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Romanticizing Mandela

The Other Side of the Tracks: A Socially Speaking commentary by Perry Redd


The watch is on as former South African President Nelson Mandela’s reaches his twilight. Mandela is now in critical condition and the end is near. Mandela’s condition worsened in the past 24 hours.  We know what time it is.

Humanly, we prepare for mourning.  It’s not easy admitting the end of a life so significant to human progress, but it is what it is.  What bothers me though is the seemingly endless efforts of many to romanticize Mandela’s darkest years. When Mandela did what others wanted to do—and few did—there were millions more standing on the sidelines waiting to see what shook out.

In 1962 he was arrested, convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government—the very apartheid government that America supported—and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial. Mandela served 27 years in prison, first on Robben Island.  His conviction, of course, was politically targeted and worked against the white-run South African government.  Now, I see documentaries, plays and dramatizations of Mandela’s “struggle” against apartheid.  That’s as it should be, yet what’s missing is the significance of the wrongs committed by the whites that thought that this form of governance was acceptable.

I attended a play at DC’s Folger Shakespeare Theater where the on-stage performers read words written by Robben Island prisoners who were held in captivity alongside Mandela.  In The Robben Island Bible, a play written and directed by Matthew Hahn, the survival through coded Shakespeare is compelling, yet fails to leave the audience appalled at the perils of colonialism, thus nothing to apologize for.  I would have listed myself along with the captivated, except that I couldn’t hear the atrocities of the whites who held him. 

Telling the story is necessary, but romanticizing imprisonment is unacceptable.  What I deem appropriate is mentioning in the same breath the conditions that brought Mandela’s imprisonment to be.  It is true and accurate that Nelson Mandela survived a horrendous injustice—for 27 years, no doubt.  But it is disingenuous to frame his imprisonment in the context of a welcome martyrdom.  No man embraces bondage. 

Mandela was definitely a hero, yet an unwilling one.  We must make grand note of the monstrous colonization of the Dutch descendants that brought racial domination to reality. Racial segregation in South Africa began in colonial times under Dutch and British rule. However, apartheid as an official policy was introduced following the general election of 1948.  I wonder who voted “yes” on that? This concept of segregation in Mandela’s homeland isn’t relatively ancient!

This new legislation classified inhabitants into four racial groups (“native”, “white”, “colored“, and “Asian”), and residential areas were segregated, sometimes by means of forced removals. Non-white political representation was completely abolished in 1970, and starting in that year black people were deprived of their citizenship, legally becoming citizens of one of ten tribally based self-governing homelands called bantustans, four of which became nominally independent states. The government segregated education, medical care, beaches, and other public services, and provided black people with services inferior to those of white people. 

This relatively recent phenomenon is far too often side-stepped when telling the stories of “the overcoming Black man.”  No, I don’t believe in sharing the hero’s storyline with the villian’s devilish deeds; there is too much deference given to justification.  Yet, one must not whitewash the facts of the matter.

I feel compelled to open this eventuality of missing the condition that gave rise to Mandela’s triumph: white oppression, not only in South Africa, but in the “civilized” Western world.  I can’t let white people get away with softening their roles in Mandela’s saga.  To this day, Blacks are not healed, nor have they been made whole from the legacy of apartheid; much the same in the U.S. with it’s history of Jim Crow racism.  Whites will “de-color” Mandela and make him “every man.”  I see it coming.

 Beware of the tendency of racial dominators to lean toward reconciliation without unclenching the fist of socio-economic inequality.  To make you feel good about Mandela’s triumph is to forget the racist system that caused him to have had to overcome.  Don’t get caught up in the romanticizing of Nelson Mandela.


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