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Nelson Mandela will be celebrated primarily for the dignity with which he emerged onto the world stage after decades in prison and for the forgiveness that he displayed toward his former enemies in forging a democratic, multi-racial South Africa from the poisoned legacy of apartheid.
As a global statesman of grace and humility, he was long courted by Western leaders drawn by his irresistible story of triumph over tyranny. Yet Mandela, who died on Dec. 5 at age 95, was also a more radical and politically complex figure than has been commonly acknowledged by his admirers in the West.
As a young man he had close ties to the South African Communist Party and plotted an armed uprising inspired by Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution in Cuba.Read more at Al Jazeera America
I came of age in troubled 1980s Ethiopia under the dictatorship of Mengistu Hailemariam, right after a generation attempting to bring about social change inspired by Marxism was thinned out. Few in my generation had any appetite for political activism. Even if some of us managed to shed misgivings about the risks of Africa's politics, we had hardly any genuine leaders to look up to. Fewer could identify with the plethora of official leaders paraded on national TV, our only window to the world outside.
The Pan-African leaders of prior decades, pioneers in the struggle for Africa's independence from European colonialism — figures like Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, and Senegalese Léopold Sédar Senghor — were long forgotten, their performances in office falling woefully short of their lofty ideals. The only leaders social activists of my generation could remotely identify with were in remote hideouts commanding shadowy rebel troops pitted against the armies of the self-proclaimed Big Men of Africa, whose oversized photos clogged billboards and TV screens.Read more at Al Jazeera America
Since Nelson Mandela died, a number of people have asserted that his genius saved South Africa from civil war. This is probably true — just not necessarily for the reasons we think. Mandela was neither an original thinker nor an especially good governor. But he managed to redefine what freedom meant to South Africans, and in a way no-one else could have.
Mandela did not invent the idea that South Africans ought to reconcile, as Tony Karon has rightly argued. Nine years before Mandela’s birth, in 1909, a delegation of black South Africans set off for London to protest the coming Union of South Africa, in which political representation would be confined to whites. Among them was John Dube, who would become the first president of the African National Congress, the organization Mandela himself would one day lead. Dube and his colleagues had a simple message: We are all the Queen’s subjects; we are a part of her Commonwealth; we require political representation, too.Read more at Al Jazeera America
How did your decades-long history of fighting apartheid begin?
In my first year at (Johannesburg's Wits) University in 1948, seven years after I left Greece, the majority of my fellow students had either interrupted or postponed their studies in order to fight in the war, and it was an important year because the National Party won the election, a whites-only election. And this was a party that was against the war effort. Their leaders applauded Nazi victories against the Russians and against other Allies. These men who were the student leaders considered it a great insult that they should now be ruled by the people who so admired their enemies.
These students were primarily white?
Yes, less than 5 percent of students at Wits were black or colored or Indian. They were white, but they hadn't fought this war for nothing, to be ruled by people who were against the war and applauded Nazism and fascism.
There were daily protests at the university, with threats that the university would be closed down to black students. And the university authorities were under pressure to either (expel) black students out or have small (segregated) quarters. That had a tremendous effect on me. One of the students that led the protests was Nelson Mandela. He spoke regularly during lunch hour meetings and even though I was a first-year student (he was four years ahead), we became friends in 1948.
Like so many others, we expected it, but it still came as a shock.