Round Table with Oscar
December 10, 2013
Nelson Mandela and the torch

The gentle giant

Here’s what one of the late Nelson Mandela’s biographers wrote about him:

‘Nelson Mandela is perhaps the last pure hero on the planet. He is the smiling symbol of sacrifice and rectitude, revered by millions as a living saint. But this image is one-dimensional. He would be the first to tell you that he is far from a saint – and that is not false modesty…{{more}}

Nelson Mandela is a man of many contradictions. He is thick-skinned, but easily wounded…’

(Richard Stendil: Mandela’s Way, 2008.)

During the past week and a half, our media has been unveiling Nelson Mandela as a person, part of Themba royalty, but also in his role as member of the liberation movement, the African National Congress. We have also noted that he was a founder of its youth league, one who initiated the armed struggle against apartheid’s brutal racist rule and political economy in the forming of “Umkonto we sizwe” the liberation army. Mandela’s role in defiance as a tactic of struggle, his rhetoric, his imprisonment and the refinement of his political persona and the strategy in prison, as well as his failure as a family man all get some attention in the recent media. I want to add something to these snapshots of Madiba, the man who marks the passing of one era and the flow over into another. What was the world that the people of South Africa have faced these past 60 years.

Racism as a programme of the state

South Africa was a colonial fortress of white racism, with a policy called apartheid or separate development as defined by the racist government of the white minority. The whites (1/6 of the population) controlled the political and military power. They owned the major means of production, they manipulated education, they kept the areas of built up residences and infrastructure for whites only, and they divided the rest of South Africa among the ‘coloureds’ the ‘Indians’ and the ‘Blacks’ You know we had a saying ‘if you white you all right, if you brown, you could hang around, if you Black, stand back;’ that was the South Africa that emerged from 300 years of penetration by Europeans.
When in 1961, the people, led by the ANC (founded in 1912, 100 years ago) had a protest and refused to accept the ‘pass book’ that they had to carry to have the right to move about in South Africa, they were shot down in Sharpeville. The ANC armed wing was launched shortly after. When Black students rebelled in 1976 in Soweto against the racist education system, they were shot down. When women and workers took to the streets, dogs, guns and tanks were turned on them. And all that time the business world in Europe and North America kept up their support for apartheid and the profits from the mines, farms and industries owned by the whites.
This is the programme of the racist world which the people and leaders of revolutionary South Africa fought to change and did change with leaders like Mandela. Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela, Walter Sisuli, Chris Hani, Oliver Tambo, Joe Slovo, Alan Boesak, Steve Biko and others. South Africa’s triumph has made racism retreat somewhat underground. This means that as the torch of racial justice, passed to us by Mandela and his comrades, warms our grasp, we must have new strategies to undermine this underground world of racism.

The Global and the personal

During the Mandela era, scores of nations fought and won their way out of political domination. However, they were caught in a trap of economic production, trade and infrastructure relations that make national independence worth less. South Africa is a country trapped by large transnational mining, industrial and other business corporations, often in coalition with sections of the former apartheid business class.

The unlocking of racial political control won during the Mandela era has to be followed up with new political and social strategies for the further development of the national economy. The torch is passing, but the cadre of leaders in the state and society need to enhance in themselves the qualities Mandela developed, especially during his prison years; personal character traits of a certain kind – sacrificial, people-focused, and incorruptible – are necessary for performance in the national interest on the global platform. In South Africa and SVG, there are very few hands ready to grasp the torch from Madiba Mandela.

When we sing the praises of Nelson Mandela, we must also acknowledge the duty, some part of the many tasks which he took up with such courage and commitment. Otherwise Mandela would be a failure, failing to generate in others — not just adulation and admiration, but — emulation. The Mandela torch, which he received from others, must not fall and go out. Others must do the Mandela thing now, in our time and place.