Following is an entry from Rootless Cosmopolitan, Tony Karon's blog and a bio of the blogger, as excerpted from Ultimate Blogs by Sarah Boxer.
Wednesday, July 20, 2005
Free Mandela (From the Prison of Fantasy)!
Monday was Nelson Mandela's 87th birthday and on these shores I sometimes feel he's in need of rescuing, trapped in some pretty bizarre narratives that have nothing to do with his own story or politics. Full disclosure: I freely admit that Nelson Mandela is the only politician for whom I've ever voted; that I celebrate him as a moral giant of our age; and that I proclaimed him my leader (usually at the top of my tuneless voice, in badly sung Xhosa songs) during my decade in the liberation movement in South Africa. That may be why the "Mandela" I've encountered in so much American mythology is so unrecognizable. Herewith, the three most egregious versions:
Mythical Mandela #1: "Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela . . ."
How many times have [ . . . ] you heard that phrase to describe some politician, somewhere, opting for pacifism in the face of a nasty regime? Don't take it from me, try a google search on that exact phrase. I understand the compulsion to link figures of great moral authority, but this is a little misleading. Nelson Mandela was never a pacifist. When the Gandhi route of non-violent civil disobedience brought only violence from the state, Mandela declared, "The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices—submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom."
He played a leading role in setting up the ANC's guerrilla wing, and traveled abroad to gather support, even undergoing guerrilla training himself in Algeria, from the commanders of the FLN who had recently ejected the French colonials.
Mandela was no terrorist, however: Under his leadership, the movement's armed wing targeted symbols and structures of minority rule, and combatants of its security forces, never white civilians or any other non-combatants. And most important, he saw it as always, immediately and ultimately, subordinated to the political leadership.
In these beliefs he remained consistent and proud. Even as the mass non-violent opposition reasserted itself, under ANC guidance, in the 1980s, he reiterated its connection with the armed wing, writing in a smuggled message from prison that "between the hammer of armed struggle and the anvil of united mass action, the enemy will be crushed." (Of course it didn't ever work that way—the armed struggle was never particularly effective, and mass action combined with international sanctions did more to topple the regime.) [ . . . ]
Myth #2: The "Mandela Miracle"
Google Mandela and miracle together, and there are at least 86,000 citations. This idea has entered American shorthand as follows: South Africa would have exploded in a racial war, and white people would have been driven into the sea, had it not been for the "miraculous" generosity of spirit of Nelson Mandela, who supposedly restrained the vengeful hordes.
Oy, where to begin?
The assumption that black people would seek violent revenge for the violence they had suffered at the hands of white people is pretty racist. (Remember Gandhi's arch put-down when asked by a journalist what he thought of Western civilization: "That would be a fine idea," or words to that effect.)
But let's not even go there. This myth ignores the political culture of the ANC, which Mandela helped form, and which also formed him, and was never dependent on his own, or any other individual's, strength of character. [ . . . ] [T]he ANC [ . . . ] was always a non-racial movement that had substantial white membership [ . . . ] whose policies distinguished between white minority rule and white people. It would be remiss of any historian to understate the role of the South African Communist Party in nurturing this culture. I've written some pretty nasty things about the SACP in the past, but nobody can deny that not only were they the first, and for a long time the only, organization in South Africa advocating black majority rule; inside the ANC they played the leading role in shaping the analysis and strategy based on non-racialism and drawing whites into the struggle against colonialstyle minority rule. [ . . . ]
And, paradoxical as it may sound, it was the Leninist realpolitik of the ANC's communist intellectuals that led the movement to embrace the path of a negotiated, compromise solution with negligible "rejectionist" backlash.
Of course communist discourse had a downside: I remember cringing when freed Robben Island prisoners would tell me things like "In Moscow, comrade, when you come out of the subway, there's just piles of fruit there, really good fruit, and it's just there for anyone to take, free, for everyone. . . ." And I nearly fell off my chair when reading a statement Mandela released to the media in Cape Town from prison late in 1989 proclaiming German reunification such a spectacularly bad idea that if released from prison, he would personally fly to Germany to try and stop it. Uh, let's just say he was a product of a different age, shall we?
