The Meaning of Mandela

Like millions around the globe, I’m an admirer of Nelson Mandela. It’s hard not to admire one who endured so much on behalf of a cause he was willing to die for. I admire his willingness to forgive and not become embittered and hopeless by being imprisoned during the entirety of the prime of his life. I admire the impetus and vision behind the (not flawless) Truth and Reconciliation Commission, initiated under his leadership. Many of his speeches and writings are genuinely inspiring and spiritually mature, not simply saccharine feel-goodism.

I’m not particularly disturbed by his willingness to use violence to fight oppression earlier in his life. Claims that he was a terrorist who resorted to acts of terrorist aggression are laughable in the context of what the word ‘terrorist’ has come to mean today, particular when his revolutionary activities most often resembled Ghandism far more than anything else. (Though let’s not forget that Ghandi’s nonviolent resistance was really anything but nonviolent in the many ways it fissured the prevailing order). As always, it’s telling that virtually every statement I’ve read decrying Mandela as a terrorist is uttered by people as far removed as possible from the necessity of having to resort to violence simply in order to preserve basic human dignity. It’s easy and even pleasurable to be able to pinwheel around the luxurious bubble of rage-in-the-abstract, where one’s eternal privilege makes it dangerously possible to see the cries of human beings resisting the suffocation of centuries of imposed animality as something as easy and reductive as “terrorism.” On the other hand, claims that the media has whitewashed his legacy by softening his radicalism and transforming him into a pacifistic peacemaker are also a bit hyperbolic in context, particularly if merely making statements about the evils of imperialist States (the United States in particular) alone makes one a radical (which, if true, sanitizes and transforms the notion of radicalism in precisely the same way). Besides, how extremist were Mandela’s indictments of the US when grouped with the enormous chorus of other international and national censures?

Nevertheless, Mandela must still be seen as a radical with regard to his own nation, in which he resorted to various methods in order to affect fundamental change and revolutionary political reform. There is no doubt there was a certain violence in all of this, both before his imprisonment and after (it would be hard, for example, to defend the TRC, or at least the ideal behind the TRC, as non-revolutionary). That violence is always a sin, a crack in the Ideal Order of Things that signals the Order’s actual and perpetual brokenness, cannot be denied, but it is only a sin inasmuch as it is a virtually inevitable result of a system, of a life, of a being-in-the-world that is always already broken in the first place. To put it another way, violence merely exposes that the system is always shot through with various levels of evil and suffering (or, perhaps better, that it simply is suffering and evil). Violence doesn’t impose itself from the outside, it materializes as the visible node that reveals life as the struggle it always was when we were being distracted and sedated. Violence is the avatar of the system itself as sin. Our very participation in the system (no matter that we were thrown into it against our will) is at minimum already a subtle participation of violence in posse. Tinker with some of its conditions, intensify certain regions with injustice, take away basic elements of decent and dignified living, and you will become capable of far more than you previously thought possible. This is one of the key insights of orthodox and radical Christianities: whether it comes with us into the world, genetically taints us from the acts of our first parents, or embeds itself at some point like a Physical Law of the Universe in every human being, the violence of sin is part of what it means to be human. It is not excusable, in part because we are not excusable. It is tiresome to treat violence as merely a disease of which only some are infected. It is there, beneath our surfaces, clinging to us, dormant in hybernization until awakened. Repentance is thus always and forever on order, though apology on behalf of the ways the system brutalizes and dehumanizes should not be. And repentance was another attribute that Mandela ably demonstrated.

Mandela’s flaws have, of course, become part of his legend. Flaws in heroes make the heroes even more universal–their public acts raise them to the level of gods, and their private weaknesses lower them, though not back to our levels of ordinariness and mundanity. Now they are demigods, semi-deities we can relate to just enough to find satisfaction and pleasure in a few commonalities, but still high enough to admire and worship. They become immortal, wherein they live forever in collective memory. For many, the only difference between the condescended incarnational Christ and these public figures is one of vertical trajectory–descent on the one hand, or ascension on the other.

