Claire Tran asked Cameron Barron, Mary Jo Connelly, Jamala Rogers, Peter Hardie, and Montague Simmons to share their reflections after the death of Nelson Mandela. They talked about his life and the influence and lessons from the anti-apartheid movement.
I first learned of Nelson Mandela. . .
MC: … when I got to college and soon got deeply involved in the South Africa Solidarity movement that was growing on U.S. campuses. It was 1977, a year after the Soweto uprising in which hundreds of African teenagers had been murdered. Nelson Mandela was one of many imprisoned, exiled or murdered anti-apartheid movement leaders, not the face of the movement that he would later become. One of the Soweto uprising’s organizers, Steve Biko—founder of the Black Consciousness Movement and the South African Student Movement—had just been murdered. The father of a student anti-apartheid organizer on our campus had been in jail at Robben Island and was now in exile in Britain but not permitted to enter the U.S. because of his communist affiliations. JR: . . .I don’t remember when I first learned of Nelson Mandela. It could’ve been during the early 1970’s when I was a member of the Congress of African People and we studied/supported the various liberation struggles in African at that time. When the U.S. Anti-Apartheid Movement began heating up in the mid-1980s and it was clear that the release of Nelson Mandela along with the end to apartheid would take center stage. CB: . . . when I got involved in the anti-apartheid movement on my college campus. The late 1980s saw a second wave of anti-apartheid activists forcing their campus administrations to confront the question of what was being done in our name, the name of the students.
MS: . . . In 1985, a group of artists came together to produce Artists United Against Apartheid. At the time, Hip Hop was still rebel music and had overtly political undertone (and overtones in many cases). I was 12 or 13 years old and this as the first time I’d heard of South Africa, Apartheid, or Mandela.
PH: . . . I came to know Mandela not for himself but as part of thee Azanian struggle for liberation, and in the context of US complicity (the kruggerand market here in the U.S.) in apartheid. Mandela was just one of a number of South Africans and African revolutionaries: Chris Hani, Biko, Mugabe, and organizations—UNITA, ANC, MPLA, ZANU and ZAPU.
I remember . . .
MS: . . . at that time I’d come to believe that all of our “heroes” were dead or murdered. Truthfully, most of what I knew was a very incomplete understanding of the civil rights struggle. There was outrage at the idea that those conditions could still exist in the present. My parents are both from Mississippi and were witness to a great deal of racial violence. So to learn that this kind of vehement racism, violence, and hate could exist presently and not be confronted by a movement or even “our government” made no sense. In many ways, this probably opened the door to my own growth. The anti-apartheid struggle was initially invisible to me until I saw that video, even though much of St. Louis’ work was centered less than 5 miles from my childhood home. The Organization of Black Struggle was at the forefront of St. Louis’ efforts. Because of the US’ willingness to turn a blind eye, music was the primary lens for me until high school. There I encountered some educators who would talk (if only lightly) about it. To explore the realities of apartheid were cathartic. I’d heard about Jim Crow. My parents grew up in it. My grandmother talked about it often. To think that this existed now and that neither the US or Black America was able to fight back was unthinkable. Again, this was well before I had any understanding of what grassroots organizing could look like, let alone BDS. JR: . . . the day Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years of imprisonment. Activists who worked with us for nearly a decade gravitated to our community center that evening, rightfully assuming that there would be celebration. People of all races and backgrounds packed into the hall, full of militant jubilance. It was electric! PH: . . . The anti-apartheid struggle was part of my introduction to revolutionary thinking and practice. It raised questions like: What does a better world look like? What the hell is white supremacy?
CB: . . . the names of Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo as other prominent names in the long struggle for freedom in South Africa.
I am inspired by. . .
