It’s just been a few weeks since Nelson Mandela was taken off the United States terrorism watch list. No doubt so that they too could join in the celebrations of this living icon, without the embarrassment of hoisting up a revolutionary.
I gather that a revolutionary in America is, someone, not quite viewed through the same rose-tinted lens worn by us Southerners.
Mandela made the cover of Time Magazine again this week. It’s his fourth time on the cover. I couldn’t resist picking it up as I walked past the magazine rack at the local store, knowing well that I was going to be presented with yet another romantic glorification of his role as reconciler.
Not that I disagree with the sentiment. I join the rest of the world in praising the power of his peacemaking in our deeply divided nation. But Mandela is my hero for a few different reasons too. There is much more to our beloved leader than the image of the sanitised reconciler we’ve been fed since his release from prison.
In the early days of the apartheid struggle, Mandela was a stirring political activist. Those are the dark days when the very people who are celebrating him today, had their backs turned to him.
The political activist that I wish to remember is the terrorist that the Americans want to forget. The man, who frustrated by the savage methods of his oppressors, took up arms against them, earning himself the unfair label of terrorist, while it was the apartheid government, run by a bunch of racist bullies, which should have been put on America’s terrorist list.
Mandela’s journey to the top has been strewn with perils, including the threat of death, which he embraced as a political activist prepared to die for his principles. The sacrifice he offered in the closing remarks of his Rivonia Trial speech continues to inspire a new generation of activists even today. He said:
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal, which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Nelson Mandela. Rivonia Trial, April 20, 1964.
Forty-four years later, on the eve of Mandela’s 90th birthday, listening to a podacst of his Rivonia Trial speech, it occurs to me that many of the things he was prepared to lay his life on the line for, have not changed. His seminal speech was about the appalling socio-economic conditions of black South Africans and the gross inequality between the lives of white and black South Africans.
How tragic and ironic that despite Mandela’s sacrifices - with only the difference of political freedom - if the dates were changed in his Rivonia Trial speech, he could easily rerun it as a commentary on modern day South Africa.
The downtrodden of South Africa are still stuck in the trenches of a struggle for their socio-economic freedom.
Nevertheless, even as Mandela has become far removed from his people, he continues to be a man of extraordinary character and integrity and even enjoys the love and respect of those who have been betrayed by the democratic transition.
Sbu Zikode, president of Abahlali Basemjondolo, the shack dwellers organisation, says “We take Mandela as a second Jesus Christ, who was jailed for all of us. We really appreciate the sacrifice that he made. We all fought together as brothers and sisters … and it is more hurt(ful) when it is our own brothers … who are now oppressing us.”
Through ‘anger, hunger and frustration’ Abahlali’s shack dwellers have taken to the streets to protest the conditions under which they live. They are pained and disappointed by the lack of priority assigned to their plight by the democratically elected government and have, in recent years, been increasingly active in expressing their constitutional right to protest.
When laws don’t work for people, civil disobedience is allowed. This is the lesson that we learned from the young Mandela. Not that Abahlali’s protest action is unlawful.
Given the history of our leaders, it is surprising to note the crackdown on community activists of today. The story of Jerome Daniels and Ridwaan Isaacs is a case in point. They are both community leaders from the Delft informal settlement, involved in the struggle for decent housing, who have recently been sentenced to a year in jail for their political activism.
In handing down their stiff sentences, the magistrate contended that he was doing so in order to “teach the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign a lesson.” This campaign, which both the accused are members of, is a sister organisation of Abahlali.
So as we get caught up in the heady moment of this iconic birthday celebration - and in the rhetoric of reconciliation, it would also serve us well to remember that the struggle is far from over for many South Africans who are enslaved by their socio-economic conditions.
Mandela, the struggle activist of the 60’s understood that contestation is an essential part of democratic engagement. We draw on the strength of this knowledge in the South Africa of 2008, where the struggle for social justice is far from over.
By Fazila Farouk, founder and executive director of the South African Civil Society Information Service.
Read more articles by Fazila Farouk.