Month: January 2014

Let the culture have Mandela

Originally published December 10, 2013 at Waging Nonviolence.


A screenshot of Apple’s homepage. (WNV/Jonathan Matthew Smucker)

Nelson Mandela’s legacy is not the exclusive property of the revolutionary Left, and we should not want it to be. Bob Herbert and many others are certainly right to insist on the inclusion of Mandela’s revolutionary content in the popular story told about him. This is not at all to disagree with such insistence, but to add a fine point: It is important that we who are involved in social justice movements understand that Mandela wanted the popular culture to embrace him.

Moreover, Mandela wanted to be popularly embraced precisely because he was a revolutionary. As “a revolutionary committed to the wholesale transformation of his society,” Mandela understood very well that toppling the Apartheid regime would depend both on a strong fighting core and also a broad and unlikely alignment of social forces. Winning over such broad alignment is hardly a matter of proving how revolutionary you are. It depends upon many critical factors, including telling a popular moral story, raising expectations and demonstrating skillful leadership. Each of these aspects undermined the ruling regime, while bolstering the aligned opposition, over the course of a protracted struggle. In the case of the anti-Apartheid struggle, winning allies was perhaps especially important.

What can be hard to grasp is that revolutionary leaders like Mandela are often quite okay with using — and even themselves being — ambiguous symbols. As an ambiguous catalyzing symbol, Mandela was able to move whole swaths of society that would not have signed up for a full revolutionary platform had it been presented as a laundry list or manifesto (or a broadsheet sold at the periphery of a protest).