Byrd: Nelson Mandela, all cleaned up


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The news of the death of Nelson Mandela, the legendary anti-apartheid activist and former president of South Africa, brought with it a flurry of responses from American political writers extolling the virtues of a man who peacefully brought about the end of the brutal regime of racist subjugation that was apartheid-era South Africa.

These responses, however, tended to paint the picture of a man who did not exist. The media’s is a portrait of Mandela as a man who achieved his goals through peaceful, flowers-in-his-hair, hippie-esque activism.

This analysis, of course, could not be further from the truth. While certainly preferring nonviolent activism, Mandela, when faced with the overwhelming apparatus of violence and terror of the apartheid regime, chose to embark on a campaign of violence against the government, cofounding and heading “Umkhonto we Sizwe” (“Spear of the Nation”), the armed wing of the African National Congress, the most prominent political organization committed to ending apartheid. Mandela was eventually arrested for committing acts of sabotage against the apartheid government and spent 27 years in prison.

Now, Mandela was not simply a violent radical; to suggest so not only obfuscates the truth but also pigeonholes a colossus of 20th century humanity to a singular role, which he neither fits nor shuns. But using violence in the name of destroying an immoral government was something Mandela had no problem doing. It’s a simple fact.

So, why have so many political commentators decided to essentially ignore one of the more significant portions of Mandela’s life in favor of the fictitious grandfatherly figure of an ahistorical, beatnik Mandela? It all falls into the not-so-grand American tradition of whitewashing and sanding down the rough edges of radical political figures.

Take Martin Luther King Jr. for example. Today, King is known as a relatively uncontroversial pillar of American justice, a man whose dedication to nonviolence and equality ultimately redeemed a nation of racist sinners. In reality, and in his time, however, King was a radical agitator, most likely a democratic socialist who was derided by mainstream white America as a communist and considered a showboat by many in the civil-rights movement. Or how about Helen Keller — this symbol of triumph over immense odds was also a member of the Socialist Party of America, the anarchist IWW trade union, and a fervent activist for leftist causes such as increased unionization and women’s suffrage.

It is pretty clear that the bleaching of Mandela’s more complicated and violent past is right in line with the treatment of other radicals by the American political community. This, however, is not nearly so disturbing as the reason behind such smoke screening, the absolving of American sin and the dissuasion of radicalism.

You see, if we don’t talk about how Mandela was a militant revolutionary, then we don’t have to talk about its being likely the CIA was ultimately responsible for his arrest by tipping off apartheid authorities to his whereabouts. Or, even worse, the years of U.S. alliance with and financial backing for the apartheid regime because of its strong anti-communist nature.

Also, by presenting these figures as “mainstream” and “moderate,” the powerful can dissuade would-be radicals from tearing down institutions that perpetuate racism, patriarchy, and other forms of injustices. To these institutions, radicalism is a threat, so when the radicals gain a victory or two, take it away from them by claiming the victory for yourself. An insidious tactic indeed.

It is both a disservice to the memory of Mandela and the radical causes he championed to gloss over the less-than-peaceful moments of his life. There is, luckily, a very simple antidote to such idiocy: Don’t do it.

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