Metropole Magazine

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11 Dec Written by  Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

Mandela and the Uses of Anger

The final image the world was served of Nelson Mandela was that of an old man, sage, courteous, enervated. The man lived 95 years but the thriving version of him on television, in the news, and in cinema starts at 71, that is from 1990, the year of his release from prison.

There are those who believe this is the kind of Black man the West seeks: benign, docile, harmless.

Yet if the most memorable event of the man’s life are his years in prison, then his actions leading up to incarceration should be taken as important as his efforts after the fact. The lopsided reportage of his before and after prison activities means there may be more than a few people unaware he was jailed for spearheading the armed unit of the ANC.

During his powerful defence at the Rivonia trial, he gave a thoughtful explanation for the change of tactic. The reader is urged to read the full transcript.

“I do not deny...that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have a love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by the whites...

"I and the others who started the organisation, did so for two reasons. Firstly, we believed that as a result of government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable...Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy.

"All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the government. We chose to defy the law.”

For some reason, this part of his history receives less attention. Relegating his literal struggles with the Apartheid regime, the media emphasises the equally important measures he took upon release. Measures while generally inevitable, made white South Africans happy, and blacks wary. The whites came to see the landed resources they controlled would remain with them as the agreed transfer of land ownership never happened on the scale expected.

But majority of South Africans, black or no, were happy. The euphoria of a genuine democracy submerged Black South Africa’s wariness; and in Mandela, the humanity and dignity, denied them for centuries, could finally be seen.

That euphoria, and even-handedness, blinded a few to the disparity in economic power that would abide till today. Some foresaw this, they knew the justice that saw land ownership unchanged was effected in medias res, ignoring the primordial violence of colonialism. Mandela didn’t just forgive; by insisting on conciliation, he urged his people to forget.

By then, Mandela, imbued with a depthless capacity to forgive, after decades in jail, was beyond human; but many of his countrymen were not. However, he was leader and any misgiving amounted to impotent quibbling. He had earned his people's respect. So he asked them— mere humans— to rise above bitterness, vengefulness, hate.

Some could not. They resented him.

That resentment and the shock of sudden political superiority led to a small scale societal disorder, that came to be fictionalised, in 1999, by the Booker-winning novel, 'Disgrace,' written by JM Coetzee, successor to Nadine Gordimer's white South African Nobel laureateism.

Set in post-apartheid South Africa, 'Disgrace' is, in part, about a white professor and his daughter caught in the middle of this political change. Although never mentioned, Mandela, with what his ascension to presidency represents, hovers over the novel's plot. And at some point in the book, the professor is set aflame and his daughter raped by three black men.

Shortly after a minor recovery, father urges daughter to leave South Africa for Holland. (In his 20s, Coetzee himself left South Africa for England, ostensibly after the horror at Sharpville; he left again as an adult, and is now a citizen of Australia.) She refuses, having accepted her assault as ‘sacrifice.’

‘How humiliating,' the professor says finally. ‘Such high hopes, and to end like this.’

‘Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing...No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity.’

‘Like a dog.’

‘Yes, like a dog.’

Mr Coetzee may have exaggerated— this is, of course, fiction. Still that living ‘like a dog’ did not become reality for many white South Africans was down to Madiba’s conciliatory effort.

The irony here is the same quality, a bottomless forgiveness, admired in Mandela is rarely emulated by those who sing his praise. Leaders that are all too human— in malice, in madness— have not received such Mandela-esque mercies that may have made their people’s lives better. As it stands, Mandela’s example is already being used to sell ideologies— how long till his sage, smiling visage, like Gandhi’s zen-like one, is used to sell t-shirts and video games?

The devolution of Mandela from human to symbol is incomplete without Hollywood's transfiguring machinations. So it follows that 'Invictus,' one of many films based on the man’s life, has Mandela as this peace-loving man— in the image of Morgan Freeman, with vocal gravitas to match— about whom there is no hint of conflict, and no contradiction. It is this Mandela that would sell a million t-shirts, not the one who refused to denounce violence in exchange for freedom in 1985, and certainly not the young Arts graduate who became Commander-in-Chief to defend his people.

(The literal erasure, from public consciousness, of that younger man, is almost complete: When 'The New Yorker' website unveiled, the prospective cover commemorating the great man’s departure, the comments of many readers showed they thought it was someone else because the magazine used a picture of the younger Mandela giving the Amandla salute.)

