Recognizing Nelson Mandela

Alex DeWaal writes: For more than twenty years, following his conviction and sentence to life imprisonment in 1964, the Apartheid government in South Africa banned pictures of Nelson Mandela and his fellow prisoners. This ban was so effective that in 1982, following a medical checkup in Cape Town, Mandela’s warders allowed him a stroll on a public beach, confident—correctly—that no-one would recognize him. As told by his biographer William Gumede, “On the beach that day no-one as much as glanced at him. Later, with a glint in his eye, Mandela said he’d wondered what would have happened had he suddenly shouted: ‘I am Nelson Mandela!’”

Mandela’s anonymity was all the more ironic as, for over a decade, the African National Congress and the international Anti-Apartheid Movement had singled him out, from among all the other political prisoners in South Africa, as the symbol for its campaign. Images of his face from the Rivonia trial adorned posters and badges around the world, and in 1984 the song “Free Nelson Mandela” by the ska band The Specials helped to spark a movement by musicians, culminating in the “70th birthday concert” in 1988.

Mandela and his comrades were reluctant to give a single personal face to their mass movement. The ANC was run by a collective leadership in which individuals were required to submit to party discipline. It was profoundly averse to any personality cult. Nonetheless, at the insistence of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement which convinced the ANC that the global campaign against Apartheid needed a rallying symbol, they participated in constructing Mandela’s image to serve as an icon for their cause.

For the last twenty three years of his long life, Mandela had little privacy and no anonymity. Instantly recognized around the world, he became a vessel for many people’s hopes and aspirations, and a symbol of the new South Africa. For Africans, he exemplified leadership and dignity in overcoming racism and oppression: he was the leader they deserved. For white liberals, his forgiveness was a reward of which they could hardly have dreamed. Identities were projected onto him. When Mandela visited America after his release from prison, one young journalist prefaced her question with the words, “as an African American, do you…” before he gently reminded her that he was, in fact, an African. The way he has become idolized and idealized tells us more about the world’s need for such a figure, than about Nelson Mandela himself.

We need to tease apart the wishful thinking from the realities of this great man. [Continue reading...]

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