his glib and presumptive conclusion that “we can safely surmise that … he was at the end of his life also a bitter, old man, well aware how his very political triumph and his elevation into a universal hero was the mask of a bitter defeat. His universal glory is also a sign that he really didn’t disturb the global order of power.”
By any conventional measure the mass movement to overturn apartheid surely “disturbed” the global order of power. Unless by “disturb” we mean overturn or destroy global capitalism. But against such an apocalyptic standard, progressive politics will almost always merely be exercises in “bitter defeat.” This kind of either/or thinking about failure and bitterness seems also to presuppose a dashed hopefulness or naivety about the possible scope of transformation that the clear-sighted Mandela may never have had. If anything his legacy, including the unfulfilled promises and unrealized hopes of his revolutionary struggle, reminds us that we cannot know in advance when or how present acts may contribute to decisive transformations.
The image of Mandela and the legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle also raises vexing questions about the politics of transnational solidarity — especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, the worldwide Occupy movements, and the debate over the B.D.S. movement against Israel. What role did global censure, international boycotts, and institutional divestment play in ending apartheid? To what extent were foreign allies, whether popular or official, responding to calls by the ANC for global solidarity, in dialogue with the ANC about strategy and tactics, or offering conditional support tied to their own needs and desires? How singular was the constellation of forces that allowed this form of transnational solidarity to work so effectively? Can it be generalized to other cases in different times? Finally, the figure of Mandela, his struggle and legacy, invite us to ask a series of questions about how the politics of solidarity linking Western progressives to struggles across the Global South are saturated and propelled, as they always have been, by forces of fantasy, projection, identification, displacement, ambivalence, exoticism, romanticism etc. And whether or how that even matters.