15 December 2013 — Media Diversified
One noticeable absence from Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was the former President of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi. Arguably, had he not been murdered at the instigation of the West in 2011, it is likely that Gaddafi would have been honoured with an opportunity to commemorate his comrade. Indeed, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he remained loyal to his former Cold War allies, and openly referred to Colonel Gaddafi as the “brother leader” who was a “close friend of South Africa”. Bearing this solidarity in mind, it is a fitting tribute that Raul Castro was among the attendees chosen to give a rousing speech. The historical ties between Cuba and Africa go back centuries, and it is significant that the Cuban government has always acknowledged this link. During Apartheid, Cuba offered unequivocal support to the ANC that proved vital, including the training of South African soldiers and doctors. In the year following his release from Prison, Nelson Mandela described his admiration for Cuba in the following words:
We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty …in the face of a vicious, imperialist-orchestrated campaign to destroy the Cuban revolution. We too want to control our own destiny. We are determined that the people of South Africa will make their future and that they will continue to exercise their full democratic rights after liberation from apartheid …we are moved by your affirmation of the historical connection to the continent and people of Africa. But the most important lesson …is that no matter what the odds are …there can be no surrender! It is a case of freedom or death!”
Needless to add, critics of Mandela have made much of the blood that was allegedly on his hands. Disappointingly, however, all mainstream news coverage of his memorial service failed to emphasise that Apartheid legislation stripped black South Africans of all rights, and forced them into a corner as second-class citizens in their own nation. With this in mind, it is impossible to fully understand the rationale for ANC violence without first acknowledging the aforementioned evils of Apartheid. In 1964, during his trial, Mandela gave the following justification for his armed resistance; he said:
…we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the Government. We chose to defy the law”
Another noticeable absence in Soweto was the Dalai Lama, who was unceremoniously denied a visa to attend the memorial service of his close friend. Although there has been no official explanation, many have suggested that he was shunned at the behest of the Chinese government, in an attempt to prevent him from being associated with the memory of a freedom fighter. Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama has previously visited South Africa on three occasions, and was able to meet Nelson Mandela twice – once during Mandela’s Presidency in 1996, and again in 2004. However, in 2011, he was prevented from attending Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations, which caused Archbishop Tutu to declare that he would pray for the downfall of the ANC government. Tellingly, although the judiciary later confirmed that the officials had acted unlawfully, the Dalai Lama’s recent “visa issues” raise important questions. Indeed, despite the obvious strides that have been made since the dark days of Apartheid, the unjust treatment of the Dalai Lama reveals how far South Africa has to go to be a truly sovereign nation. However, the court decision in 2011 does offer genuine hope for the future. After all, post-Apartheid South Africa was intended to be a free nation with a democratic system of accountable governance. With this in mind, the ability of an independent judiciary to expose the undue influence of a foreign nation is positive, and should remind us of the opening words of the South African Constitution, which was signed into law by Nelson Mandela in 1996:
We, the people of South Africa, Recognise the injustices of our past…”
Many comparisons have been made between minority rule in South Africa and the current Israeli occupation of Palestine. With this in mind, it is bizarre that neither the Israeli President Shimon Peres, nor the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, made the journey to Soweto to attend the memorial of Nelson Mandela. Although the State of Israel offered various poor excuses for why neither politician was in attendance, the perceived implications of snubbing Madiba’s memorial are damaging. After all, Israel enjoyed a close relationship with South Africa during Apartheid, and routinely flouted international embargoes to become Pretoria’s primary weapons supplier. Yet despite this damning history, it is probable that the current friction between South Africa and Israel stems from Mandela’s repeated calls for an end to the military occupation of Palestine. Upon his release in 1990, Madiba stated:
We expect everybody who is exploring the possibility of lasting solutions to be able to face the truth squarely. I believe that there are many similarities between our struggle and that of the PLO. “We live under a unique form of colonialism in South Africa, as well as in Israel, and a lot flows from that”
However, although many have debated the validity of this comparison, it should be noted that the anti-colonial conflicts throughout southern Africa and Palestine were among the earliest issues faced by the UN Security Council. Thus said, when we consider that the South African liberation movement finally achieved majority rule in 1994, it is understandable that Mandela refused to “leave the people of Palestine behind”. During a speech delivered on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Nelson Mandela told those in attendance:
…the UN took a strong stand against apartheid; and over the years, an international consensus was built, which helped to bring an end to this iniquitous system. But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians… all of us marveled at the progress made a few years ago, with the adoption of the Oslo Agreements… I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to these Palestinian and Israeli leaders… and the multitude of Israeli and Palestinian citizens of goodwill who are marching together, campaigning together, for an end to prevarication. These soldiers of peace are indeed sending a message to us all, that the day is not far off, when Palestinian and Jewish children will enjoy the gay abandon of children of God in a peaceful and prosperous region.”
