Rhodes Professor Mark Behr Pays Tribute to Legacy of Nelson Mandela

Mark Behr, associate professor of English at Rhodes and highly regarded South African novelist, has penned the following tribute to Former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). It recently was published in (French) Le Monde.


I Will Call Him Beloved Who Was Not Beloved

How to engage the legacy of someone for whom more streets are named than any other human being dead or alive? Is there anything new to write when scores of the best have already written? What, I wonder, passes through the mind of a man like him after almost 95 years on earth, 27 of which were spent behind bars? Does memory take him back to himself as a young man, smelling again the scent from open books he bends over to prepare for the exams that will qualify him as a lawyer? Does the clang still ring in his ears of the cell’s metal gate that swings shut behind him? At his age, does he dwell on what it means to have stood in a space adorned by Edward Munch, to receive the world’s most famous peace prize, as hundreds in the streets hold burning candles to honor him on a freezing Nordic night? Or is it the face of his mother that he remembers when she was young; or as she was the last time he kissed her? Is he aware only of the touch of his wife Graca Machel on the papery skin of his forearm, where she stands vigil at his bedside?

I was 21 years old when I recall first hearing his name. By then I had graduated from my Afrikaans high school with history as a subject. I had participated proudly as a soldier in apartheid South Africa’s war in Angola and was poised to become a covert informant against the African National Congress. This was 1984 and I was visiting one of South Africa’s historically liberal universities. Across campus we heard voices singing: “Nelson Mandela, one day he’ll free us, from this land of apartheid.” I asked: “Who’s this they’re singing about?” To which came the reply: “Some or other terrorist in prison on Robben Island.”

Unbelievable as it may seem, the name Nelson Mandela did not appear in any of the history books we read at school. From everything we were taught traditions of dissidence and opposition to European colonialism and apartheid were omitted or strategically manipulated. The logic behind our ‘history by omission’ was not unlike that being taught at the time in the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the USSR, as in South Africa after the end of formal apartheid, history textbooks would have to be rewritten. Something similar began happening in the USA because of the impact of the civil rights, feminist and gay movements. One of the texts I teach to U.S. students is Toni Morrison’sBeloved. The novel is dedicated to “Sixty Million and More.” When I ask students what the dedication alludes to, it is rare for even one to know the answer. The 60 million is in fact an estimate of the number of abducted, bought and sold Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. If these tens of millions were erased from U.S. historiography, it is easier to grasp what happened to one man’s name in South Africa.

White South Africa was not alone in designating Nelson Mandela a terrorist. Just three years before his release from prison in 1990, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher still referred to the ANC as a ‘typical terrorist organization.’ Not until 2008, long after his presidency had ended, did the United States definitively remove Nelson Mandela and the ANC from its immigration watch list for terrorists. Now that the name Mandela is universally celebrated, it is disturbing to recall that only a short while ago it was we, the so-called civilized, who used this language to justify our policies and our wars, that it was our privilege, our silence and our agency that kept people like Mandela incarcerated and the majority of black people of Africa in positions of inferiority and legalized servitude. We were the racists. Perhaps we whites--myself included--were the real terrorists.

At the time of Nelson Mandela’s birth in 1918, Europe controlled around 80 percent of the earth. This changed rapidly after the Second World War as countries gained independence. The struggle to end apartheid therefore also became a battle to rid the world of one of the last manifestations of an international system of racial discrimination and exploitation that included slavery and mass killings of people during the slave trade and in the Congo. Formal apartheid’s end in 1994 also heralded the symbolic conclusion to five centuries of European colonization.

After decades in prison, Mandela’s attitude towards his oppressors was the principle of ‘respect for one’s enemies.’ Whether this for Mandela was in fact principle, strategy, pragmatism or a mix is a point of some debate, but his magnanimity and his insistence that we see ourselves in and through the eyes of our enemies became one of his greatest legacies. Resisting the impulse for revenge, Mandela suggested reconciliation as a cornerstone for social transformation: as there could be no radical break from the past, we would have to find a way to integrate it with the present to secure a more stable and just future. His insistence on humanizing those who often were still the enemies of non-racialism and democracy changed the nature of public discourse, forever. The challenge his legacy poses to old and new elites in positions of power and privilege is to extend the work of transformation to include the lives of the poor and the dispossessed. Moral imagination and responsibility, his words and deeds suggest, are at the heart of moral righteousness.

In Mandela we witnessed, as one does daily in this country, human potential liberated, in ways that make one wonder, at times in remorse, guilt, shame and with a new sense of responsibility, how different South Africa – indeed the world – might have been had the scourge of racism and European colonialism not been allowed to sully human history for five centuries. He himself was always at pains to stress that it was not he who brought change to South Africa. His contribution came after long struggles peopled by ordinary people over centuries. And wherever there is power, these struggles continue.

He is not above criticism: many believe that his magnanimity towards whites has made it possible for old and new elites to entrench themselves and for crass economic exploitation to hinder structural transformation. Some speak of his and his family’s considerable personal wealth whose sources have never been sufficiently explained. Others have pointed to the fact that he leaves behind a fractured family of children squabbling over money rather than honoring their father’s legacy. He has been criticized for not addressing HIV-AIDS during his presidency (he did, afterwards –unambiguously).

Like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Mandela’s various legacies will be contested as we all project our own hopes, desires and shortcomings onto icons. A democratic discourse also demands that neither individual nor national legacies be allowed to ossify. Only with constant dialogue can democracy flourish: dialogue and commitment to the present, and dialogue that seeks to grasp the relationship of present to past. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the voices of slaves that for centuries were omitted, silenced or misrepresented in official history or repressed and denied in the individual psyche return to haunt and disturb, in fact, to terrorize the living. But ultimately it is also this engagement with a past so terribly alive in the present that brings healing to a fractured and deeply traumatized community. What has been silenced through naïve or deliberate unknowing has a way of becoming the loudest presence in the story – both personally and politically. So it has been and will be in South Africa: the man whom we whites tried to erase from history is now on the lips of people everywhere, his name on alleys in the smallest South African village to the widest boulevards of cities all over the world. So too whatever challenges we turn our backs on in South Africa today will become the phenomena that threaten to define or undo us. Morrison’s novel takes its title and epigraph from the Biblical book of Romans 9: I will call those who were not my people, My People, and her who was not beloved, Beloved. Mandela leaves us the knowledge that without this kind of radical empathy--the gesture of imaginatively placing ourselves in the lives of others, also the marginalized, the poor, the still silenced--there can be no personal or political transformation, certainly no justice. This part of his legacy will continue to challenge us to expand our moral universe.

Now, wherever Mandela may be, it is somewhere beyond the glory of prizes, solemn ceremonies of honor and admiration in the corridors of international power politics. For now I want to imagine that his mind has found rest. That his memory settles for a moment on an image of himself as a child amongst others. They are in a winter of rolling hills above Qunu, beyond the Kei River, inland from the blue Indian Ocean. He, along with the others, is tending cattle and playing games in the warm winter sun. All around them aloes light up the veld like torches aflame against the sweep of bleached grass.