In 1998, the writer Salman Rushdie noted a similar make-over for Gandhi, a man frequently mentioned in same breath as Mandela, in the essay 'Gandhi, Now.' Deriding these ‘hurried, sloganeering times’ devoid of an ‘inclination to assimilate many-sided truths,’ Rushdie also demystified the acclaimed omnipotence of (Gandhi's) nonviolence.

“Gandhi," he wrote, "began by believing that the politics of passive resistance and non-violence could be effective in any situation, at any time, even against a force as malign as Nazi Germany. Later, he was obliged to revise his opinion, and concluded that while the British had responded to such techniques, because of their own nature, other oppressors might not...this position is, of course, wrong.”

He continued, “Gandhian non-violence is widely believed to be the method by which India gained independence...Yet the Indian revolution did indeed become violent...”
Mr Rushdie, who trained as a historian, wrote this half a century after Gandhi’s death, furnished with the benefit such passage of time lends. By contrast barely a week after Mandela’s death vital sections of the man’s history are being rendered moot.

Madiba is great, but he was not infallible as the economic inequality between black and white South Africans today attests. Although he did what he could, there is a rising chorus saying it was not enough. These dissenters may be wrong; but part of what it takes to be grown is the ability to look ones forebears in the eye, see them as what they are— humans— and yet love them in spite of failings, in spite of frailties.

For us Nigerians, both phases of the great man’s life are instructive. For a country with incessant little wars between ordinary people of divergent cultures and different ethnicities, tolerance, forgiveness-- emblems of the latter-day Mandela-- must be learnt. However, in demanding our rights from those we have elected, the tenacity— that ‘sober assessment’ that informed the need for violence— of the younger Mandela is what we must apply.

We must realise that although the Mandela that came out of prison was conciliatory, he never equated inaction with nonviolence. Anger, alongside an unwillingness to take injustice sitting down, has its place in the polity.

Fela, that great poet of the poor, famously wagged a finger at the siddon-look Nigerian psyche in “Sorrows, Tears and Blood.”
“My people sef dey fear too much
We fear for the thing we no see...
We fear to fight for freedom
We always get reason to fear
We no wan die, we no wan wound
I get one child, mama dey for house
I don build house, I no wan quench
I wan enjoy...”

Many years later the average Nigerian remains poor and like a recurrent tragedy, Fela’s words ring true even if he inhabited a different time and his rage was directed to the military.

A younger poet, Efe Paul Azino, has updated Fela’s grouse for democracy. In his poem, “This is not a Political Poem,” an unnamed narrator starts with anger, about ‘a poem he hoped will inspire my listeners to think,’ but he changes his mind halfway. Sensing the nullity of thought as weapon against his oppressors, he says:
{It is}A poem I prayed will drive my listeners, the masses, to rage,
And mobilise them to march against unhallowed chambers where politicians meet...
It’s a revolution of a people refusing to suffer and smile no more...
A people willing to spill blood if need be.”
But as is typical, the narrator eventually cowers behind rhetoric:
“But if they come looking for me,
Asking about what I said here, sniffing around for treasonable felony.
Tell them I raved and I ranted
I sang and I chanted.
But I did not recite a political poem,
Because this is not a political poem...”

Mr Azino’s narrator is the average angry Nigerian. Now, compare him with the younger Mandela writing in 1961, underground, maintaining an uneasy freedom: “I shall fight the government side by side with you, inch by inch, and mile by mile, until victory is won. What are you going to do? Will you come along with us, or are you going to cooperate with the government in its efforts to suppress the claims and aspirations of your own people? Or are you going to remain silent and neutral in a matter of life and death to my people, to our people? For my own part I have made my choice. I will not leave South Africa, nor will I surrender. Only through hardship, sacrifice and militant action can freedom be won. The struggle is my life.”

Were these strong words made by a man citizens of the world ought to ignore so the big man that came out of prison can be made bigger, can be merchandised? Nay! Today, those words should haunt us into action.

“He taught us," said Barack Obama,  speaking yesterday at the great man's memorial, "the importance of reason and of arguments…”

True. But the President of the United States of America left out a detail: Madiba also taught us the importance of fighting for what we believe in, using every means necessary.

We cannot forget that.