Unfortunately however, with the occupation of Palestine nearing its centenary, the absence of Israeli leadership at Mandela’s memorial service does not bode well for hopes of a peaceful settlement agreement. Indeed, as opposed to merely snubbing Madiba, it is far more likely that the decision not to attend was motivated by the prospect of sharing an international platform with the President of the State of Palestine. Nevertheless, despite the perceived disrespect of the Israeli government, it is important to stress that Mandela fully recognised Israel’s right to exist, and differentiated between the leadership in Israel, and its citizens. With this important distinction in mind, it is ironic that Mandela’s offer in 1999 to mediate between Israel and Palestine is rarely mentioned, especially by those who tout him as an international symbol for peace.
Of all the attendees at Madiba’s memorial service, the guest who arguably deserved to be heard the most was Winnie Mandela. Indeed, despite being misrepresented in the West as estranged from her former husband, Winnie was there at Mandela’s bedside during his final moments, along with his third wife, Graca Machel, with whom she shares a strong relationship. Moreover, while Western audiences often perceive Winnie to be a political pariah, it should be noted that the vast majority of ill-feeling and indifference towards her originates from outside South Africa. After all, Madiba’s struggle was her struggle, and his victory was her victory. However, many in the Western world continue to negate her contribution as the mother of the nation. This is primarily due to Winnie’s political ideology being far less palatable than the tactful approach adopted by her former husband in 1990. Yet despite her omission from the lofty pedestal that Nelson Mandela has been raised to, Winnie nevertheless remains a force to be reckoned with, especially within South African politics. In 2010, Winnie shook the world when she was alleged to have publicly questioned Madiba’s leadership since the fall of the Apartheid regime. Furthermore, a private email leaked by a dissident faction of the ANC has confirmed Winnie’s solidarity with the wider Mandela family, and their united stance against the “disingenuous” and “exploitative” government of President Zuma.
Clearly, despite many in the West attempting to portray her as a troubled, scorned wife, a more honest appraisal of South African attitudes reveals that there are many in the “Rainbow Nation” who fully honour and support Winnie Mandela. After all, her people know that she campaigned tirelessly for decades to free Mandela, and they also know the evil that she suffered while her husband was imprisoned for all those years. Furthermore, Winnie remains very active in the most impoverished regions of South Africa today, and publicly expresses her frustrations and disillusionment with the ANC government. Speaking in the Johannesburg township of Bekkersdal this year, she admitted:
I’m one of the leaders who made promises to this community and I expected a bit of change…”
Significantly, despite sympathising with voter apathy among poor South Africans, Winnie Mandela nevertheless remains adamant that the people must never neglect their hard-earned right to vote. Tellingly, she now alludes to the ousting of President Zuma as the solution to the problems within the ANC. Indeed, on the same day that she supported ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema at his disciplinary hearing, Winnie Mandela gave a rousing speech before a large audience in Johannesburg, where she publically declared:
“Next year, we will be voting …and trust me, we’re not into recycling. We shall get a new leader”
Bearing this in mind, when we consider the hostile reception that President Zuma received in Soweto, it is highly unlikely that we have heard the last of Winnie Madikizela. Furthermore, despite her silence at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, Winnie nevertheless has the ear of her countrymen. Thus said, as South Africa prepares to face a presidential election for the first time without Madiba, it will be truly fascinating to see if the masses once again turn to the “mother of the nation” for guidance.
