‘Many people in this country have paid the price before me and many will pay the price after me.’
These words were spoken by Nelson Mandela in 1962, just after he had been sentenced to life imprisonment by the apartheid government. It was an imprisonment that, ultimately, would last almost three decades. During that period, Mandela came to embody a people in chains and, after his release, he personified a spirit of reconciliation and a hope for a nation reborn. As these hopes have been eroded by frustration, estrangement and apathy, Mandela has variously been depicted as a saint – an ethereal father-figure who sits above politics and symbolises a dream betrayed – or a sell-out, whose compromises during the transition made economic justice in post-apartheid South Africa untenable.
In fact, these were just two of the many labels that circled Mandela during his lifetime, and have continued to proliferate after his death: hero, terrorist, diplomat, soldier, communist, realist, peace-maker, rabble-rouser, sell-out, saviour. Such labels have an understandable attraction: they allow us to try and get a handle on the life we saw lived, and that which we have lost. Some of the labels placed upon him were unjust – a product of propaganda that emerged from the racist regime he struggled to end – others were simply unable to capture the complexity of the humanity that any life exhibits.
Ultimately, to canonise or demonise Mandela is to lose sight of his humanity, and the broader struggles of which he was a part. As his words above demonstrate, Mandela recognised that he was only one of many to have struggled against human oppression. Throughout his life, he realised both the importance of leadership and the significance of mass action, both of which were integral to the political change he sought. Later, he embraced the role of Tata – father of the nation – but he remained aware that ‘individuals do not make history’ even if they could shape events within it.
In reality, ‘the struggle’ against apartheid was actually a plethora of struggles – both spectacular and mundane – which the ANC could not encompass and did not always lead. And Mandela was all too aware that, like any human, his was a flawed contribution to that struggle. Both prior to 1994, and after, he made mistakes that would compromise the goals he sought. These were not just in the economic arena. His persistent loyalty to past allies in the struggle, for example, meant that he failed to tackle the incompetence of certain ministers in his country, and the abuses of leaders like Gaddafi and Abacha abroad. His life, however, stands as a testament to the power of principled human action, and the significance that sacrifice can have for the lives of others.
That commitment to action did not end with the transition. Some have mistaken Mandela’s push for reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa as a signal that he thought the struggle was over. Far from it. ‘I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb’, wrote Mandela in his autobiography, ‘I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.’
Throughout the remainder of his life, Mandela continued to rail against various injustices that he saw within his own country, and beyond its borders. Freedom, he claimed, was a universal right and whilst nations like Palestine were not free, no one was fully free. The ‘prison of poverty’, he argued, was man-made injustice, and needed to be eradicated, wherever it appeared.
Madiba had been stoic about death long before it finally embraced him. ‘Life is, after all, a terminal illness’, he concluded almost a decade ago, ‘the tragedy of the natural order that we can do nothing to change’. A life well lived, he argued, was one which allowed us to depart having ‘made life that much more bearable for others’.
The dead were able to rest in peace, Mandela believed, because the living took on the mantle of the struggles that they had borne in life. By saluting the journey of those who went before us, we did not simply mark their journey’s end; we committed to continuing on the path they had begun to forge.
At his comrade Joe Slovo’s funeral in 1995, Mandela declared: ‘We, who are gathered here, are beneficiaries of the freedom to which Joe dedicated his life. We are the relay team to whom he has handed the torch that he carried for so long. The race will continue until we have achieved a better life for all our people.’
Rest in Peace, Madiba. The long walk will continue.