For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances others.
You will read and hear a great deal about Nelson Mandela over the coming weeks, but for me he will always be a revolutionary. But, as my friend Dan Bern once wrote, “a true revolutionary.” Faced with the horrors of institutional oppression, Mandela affiliated himself with the “by any means necessary” axiom, cloaked in desperation to be free, to free his people and all of the people of South Africa. It was not always pretty, but revolution never is, and while we today and, let’s face it, through most of our lives on this planet tend to judge the way in which people scratch and claw for liberty and justice, it is through their efforts, and the efforts of people like Nelson Mandela and his revolutionary descendants that we can take inspiration in the thorny notion that “what is” does not have to be “always.”
Among many of the egregious crimes of civilization, apartheid in South Africa seemed to encompass all of them at once; colonialism, institutional racism, cultural intolerance, international political and economic apathy, fear born of ignorance, abject violence and the general disdain for humanity. It went on for nearly half of the American Century during which South Africa became one of the biggest and most reliable of the U.S.’s Cold War trade partners. In other words, instead of denouncing tyranny or supporting a free South African state, the U.S. government supported the minority white-dominated government to fend off the Soviet Union’s infiltration of African resources.
Thus, many of Mandela’s supporters were communists, most notably Fidel Castro and his Cuban revolutionaries, which sympathized in every way with the African National Congress and its failed attempt to peaceably and legally challenge state sanctioned racism, wherein no one of color had any rights. Even by the mid-‘50s, already politically charged and extremely active in the resistance, Mandela realized that his efforts to protest were doomed and that the ANC was, not unlike the Irish Republican Army or the Palestinian Liberation Organization, a title not of the system but against an unjust system.
Mandela, as we would come to see as events of his incredible life unfolded, was about one thing: freedom. His politics and his methods shifted with the times, but he never wavered from that single mission. And unlike so many before and after him, he put it all on the line; from Gandhi’s civil disobedience to guerrilla warfare. Mandela knew the score. It was okay to be an African nationalist and democratic socialist, but it makes no damn difference if what you are, a man, is denied the right to exist.
When Mandela was arrested for the final time in the spring of 1964, he had become one of the faces of the resistance, having co-founded the Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation, which had begun terrorist attacks and general acts of sabotage against government installations for nearly three years. His charge, rightly so, was for treason; the same fate that the signers of our Declaration of Independence would have suffered had things not gone their way in the late 18th century. However, while Jefferson and Adams and Washington would have surely been hanged for their revolution, Mandela was jailed in barbaric conditions for 28 long years.
I first heard the name Nelson Mandela through the efforts of Amnesty International, which I had joined in 1986 during my truly radical political meanderings as a singer in a rock band. There had been a recent groundswell of anti-apartheid activists beginning to hound the U.S. Congress to override a veto by President Ronald Reagan of crippling sanctions against the oppressive Pretoria Government. I was duly shocked, and it would be maybe only the second or third time ever in my dealings with actual political movements, that Congress did, in fact, impose the sanctions by a vote of 78-21, which slowly began to reverse America’s support of apartheid, although U.S. businesses and banks seemed not to care.
Turns out that Mandela’s time in prison as a political dissenter did more for his cause that the over 200 acts of sabotage and sedition ever did. The shadowy titles of guerrilla communist insurrectionist were replaced with freedom fighter, long before that term was abused by aborted American creations like the Mujahideen, which later became Al Qaeda and unleashed the hellish decisions of Cold War paranoia and international manipulation on 9/11/01. Mandela withstood his jailing, because he never once denied being a revolutionary and that his cause had been and was just.
His victory, ultimately, became not with his release in February of 1990 after spending what would be a quarter of his life in prison or the eventual dismantling of apartheid three years later, or even his calls for unity among all South African peoples, but his becoming the first democratically elected president in 1994, and building from scratch a new order, the one he could not let go through “any means necessary.” And like George Washington, the titular father of this nation, Mandela died this week as the father of South Africa. After his work and symbolism of unity and stabilization, he refused to remain its literal figurehead and stepped aside to enjoy the fruits of a lifetime of revolutionary labor.
His was the life of a revolutionary, and Nelson Mandela remains for those of us who once believed in such haughty ideals as change and upheaval, its modern symbol for the grand price that is paid for a glorious legacy of revolution in the cause of the human spirit to breathe free.
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey,” “Fear No Art,” “Trailing Jesus,” “Midnight for Cinderella” and “Y.”