As with all heroes, though, Mandela’s elevation to god-hero is problematic, not because of anything he personally did or said, but because of the notion of heroism itself. At the global level we need our heroes and idols, and that is precisely the problem. Heroes and idols do not emerge as mere symbolizations of overcoming the system, but are spun out by the system itself as a means of its own preservation. The system knows the fate of heroes, and it knows that its own fate and fortune are tied directly to theirs. By their elevation we are seduced into thinking that the structural suffering we and others endure has been destabilized and weakened, that This Man has overcome all obstacles to rise above human corruption and pain, and not only does that inspire us (usually temporarily) to do the same, but that He Himself will also help us to do it. But their status as heroes could not exist without the oppressive order from which they arise, and their glorification means the system is working, that it will go on, that more heroes will follow and the romance of the hero’s journey will continue. Almost universally, heroes and their legacies are exploited by those in power to the end of preserving the prevailing order, and the more capable Heroes are of continuing to live in the present through reminiscences, celebrations, documentaries, reenactments, and even blatant propaganda, the more enthreaded they become within the symbolic fabric of the means by which those who rule maintain their rule. Thus, rarely do you hear the (living) Hero express consistent dissatisfaction with his own adoration (dead Heroes, of course, never express dissatisfaction with their own adoration). This is not simply because the Hero still manifests some human weakness, but because the possibility of truly becoming a universal figure requires compromise at some point with regard to one’s radical ideals. The Hero is, in the end, the Radical Who Is No Longer a Radical. This must be the case, or else the Hero could never be both institutionally preserved, yet popularly admired, utilized as a symbolic governing tool of the ruling class, yet simultaneously revered by the masses.

None of this lessens the manifest quantifiable greatness of Mandela’s accomplishments and hard-won practical wisdom. Neither should it by itself intensify and magnify his weaknesses. But we should be wary of the Hero we have made of him. Even before his death he largely ceased to be a man and became a myth, a symbol, and therefore shorn of the humanity that propelled him to genuine action, of the complex human experiences that taught him the geological patience of real, revolutionary reform–and compelled him to compromise at times, whether for good or ill. Becoming the Hero means that it is no longer necessary–in fact, it’s detrimental–to study the enfleshed details of the Hero’s life too closely, since, as every historian knows, becoming too familiar with the minutiae of history strips the subject of its mythological trappings. When the hero becomes our lodestar, he becomes a proxy through which we live our own lives. Then the concrete, temporal events to which he responded and which defined his course, become our own events, and therefore pseudoevents, because they did not happen to us, they did not in fact break open our world and redefine our path, and therefore they cannot genuinely revolutionize us or prompt us to “be the change we wish to see in the world.” We cannot live through Mandela, or through others who took on the investitures of myth and legend. We cannot be faithful to the events that made of Mandela what he became. Only he could demonstrate fidelity to them or fail to live up to them. We cannot make the mistakes Mandela made. We must own our own mistakes and pay our own price. Instead, the meaning of Mandela, of the Symbol-Hero, as with other Heroes, should be for each of us to survey the events that mark our own lives, to re-learn or learn for the first time that which we must individually become faithful to, to mark our own paths of revolution and reform, both personally and collectively, to understand for ourselves what it might mean to compromise or to not compromise our ideals. This is the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional maturity required to genuinely effect change first in ourselves and then in the world.

What, then, becomes of Mandela and his legacy under this kind of model? We must write our own stories, not give ourselves over to Heroes who are better and more worthy than us; yet, we look to others to help us do that, especially in the beginning, when we are unsure of ourselves, doubtful of our own potential. We need teacher-exemplars from whose real stories of triumph and failure to live up to potential we personally learn and make application to our own paths, rather than Heroes who instill in us religious fervor and romance us with tales of gallantry and godhood. Nelson Mandela is no longer here to tell his story, neither to embellish it, nor to make revisions to it, nor to give it to us as straight as he can. It is left to us to tell the story of his life and to endow it with meaning, as it is with all figures who pass into myth and legend. We decide if he lingers in the mystical realm of the Hero, untouchable, remote, far above us unworthy creatures, a life and death so much more than ours could ever be; or whether the real details of his life equalize his story with our own, a ladder to climb up as we find our own footing, but then to push over when we reach the top, ready to be confident Storytellers in our own right, because our own stories matter just as much, our own judgments and hard-won meanings are just as significant, we can become self-assured agents of change without the need for Heroes to save us. That’s a legacy that could truly be revolutionary.


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