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).

Along similar lines, I have heard many people assert the agency of Rosa Parks. She was not just a tired woman who had had enough. She had prepared! She had even conspired with other revolutionary change agents at the Highlander Folk School. All this is true, but what it misses (which Francesca Polletta has pointed out) is that the appearance of spontaneity and of just being a regular person who had had enough was intentionally cultivated by Parks herself, in order to play the part of a sympathetic character in a strategically crafted story. The removal of her explicit revolutionary intentions was, at least in part, the result of her own strategy.

For leaders like Parks and Mandela, the task was to move people: to activate passive allies, to win the hearts of people who were on the fence, and to ultimately isolate the hard opposition. Being embraced by more and more people in society was seen as a very good thing. Sympathizers were not made to take a revolutionary litmus test before their sympathy was welcomed. These movements even welcomed sympathizers who were wrapped up in the very systems that they opposed.

Along these lines, I was deeply moved to read a story this weekend about Nelson Mandela’s friendship with Christo Brand, the white warden of the prison on Robben Island, where Mandela was confined for 18 years. Mandela spent 27 years of his life in prison. We would understand if he denounced anyone and everyone associated with his confinement and with the Apartheid regime. But that is not the path that Mandela chose. My friend Carl Davidson, who posted the article about Brand’s mourning after Mandela’s death, added that “There’s a few lessons here, comrades.” I agree. The befriending of one’s own jailer is not only moving; it is also profoundly strategic.

In the course of political struggle, it can be tempting to permanently fix people to their most destructive behaviors or complicit structural positions. Mandela clearly resolved to resist this temptation. The oppressor, the racist, the bigot, the exploiter — these are all individuating labels that we attach to particular embodiments of destructive social structures and patterns. If we want to change the world — not just critique its worst features — we have to always look for the good in the person whose actions we find offensive or complicit. We have to build upon that good.

The tendency to tack on an individuating label — and to summarily dismiss the labeled person — can frame structural problems as individual problems. Moreover, the person thus labeled is likely to double down on their current identity and defensively fortify its walls. Our work is to invite people to step out of the structures and patterns that hold them; that constrict their behaviors within destructive and often self-defeating bounds.

Such invitations can only be made in the context of relationship; and relationship can only be achieved if we are oriented to engage with — maybe even befriend — people who we may be inclined to view as “part of the problem.” This is not a naive attempt at the Pollyanna game. And it does not replace the imperative to engage in strategic contests to change structures and end injustices. But, when we orient ourselves toward connecting with society — when we seek common ground — we get better at finding and activating more allies along the way.

Mandela’s legacy provides a piece of common ground that we can stand on with others, as we continue to move toward — to fight for — the kind of world that he imagined. So let the Apples of the world post Mandela’s face on their for-profit websites. And let the Dick Cheneys of the world stew in bitterness that Mandela has become a popular icon of history. Let the culture have access to Mandela. Let us not resent the proliferation of the symbol. Let us not hold too tightly the things we should be spreading. Even when the content of the symbol has been made ambiguous or has been watered down, there will always be those who tell the real story. Every place where that symbol appears there is an opportunity to engage with somebody about its meaning. Let us step into these opportunities.

It is no small detail that the real story about this real revolutionary man is attached to a popular legacy that the whole world was compelled to embrace. We who struggle for social justice desperately need stories with protagonists who don’t just die alone on a cross. We need popular heroes. We need winners. We need legends like Nelson Mandela.

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