A death in South Africa: Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela
Flickr, HelenSTB

Nelson Mandela is dead. Maybe you’ve heard.

I met Mandela in Seattle a few years ago, when he was already old but still a powerful presence. Many are celebrating his legacy as South Africa’s first black president, as an icon of the successful struggle against apartheid and as the lead character in a story of right versus might.

Left out of this narrative, usually, is that Mandela was labeled a terrorist by the U.S. government, which supported the former South African government’s policy of racial separation and discrimination up until a few years before the wretched apartheid system finally collapsed.

Mandela was a freedom fighter and an African nationalist, in the best sense of the word. But he was also not a big fan of capitalism or what might be called ‘the American way,’ aligning himself ideologically with more left-leaning folks like Fidel Castro and the old Soviet Union. He wasn’t a pacificist. He believed in fighting fire with fire. These facts are usually also left out of these stories – or buried down at the bottom.

Much of the news coverage of Mandela’s death is focused on the question of what his passing will mean for the future of South Africa – a nation variously described as either an up-and-coming emerging economy or a still-racially-polarized and immensely unequal country at risk of further unraveling.

I won’t add to the flood of posthumous news stories by recalling Mandela’s visit to Seattle. And I’ll leave it to others more knowledgeable than me to provide perspective and analysis on whither South Africa.

My question is where are the Mandelas of today? Who are the people in jails and prisons around the world, usually labeled as ‘terrorists’ by the powers-that-be, only because they refuse to accept a system that keeps them down?

Will we support them now, or just celebrate them once the struggle is all over?

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.