Lewis Gordon on Nelson Mandela.
I, along with millions, perhaps even billions, lit a candle on the 5th of December 2013 in memory of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Madiba or Tata, as he is also affectionately known in the Xhosa language of his Native Land, Azania, known through its colonial and now post-apartheid name, South Africa.
The candlelight has many meanings in many societies. As light, it signifies disclosing a path for his new journey. For the living, it shines upon us a form of continued connection, disclosing to us something on which to reflect. And for the deeply religious, as something that must be left to its own course, it reminds us, as in the Mourner’s Kaddish of Judaism, that all is ultimately left in G-d’s hands.
Mandela appropriately died as he had lived. His life was a paradox of peace and violence, fighting hate through courage and love. He died in a healthy way, facing illness with characteristic courage with the unusual status of a former executive official of an African country whose moral stature has made him a perpetual leader. While facing violence and suffering throughout his life, he died in what is the right metaphor for what he cultivated: peace.
There will be many adjectives mentioned to offer a glimpse of what this great man represented. Perhaps no two will exceed those of courage and dignity.
His 27 years as a political prisoner on the infamous Robben Island could have been avoided if he had not insisted on an unconditional release. His stature, the struggle he embodied, and the rallying cry of his mission, all of which stood as a reminder to those who look at Africans and, in bad faith, attempt to think otherwise: the forces of colonialism, misanthropy, and racism were always wrong, as they continue to be. Mandela stood up and dared declare, “We are human beings.”
Many refused to listen, but the tides of history were against apartheid, the system of segregation created by the South African independent government from 1948 till 1994, a set of institutions, we should remember, modeled after the United States. The struggle took many forms, ranging from civil protest, insurrection, and an eventual economic stratagem of divestment that crippled the economy of that racist regime. But it also brought the world together across generations, as youth in London, England, joined in through the power of music with the 1984 hit single, simply formulated, “Free Nelson Mandela,” written by Jerry Dammers and performed by The Special A.K.A. It became an anthem of the anti-apartheid struggle, and it offered, in the end, what many people continue to want behind most struggles of liberation: a Messiah.
The anti-apartheid struggle had many fallen revolutionaries such as Steven Bantu Biko (the leading theoretician of Black Consciousness) and Chris Hani (leader of the South African Communist Party). The former was murdered in 1977; the latter, in 1993. There is much that unfolded from 1994, when Mandela became president, of which Biko and Hani would not have approved. Mandela has now joined them as an ancestor, but his place in historical memory brings an additional word to focus, one more palatable to the political world that transpired under his watch, and is perhaps a dangerous pitfall of paradox, as we see in one such as Barack Obama, who perhaps could not have been but for Mandela’s precedence: Moral leadership.
Yes, South Africa was an imitation of the United States, and then the child became the father as the U.S. recently echoed South Africa in Obama’s presidential elections, for no issue addresses the moral failings of both countries more than their racist past and present. And there, also, is the irony: saving these countries required the embodiment of their greatest fear—namely, black representation. Yet, such a figure could not emerge as black representation, which meant an additional paradox, as we see in today’s South Africa and United States: Messiahs are by definition exceptions, not rules. The prizes alone could not be the model of an everyday man or woman:
Nobel Peace Prize, Bharat Ratna, Time’s Person of the Year, Sakharov Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom, Congressional Gold Medal, Arthur Ashe Courage Award, Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, Gandhi Peace Prize, Philadelphia Liberty Medal, Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, Lenin Peace Prize, Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal, Nishan-e-Pakistan, Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights, Ambassador of Conscience Award, International Simón Bolívar Prize, United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights, Order of the Nile, World Citizenship Award, U Thant Peace Award, Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize, Isitwalandwe Medal, Indira Gandhi Award for International Justice and Harmony, Freedom of the City of Aberdeen, Bruno Kreisky Award, UNESCO Peace Prize, Carter–Menil Human Rights Prize, Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award, Giuseppe Motta Medal, Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize, J. William Fulbright Prize for International Understanding, W E B DuBois International Medal, Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation, Harvard Business School Statesman of the Year Award.
Obama’s list isn’t very different, and it includes mountains that now bear his name.
But again, the exception is by definition not the rule. One could love Mandela and Obama, while continuing to hate black people. While the symbolic life of the highest offices has changed, the mundane life of most people of all races remains the same.
One of the travesties of the assault on humanity that marked the modern world is that the most moral of men could oversee the cruelest of regimes. Yet, we would be remiss to insist on the ridiculous. Should these great men therefore have tried to be immoral ones? What could we say about a world that has made being ethical, which is even greater than moral, a more certain way of seeming like a fool? Moral people aren’t always ethical ones. The former follow the rules; they always try to do what’s right. But ethical people at times appear immoral. They are often courageous people who suffer much from a world that may smite them down for their obvious imperfection, marked by courage, of breaking rules.
The world wants Messiahs. But G-d keeps sending us human beings. We are fortunate, however, that some of them turn out to be a little more than even they had imagined.
I’ve written much on Frantz Fanon, the famed revolutionary psychiatrist and philosopher of liberation who died on the 6th of December 1961. Mandela was 7 years his senior and surpassed him a day short of 42 years. Fanon faced violence but died of pneumonia due to complications from leukemia. Although seemingly random, it’s odd that these two great men died from what comes down to infections of their lungs. Our lungs, however, enable us to breathe, and mythic consciousness reminds us of the breath of life. The deeds of these great men were like the breath of life into the nations for which they fought. And as they, too, have passed away, their children and nation face the scary reminder: no one lives forever.
Mandela’s wisdom was to serve one term as President of South Africa. The political philosophical reason was classically Fanonian: Aware of the Moses problem, where those who lead the way to the Promised Land are also those most capable of endangering it, he decided to set by example an alternative path from what happened in many other postcolonial states, where after getting rid of the colonizers, the liberators became the biggest obstacles to genuine freedom.
Yet, I think this great man also had an additional consideration in mind. Mandela understood that he was an idea. Whatever he was in the flesh, what he stood for in the imagination was so much more. While inspirational, this was also dangerous because political life requires possibility. If the bar is set too high, there is nothing others could possibly achieve. What higher standard could there be than becoming a god?
Mandela’s decision to serve one term was, like much of his life, also a paradox. By stepping to the side, by leaving room for others, he ironically set an even higher standard: humility, whose love is forbearance, and democratic faith. He set a standard of human possibility.
So, as I watch the flame flicker and eventually die out, I say, in appreciation shared by so many:
Thank you, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, for in your deeds inspiring so many of us to aim so high while at the same time reminding us that you were above all a human being, with so many of the limitations that embodies, which makes hope, love, and possibility so precious.
Farewell, Madiba. Farewell.
Lewis R. Gordon is an Afro-Jewish philosopher, political thinker, educator, and musician. He recently accepted the Visiting Chair in Europhilosophy in the Department of Philosophy at Toulouse University and the Nelson Mandela Visiting Professorship at Rhodes University.