But the broader point here is that it was not some epiphany on the part of Nelson Mandela that led South Africa to its inspiring outcome.
[ . . . ]
Myth #3: Marcus, Malcolm, Mandela, and Me—It's a Black Thing, You Wouldn't Understand
When I first saw that on a T-shirt being sold in Chinatown in 1991, I laughed out loud. (And actually, when watching Spike Lee's Malcolm X movie at an ANC fund-raising premiere in Cape Town, I'll never forget how the audience of Mandela loyalists erupted in raucous laughter when their good-natured leader appeared in the final Spartacus scene, intoning, "I am Malcolm X." The implication that their leader was inspired by a figure entirely unknown in the South African liberation movement discourse was pretty funny.)
Louis Farrakhan was probably a little surprised when he visited South Africa in 1995 and received a verbal dressing down from Mandela over his separatist politics.
My own favorite encounter with the Marcus-Malcolm-Mandela myth came one night in 1997, at a media party where I was chatting with a well known hip-hop scribe and his girlfriend, who ended up giving me a ride home in their rented limo. I should have known trouble was coming when the girlfriend said to me "So, what was it like coming to America and meeting FREE black people?" I told her that I had worked in the struggle, and although the black people I met there were viciously oppressed by a colonial regime, their minds were always free.
But the scribe and his girlfriend simply could not accept that I, a white boy—a Jew, to boot—had been in the ANC. "Mandela didn't work with white people," he insisted. Uh, actually, of the eight men on trial with Mandela in 1964, three were white (all of them Jewish, actually). [ . . . ] Neil Aggett was killed in security police detention, just like Steve Biko. David Webster was murdered by a police assassin, just like Matthew Goniwe. Of course the vast majority of the people waging the struggle and bearing its sacrifices were black. But there were always a handful of whites alongside them. And so I went on, but none of this was making any impression.
Finally, the limo driver turned around, exasperated. He was Palestinian, he informed us, from Ramallah, where he'd been active in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist faction of the PLO. "And we always had Israeli Jews in our organization," he said. "Not many, but always a few. Because we were against Zionism, not against Jews."
And so it went on: the South African Jew and the Palestinian leftist trying, in vain, to explain Mandela's basic non-racialism to the hiphop philosopher who preferred the Mandela of his own fantasies. [ . . . ]
TONY KARON * ROOTLESS COSMOPOLITAN
Tony Karon, a forty-six-year-old journalist from Cape Town, South Africa, has lived in New York since 1993. He is a senior editor at TIME.com, where he has worked since 1997, covering the Middle East and international issues. He writes op-ed pieces for the Israeli newspaper
Haaretz and did a stint at FOX News ("measured in months," he says, "I swear!").
After college he worked in South Africa as an editor in the "alternative" press and as an activist for the banned African National Congress. After Mandela was released, he gave up that work, explaining: "If you'd been French under occupation, you might well have joined the resistance, but that didn't mean you'd remain active in party politics after the Nazis were gone—that was how it was for many of my generation of South African activists." He then worked for a couple of
newspapers and did "a mad array of freelance gigs."
Karon began his first blog shortly after 9/11, writing mostly for friends. That blog evolved into Rootless Cosmopolitan, which covers not only the "war on terror" but also soccer, pop culture, and food. The name for the blog derives from Stalin's "euphemistic pejorative" for Jews in the 1940s, and Karon, "an African Jew with roots in Eastern Europe and before that France," says he now wears it as a "badge of honor."
"I'm not at all religious, and certainly no Zionist," he writes. "But I am proudly Jewish. . . . All of the great Jewish intellectual, philosophical, moral, and cultural exemplars I can think of were products not of a separate Jewish existence, but of the Diaspora . . . Maimonides or Spinoza; Marx or Freud; Einstein or Derrida; Kafka or Primo Levi; Serge Gainsbourg or Daniel Barenboim; Lenny Bruce or Bob Dylan."
Excerpted from Ultimate Blogs Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Boxer. Published by Vintage Books.