CB: . . . the breadth and depth of the movement to change South Africa. From corporate boardrooms, to city councils, to college campuses, came the cry: free Nelson Mandela. Not only in the United States, but all over the world. The struggle to transform the country garnered not solely political support but a wide variety of people contributed whatever they could offer to assist the struggle. Stevie Wonder, Harry Belafonte, and the United Artist against Apartheid created songs that demonstrated their commitment as well as raising the consciousness of the public. One of the key events organized by artist was the tribute to Mandela on his 70th birthday held at Wembley Stadium in London. JR: . . . the anti-apartheid struggle as a great model for global struggle. It resulted in a strategic coordination on multiple levels from divestment of corporations propping up the racist South African regime, to the cultural boycott of artists performing in Sun City to legislative tactics, all aimed at bringing the oppressive system to its knees and providing support to the liberation movement. What was going on in the U.S. was replicated in countries all around the world. It was a time when the progressive movements were united around a single focus even if there were different tactics. MS: . . . the guerrilla struggle waged by the ANC and his unwillingness to bow even at the cost of his own freedom. His willingness to serve as president for a single term and not cling to personal political power. His understanding of the political moment and his new role as a father to South Africa. MC: . . . the anti-apartheid leaders’ understanding of what it meant to be in struggle and what it meant to be making a revolution. It was an education in what it means to work in solidarity with a revolutionary movement and what it means to be committed long-term to a struggle. The US solidarity movement had two main tasks. First, to raise awareness among US students and working people of the South African struggle, we organized speaking and singing tours, sold a version of the ‘POW MIA’ bracelets with the names of imprisoned or missing anti-apartheid heroes. Randall Robinson and the TransAfrica Forum and Congressman Ron Dellums guided us in our second tasks: to stop the economic, political and military complicity of US institutions with the racist South African government. We organized to pressure our campuses, city governments to congregations to divest from companies operating in South Africa and demanded that the US government enact sanctions. We researched, publicized and protested the ways in which the US government and ‘advisors’ (including many academics) were abetting repression and murder in South Africa. (I remember chasing Samuel Huntington through Harvard Yard in much the same way as today’s students are chasing Gen. Petraeus.) We had all kinds of exchanges with student organizations in South Africa and were struck by their much deeper level of political education. South African students turned the mirror on us as well: they pushed us to learn about the Black liberation movement in our own country that had inspired them but which had grown quiet. PH: . . . his internationalism, his connection to the indigenous peoples, to the Palestinians, to the working class and union members here in the U.S. He was never muzzled or compromising in his speech. He stood firm as an ally of the people of the world. JR: . . . Madiba Mandela’s unwavering commitment to the liberation of his people. There are a couple of examples that I can talk about that underscore Mandela’s intentional revolutionary choices. He was of Xhosa royalty and could’ve easily lived a life of privilege; his destiny was to be a chief. He left that life behind and embarked upon a revolutionary path. The other example is when the apartheid regime was always willing to allow Mandela’s freedom under the condition that he must denounce the armed struggle; Mandela was always steadfast in his refusal to betray his principles and his people.
They will try to forget. . .
PH: . . . First, that Mandela was part of a movement, a member of organization. Second, that his victory was profound in its ferocity in the fight against white supremacy. He did not act alone, and he would be the first to acknowledge the fallacy of the “great individual” approach to history. Certainly African revolutionaries share this victory, which in no way diminishes the victory of the South African people. The fact that it failed to resolve economic inequality or usher in socialism and the end of class privilege and exploitation is the narrow obsession of some. Let the people of South Africa debate his legacy—they live it. For us here, we mourn and celebrate. He was and is a hero to us, the right and the left notwithstanding.
MS: . . . US complicity with maintaining White minority rule in South Africa and the demonizing of Mandela and the ANC.
JR: . . . the aspirations of the masses of black South Africans are still unfulfilled.
They will try to cover up. . .
JR: . . . that Mandela had a socialist vision for a non-racial, non-sexist, classless South Africa.
CB: . . . or conveniently forget the fact the Mandela was a revolutionary. What will be emphasized will be his dedication to non-violence. Yet, Mandela, at a certain point in the struggle decided that non-violence needed a little help and helped to form the Spear of the Nation.
MS: . . . the ongoing problems in South Africa — The unfinished transformation, the continued patriarchy and problems with Jacob Zuma and the current ANC.
Our movement must remember. . .
CB: . . . that the answers to tomorrow’s questions could not have been answered yesterday. We read history to inform us of tactics and strategies. We read philosophy so that our approach is consistent and based on principles. The issues we face are always similar, but always different than what others faced yesterday. Our challenge is not to be Mandela but to be more like the aspects of his life we admire, respect, and are worthy of emulation. PH: . . . If he was not perfect, he was perfect enough. Lesser humans can nitpick. He was a human who rose to the historical challenge. Most of us hope we can be that human. JR: . . . that the struggle is not over simply because a popular leader is elected or that the people seize power. This is the just the beginning of a vigilant and protracted struggle of accountability of leaders, organizations and parties to stay the course, to build a democratic society where human needs are met and the human rights of all are respected.
To honor his life is to . . .
MS: . . . Remember, Struggle, and be TRANSFORMED by the Struggle.
JR: . . . Honor the struggle for justice, democracy and peace but more importantly, we must support the continuing struggle of the black majority even if it means being critical of the ANC. MC: . . . to work in solidarity with the groups like the Shackdwellers Union that are continuing the revolutionary struggle that Mandela gave his life to. In their own words:
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“The only way for our generation to fulfill Mandela’s dream is to take power into our own hands. Together we must turn this country into a revolutionary democracy. Mandela once said that if the ANC does to this country what the apartheid government did the people must not fear to do what the ANC did to the apartheid government. This country was not given to ANC by votes. Voting was a bonus but it was fought for very hard. There was a huge struggle from below. There was bloodshed and arrests. We do not believe that voting will win us our freedom. We will win our freedom when we as the poor build our power from below in struggle, when we build a revolutionary democracy from below. The way to go is for us to unite and put on our takkies and go to streets. That is how we will show out loyalty to the Hero Nelson Mandela. Lala Ngokuthulala baba ube yiqhawe kithi. We shall continue where you left off. The struggle is just beginning.” — Shackdwellers Movement South Africa