Our adoration for Mandela says more about us than about him

Through Madiba, we were able to see ourselves engaged in the global struggle for justice

December 8, 2013 7:00AM ET
SOUTH AFRICA: Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela
Gallo Images/Getty Images

Perhaps the most striking fact about Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, first president of a democratic South Africa, is how much he was adored. This fact is so ingrained and familiar to us now, and will be so thoroughly evidenced in the days and weeks to come, that we might easily forget to see it as striking. But political figures are not usually loved in the way that Madiba was loved. So it is worth asking why it is exactly that this incorrigible troublemaker inspired such passionate loyalty and reverence among South Africans and so many others around the world.

It is easy to understand why Mandela was widely respected. After all, he spent the better part of three decades in prison for his commitment to the cause of freedom and justice. Once released, he led the liberation movement with immense acumen during the precarious transitional period. As president, he was responsible for many of the key steps in the consolidation of the principle of a nonracial, nonsexist, and democratic society and government. The sheer scale of his achievements is truly remarkable by anyone’s measure. Not even the most benighted reactionary could begrudge Madiba his place in the history books.

But many other people dedicated their lives to the liberation of South Africa. Mandela was not alone in prison or in government, and did not single-handedly engineer the fall of apartheid, as if it were some magic trick only he had the wizardry to conjure. Many others sacrificed as much as, if not more than, he did. The list of freedom fighters who died before the democratic elections of April 1994 is filled with names that are now likely forgotten in most quarters of the world. In his biography, "Long Walk to Freedom," Mandela mentions thinking that day of people such as Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, Albert Luthuli, Bram Fischer, Josiah Gumede, Monty Naicker, Abdullah Abdurahman, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Yusuf Dadoo, and Moses Kotane: “I did not go into that voting station alone on 27 April; I was casting my vote with all of them.” How many who lionize Mandela now will be curtly dismissive of his communist comrades Raymond Mhlaba, Joe Slovo, and Ruth First, or woefully ignorant of pivotal figures such as Walter Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe, and Matthew Goniwe? You simply cannot separate the man from the revolutionary movement he was part of, much as today’s establishment pundits might try. And yet, for all that these other leaders should be respected and honored, Madiba in particular remains special.

It is easy to understand, moreover, why Mandela was so well-liked and admired. To use the apt Yiddish expression, he was a mensch. As the transitional process unfolded, Mandela began to soften his rather solemn aristocratic mien in public. He changed his attire from formal business suits to his trademark “Madiba shirts”: outrageously colorful long-sleeved shirts, always left untucked and flowing but buttoned up to the neck. This was as much a strategic political step as his decision to wear traditional Xhosa clothes at the Rivonia trial in 1964, in which 10 leaders in the African National Congress were prosecuted for sabotage. At the same time, it was a genuine reflection of the effervescent personality of a man locked inside the gray walls of the regime’s prisons for most of his adult life. Mandela disarmed opposition and defused hostility with his impish sense of humor and his unending celebration of the rainbow nation’s vibrant culture and diversity. It is no doubt inevitable, of course, that almost every remembrance of Mandela will rhapsodize about how he emerged from prison without a sense of personal bitterness and championed the value of reconciliation in a deeply divided society.

But to focus on these attributes of Mandela’s character, important as they are, is, I think, to misunderstand the true significance of the man in the hearts and minds of South Africans. Many other public figures are wonderful people, filled with compassion for the oppressed and downtrodden, and positively in love with the glory of life. Moreover, Mandela was not at all unique, or perhaps even especially unusual, in his commitment to inclusivity. The idea that South Africa belongs to all who live in it was a basic principle of the anti-apartheid movement, one enshrined in the Freedom Charter of 1955. Similarly, the concept of reconciliation was hardly Mandela’s own innovation. Many other activists emerged from prison or survived personal trauma without a deep sense of enmity toward those on the other side of the political spectrum. Madiba was not the only emotionally mature political leader in the country, nor was he some apolitical self-help guru who taught South Africans how to be better or kinder people. That was already known, for the most part at least. To focus on Mandela’s personal goodness distorts his greatness and risks trivializing him as just a wise and benign African elder, an unthreatening icon of banal optimism who transcends the harsh realities of partisan political conflict.

