Mandela’s Dilemma: Western Politics, Native’s Ethics

18 - Dec - 2013
By : Mbaye Lo

There appear to be two competing narratives concerning Mandela’s legacy. There are those who cast him as the father of the South African liberation movement, a radical leader, with an unwavering dedication to the revolutionary struggle. This is mostly a political assessment. There are also those who, like President Obama, admire Mandela’s ability to forgive, his dedication to peace and moral leadership as a freedom fighter who came to reject violence. This is an ethical assessment.

So why are these two divergent, competing narratives of Mandela’s legacy? Because there is a political aspect of Mandela’s career, in which many of his promises went largely unfilled; and there is an ethical aspect of his career, in which his efforts were largely successful. In Western liberal practice, the West reserves political judgment for itself and its agents.

All assessments of the efficacy of “native” (non-Western) leaders are confined to the area of ethics. Native heroes are acknowledged and judged based on their ethical behavior. Thus, leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are universally celebrated. Mandela can only be universally celebrated if he fits into this category of ‘saints.’

In the Western liberal tradition, politics encompasses the spheres of economic justice, reason, law, rights and duties of citizenship. It is valid to use violence to maintain this political order. The violence of colonialism, genocide, imperialism and neo-colonialism is legitimized by this logic of politics. This trend had prompted Emmanuel Levinas to warn us that, “politics left to itself bear a tyranny within itself.”

Hence, the heroes in the liberal tradition are generally conquerors, empire builders, loyal “explorers” for the imperial order, and janissaries of neo-colonialism.

The native hero cannot be universally celebrated unless he contributes to the maintenance of the imperial order. He has to forgive the imperial violence, and forgo responding in kind on behalf of the aggrieved natives, accept its economic exploitation and commit to reconcile native needs with imperial demand. More often than not, a universally celebrated native hero is often an ethical hero, not a political one; a moral leader, not a reformer; a conciliator and not a liberator. In the rhetoric of the former Senegalese president-poet Léopold Sédar Senghor, the imperial order requires an evolutionary leader, not a revolutionary one.

Under this pendulum of binary orders, it is no surprise that reformist heroes are often not universally celebrated. Non-universal native heroes are habitually described as radical, terrorists, dictators, and socialists. Whenever liberation or liberty from imperial dominance came through revolt or revolution, the native hero is rejected and demonized. Wherever independence or freedom emerged from embracing the imperial dominance the native hero is recognized and universalized.

One must question the rationale according to which Mandela has become a universal icon.

Did Mandela deliver politically? I would love to say yes, but evidence and experience have shown otherwise. The objective reality of South Africa is generally used to camouflage Mandela’s failure to reform the post-apartheid era. It is true that his mere ascendance to lead South Africa as a country is in and of itself provides an inspirational message; unfortunately, he ended his political career with unfulfilled promises of economic reforms.

The latest census data in South Africa shows widening income inequality and an economically disenfranchised people. Widespread urban poverty has made South Africa one of the most crime-ridden places in the world.

Charryl Walker et al.’s momentous work Land, Memory, Reconstruction, and Justice has documented beyond a doubt the failure of land restitution in post-apartheid South Africa.

If one was to wander the streets of Johannesburg during the last three weeks, or to visit the ghettos of Soweto or the townships of Guguletu in the last three years, as I did, one would experience the frightening human suffering and the normalization of black poverty. The majority of South African blacks did not benefit from the end of apartheid.

It is often remarked that the Soweto that Mandela described in his autobiography Long Walk Toward Freedom is no different in standard of living from the Soweto that wept for his death on December 5th. There was no emancipatory politics after apartheid, only forgiveness and reconciliation, and a systematic move to normalize inequality.

In constructing Mandela’s greatness, values of inclusion, forgiveness and reconciliation are selectively highlighted. But where is justice—the foundation of political rationality and stability? If the first question in inter-human politics is the question of justice and the weight of equality and equity, then Mandela failed to deliver an answer to the first question.  Forgiveness and reconciliation without justice do not ensure true peace, but justice does.

There is a striking problem in this construction. The ability of victims of oppressive regimes like apartheid to move on with equality and equity is only guaranteed by the orderly administration of justice, and certainly not by institutionalized forgiveness. We should have learned from the American and Brazilian models of recovery from socio-historical trauma. Both are not ideal, they are problematic.

In order for the native to move on, unshackled by the weight of historical and circumstantial disadvantages of the past, both equity and equality has to be ensured. This is the only path to full social and economic equality that guarantees a durable peaceful co-existence. Otherwise, social anguish, restlessness and the endurance of violence will continue to persist.

Although highly regarded, reconciliation and forgiveness unequivocally benefit the oppressor rather than more the victim. This is evident in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s systematic leniency on unpunished crimes and total immunity for gross human right abuses of the old regime.

If one holds this arrangement as morally valuable, one must also admit that it is politically unwise and unfair. The substance of forgiveness is justice, and not the reverse. Forgiveness does not level the ground in which economic disparities and inequalities were germinated. Rather, it allows a safe path of escape to the agents of apartheid and its benefactors.

It disregards crimes of torture, murder and the destruction of generations. The poor and marginalized communities were damned in the Truth and Reconciliation processes. The old economic order was allowed a free path that was amended with a few faces of the black elite. Thus, it is true to say that Mandela’s ethic of forgiveness overrode a just political, and ensured the normalization of suffering for the South African masses.

Nazism and fascism’s agents and jailors were prosecuted and held responsible for their crimes at the Nuremberg trails and in other courts of justice. Apartheid agents and jailers were forgiven and asked to reconcile with their victims at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Sessions.

Until recently, Wouter Basson, popularly known as Dr. Death, who is responsible for the systematic elimination of political opponents of Apartheid through lethal biological warfare, enjoys a life of freedom in North America with absolute immunity. His victims have either been forgotten or forced to reconcile. Jean Améry, a philosopher and an Auschwitz survivor who went on to commit suicide, warned us that, “anyone who has been tortured remains tortured.”

Obama is correct when he says that Mandela was “the last great liberator of the 20th century.” He was of a high caliber ethically and showed great political acumen in rejecting a second mandate to lead his country. But he missed a much-needed, timely opportunity to reform South Africa politically and economically. Mandela never made it to the next step of economic reform that ensures justice.

Did Mandela deliver ethically? Yes, by all measures. There is his long-standing sacrifice for the people, years of leading the ANC in the struggle against Apartheid; which resulted in his spending 27 years behind bars in Robben Island.

It might also be true that the Mandela who went to jail was different from the Mandela who came out 27 years later. The ethical Mandela survived, but the political reformer did not.  As Yuliya Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian political prisoner, so eloquently put it, “it is not Mandela the statesman who touches my soul and fires my imagination. ‘My’ Mandela is the prisoner, the Mandela of Robben Island, who endured 27 years behind bars.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney was more eloquent than Obama in framing the ‘terrorist’ Mandela as a "great man" who had "mellowed" in after his release from prison.

It appears that the many of the world leaders observe Mandela’s passing according to their own politics: many want to celebrate his ethics, with little concern with his politics, and others cheerfully celebrate his politics in order to commemorate his ethics. The Prime Minister of Britain David Cameron captured this binary legacy at Mandela’s funeral, “It was more a celebration than a commemoration.”

Our love of Mandela and sympathy for his sacrifices must not lure us to lower the bar of expectations and reforms for future leaders. Greatness in leadership should largely be measured through the extent to which the lives of ordinary people are improved.


Dr. Lo is an assistant professor of the practice, Asian & Middle Eastern Studies,

Duke University

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