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Editor’s note: Tony Karon is a senior executive producer at Al Jazeera America. He grew up in South Africa, where he was active in the anti-apartheid struggle as a member of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress from 1981 to 1990.
The passing of Nelson Mandela finds many South Africans who fought apartheid under his leadership sad and reflective — even anxious over the fate of the country he leaves behind.
But don't mistake this anxiety for affirmation of the popular Western myth that it took a “Mandela miracle” to spare South Africa a bloodbath of racial retribution. The idea that black people would have slit the throats of their white compatriots were it not for some magical bonds of restraint conjured by our wise leader on his release from prison is not only deeply racist and disrespectful to the majority of South Africans, it profoundly misunderstands the political culture of the African National Congress, of which Mandela was both an architect and a product.
The principle that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people” was not some epiphany that occurred to Mandela after years in prison or after his release; that was the principle he told the court that jailed him in 1964, the principle for which he was willing to die. Indeed, it is the first premise of the ANC's 1955 Freedom Charter.
“Our people have been robbed of their birthright to land, liberty and peace by a form of government founded on injustice and inequality,” the document notes, and “our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities ... only a democratic state, based on the will of all the people, can secure to all their birthright without distinction of color, race, sex or belief.”
If there was a miracle in South Africa, it was that the leaders of the apartheid regime changed course, partly under the coaxing of Mandela but also because the end of the Cold War had left Pretoria isolated from its key Western allies, surrendering to the very principle of democratic majority rule for which it had been willing to kill countless South Africans in order to avoid.
The principle of equality and reconciliation among all South Africans after apartheid had been conventional wisdom in the ANC since before I was born. Indeed, throughout his dramatic years of struggle, Mandela was surrounded by more than just South Africans of all races and ethnicities.
Whether our roots were Xhosa or Zulu, Sotho or Malay, Gujarati, Tamil, Pedi, Shangaan or Tswana, English, Afrikaans, Yiddish, Greek or what have you was less important in the ANC than our commitment to the common cause.
It was like that moment in the “Harry Potter” series when Harry confesses to Dumbledore that he has discovered he has some of Voldemort in his own blood, and the old sage reassures him that the choices we make in the world are dictated not by blood but by conscience — we become who we choose to be. The liberation movement led by the ANC represented our Sorting Hat, offering my generation of politically aware young white people who were willing to sacrifice for it the chance to become equal citizens of a country not yet born.
Madiba was a giant whose courage and commitment inspired us all to face down a regime bearing arms to defend racism.
The regime’s violent suppression of the ANC had been effective, however, and it was only in 1980 that I first became aware of Mandela’s legacy, when many students at the mostly white University of Cape Town went on strike in solidarity with black students across the city who’d walked out in protest at the appalling inequalities of apartheid education. The nationwide mobilization brought long-dormant ANC supporters out of the woodwork, breaking the regime’s taboo on discussing the organization and its policies, distributing the Freedom Charter and risking imprisonment and torture for promoting its aims. The Soweto uprising of 1976 and the murder of Steve Biko in police detention had left no doubt even in my teenage suburban mind that it would take a revolutionary struggle to end this regime. If you were young and motivated by high ideals in occupied France in the early ’40s, you'd have joined the Maquis; if you were young and motivated by high ideals in South Africa in the ’80s, you joined the struggle against apartheid — even if the odds seemed to be heavily stacked against you. Like Dumbledore’s Army, you joined it because you couldn’t stand by and do nothing in the face of evil; you joined it in search of your own humanity.
In the ranks of the ANC, South Africans were one people, a new nation forged not by some mysterious alchemy but by our willingness to share in the risks and responsibilities of the struggle to bring down a violent system of racial oppression. The idea that black and white people would share the country once rid of apartheid was not a Nelson Mandela innovation; it was an integral part of the ANC’s political DNA. If Mandela had fallen before the regime did, the ultimate outcome would have been no different.
Not about him
That’s in no way to diminish Mandela’s importance in fostering the nonracial meme in the ANC from the early 1950s, in persuading key figures in the old regime that their people had nothing to fear from majority rule, in helping persuade the ANC that the regime’s political turnabout offered a genuine avenue to democracy and in symbolically reaching out to white South Africans to reassure them of their place in the new order.
Madiba was a giant whose courage and commitment inspired us all to face down a regime bearing arms to defend racism; he remained steadfast and principled throughout his 27 years in prison, and seamlessly moved into the role of the leader not just of the ANC but of a whole nation looking for a way to live together amid the legacy of decades of violent racial oppression.
... his legacy is in peril because the ANC as we knew it is dying, having failed to deliver on its promise of raising up the poor ...
Mandela’s real triumph, in fact, is that he succeeded in making his own personage redundant to the nonracial project; he had assumed for decades that South Africans might have to complete his journey without him, and had worked hard to ensure that his project would survive him by generalizing the ANC's ideology.
Still, the reconciliation typically described as a miracle in the Western media may nonetheless be in peril as Mandela passes from our world. That’s not because his influence will be suddenly lost — he effectively ended his role in governing South Africa more than a decade ago. Instead, his legacy is in peril because the ANC as we knew it is dying, having failed to deliver on its promise of raising up the poor, instead appearing to coddle corporate interests while many of its leaders line their own pockets and callously flaunt their wealth in the face of an impoverished majority.
The Freedom Charter may have promised that “the people shall share in the country's wealth,” but the grotesque economic inequalities of the apartheid era have actually grown more pronounced after two decades of ANC rule — a toxic social crisis to which the ANC no longer appears to offer an antidote. That, more than his physical passing, is the greatest danger to the South Africa that Nelson Mandela worked all of his life to build.