Mandela’s global stature allows ordinary South Africans to reconsider their relation to the rest of the world.

That Madiba was adored — is adored — says more about us than him. There are, I think, two reasons for this. First, Mandela has a symbolic importance as the central figure in a very particular kind of social and political movement. The liberation struggle in South Africa was, of course, a struggle for freedom and equality against the injustice and indignity of apartheid. But it was much more than that. Understanding it properly requires an appreciation of the perverted racial ideology of the apartheid era. To live in South Africa at that time was not to live as a human being. It was to be defined first and foremost by race: they were simply not the same kind of being as us. Life was lived either in the dominant world of whites, filled with its shopping centers, steakhouses and American popular culture, or the peripheral ghetto world of blacks, with its tin shacks, smoggy stoves and police raids. People spoke different languages, ate different food, wore different clothes, drove in different vehicles on different roads, listened to different music and played different sports, so presumably were just different types of creature, with different bodies, minds and souls. To identify with the liberation movement, therefore, was not simply to express a commitment to justice or to endorse the abstract idea of equality. Instead, it was to join the party of humanity, to take the radical first step in transforming oneself from white or black, privileged or impoverished, man or woman, into a South African, plain and simple, and to demand that the surrounding social reality bend to this new fact. Thus, Mandela stands as the embodiment of something about ourselves that we have all too slowly come to crave — something we may all too easily come to neglect — that is, the absolute necessity and priority of our common identity as human beings. This, I stress, is a radical moral and political principle rather than an easy platitude. It required immense revolutionary change in South Africa and requires still more revolutionary change in a world so profoundly divided into rich and poor.

Second, Mandela’s global stature allows ordinary South Africans to reconsider their relation to the rest of the world. After Napoleon won the Battle of Jena in 1806, the German philosopher Hegel witnessed the emperor — “this world-spirit,” he wrote — ride by on horseback. Mandela is another such world-historical figure, it is often said, but in a quite different manner from someone like Napoleon. In the standard picture of world history, great events are caused by great men, typically on the battlefields of Europe or in the halls of power in Washington, Brussels and Beijing. On this picture, to come from a dusty village at the far end of Africa is to be hopelessly removed from any event of global significance. In contrast, the fact that Mandela is a universal icon means that the democratic transition in South Africa is recognized as an event of the first importance, not as a minor occurrence of only parochial interest. This in turn means, not just that Mandela is another figure in the parade of great men, but that the common people who played a role in the liberation struggle were part of something on a very grand stage. The movement was open to everyone: school teachers, clerics, and nurses, mine workers, taxi drivers and university students. No one needed to orchestrate brilliant cavalry charges or massive artillery barrages to contribute to human history. Instead, these ordinary men and women became full participants in global events simply through the ordinary acts of resistance and subversion performed in their ordinary lives. Through these small acts, they each grasped the arc of the moral universe, one might say, and helped bend it toward justice.

This is a heady and empowering feeling for someone excluded from the privileged world of North America or Europe to experience. My point is not to suggest an arrogant pride in the fame and popularity of South Africa’s first democratic leader. Rather, my point is that appreciating Mandela’s international stature provides a powerful way for the common people of the world to identify with each other’s struggles and see them, not as the insignificant troubles of backward nations, but as iterations of their own struggle against oppression and tyranny: “all history is our history,” they can say, “all liberation, my liberation.” Much as it may often fail to be acknowledged, this idea of recognition and solidarity among the supposedly irrelevant and incidental people of the world can support a deep sense of moral purpose and gravity: “Whether South African, Sri Lankan, Tunisian or Thai, we matter, unconditionally and immediately, however scattered or forgotten we might be in our townships, slums, and refugee camps.” It is precisely this elusive but powerful sense of a common human dignity and agency, I believe, that South Africans, along with so many millions throughout the world, have come to express in our jubilant reverence for Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

Simon Căbulea May teaches political philosophy at Florida State University. He was an activist in the anti-apartheid student movement in South Africa during the 1990s.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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