In closing, perhaps the most divisive guest to attend Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was U.S President Barack Hussein Obama. He was born in 1961, the same year that the ANC was banned, and first became interested in politics in 1981, after learning of the entrenched injustice within Apartheid South Africa. Obama has frequently referred to his admiration and respect for Mandela, and predictably heaped praise on the former South African President during his commemorative speech in the South African rain. Yet despite these populist leanings, within the space of the last five years, President Obama has gone from promising “change you can believe in”, to becoming a symbolic embodiment of injustice around the world. Indeed, although there were many who were pleased to see him in attendance in Soweto, there were arguably many more around the world who were uncomfortable with his presence. After all, Madiba was a man who stood for many things that the U.S President clearly does not. Tellingly, however, despite the glaring differences between the two men, the mainstream media failed to mention the obvious irony of Nelson Mandela being honoured by the Commander-in-Chief of Guantanamo Bay. Furthermore, it is a widely known fact that the United States of America houses the largest prison population in the world, and more worryingly, this population is 65% non-white, despite the general U.S population being 69% white. Thus said, when we remember that Mandela believed that “no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails”, it is fair to conclude that President Obama is the leader of an institutionally racist, prison-industrial-complex.
Clearly, despite promising to reverse the warmongering policies of his predecessor, it is now apparent that Barack Obama tricked the whole world into a false sense of hope. On the international stage, he has failed to address the on-going conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and remained silent on the atrocities committed by the State of Israel in the weeks following his election victory. Obama has also furthered the Bush doctrine of conducting extra-judicial killings with drone strikes, and has already overseen “regime change” in Libya.
However, despite the numerous failings and betrayals of Obama’s presidency, the grassroots energy inspired by his empty promises of “change” cannot be ignored. Although controversial, this is an important point, as although apathy and cynicism towards mass political movements is understandable, these very same movements have the potential to bring about real change in society. Indeed, despite the obvious hypocrisy of his presidency, Barack Obama is still responsible for inspiring millions of people to challenge the political status quo, and this power to shake an indifferent society from its apathy cannot be overstated. After all, the youth in America are currently among President Obama’s biggest critics, and many of them were first inspired to question the political system after supporting Obama’s campaign for radical change. Unsurprisingly, Nelson Mandela recognised the significance of politicising people who otherwise defeatist and uninterested. Following Obama’s first inauguration, Mandela stated:
People, not only in our country, but around the world, were inspired to believe that through common human effort, injustice can be overcome and that together a better life for all can be achieved”
This lesson from Madiba is paramount, as ultimately, all successful political movements are based on the premise that solidarity can overcome any injustice. Furthermore, it is imperative to remember that Obama’s dishonesty cannot change this fundamental fact. Thus said, during segregation in the United States, it was the humble activism of the Women’s Political Council that inspired the Civil Rights movement that spread around the world. In South Africa, it was the humble activism of Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Anton Lembede that inspired the anti-Apartheid movement that spread around the world. These unprecedented victories would have been impossible without a firm belief in the indomitable power of “common human effort”.
With this in mind, we must remember that Nelson Mandela inspired billions to believe that any injustice could be overcome through solidarity, and this is his greatest legacy. It is also something that his enemies will never be able to take from him.
I stand here before you not as a prophet… but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands…”
Akwesi Shaddai is a working-class law student and social entrepreneur of African-Caribbean-European descent. As a born-&-bred black South Londoner, he writes about the inter-connected barriers that impede social mobility for the most disenfranchised among us. Unsurprisingly, his musings have been known to provoke the Hegelian elephant in the room. Follow him @IAmAkwesi