Mandela’s dilemma: western politics, native’s ethics

Dec. 20, 2013 @ 12:59 PM

There appear to be two competing narratives concerning Nelson Mandela’s legacy. There are those who cast him as a revolutionary, father of the South African liberation movement. This is mostly a political assessment. There are also those who, like President Obama, admire Mandela’s dedication to forgiveness and moral leadership. This is an ethical assessment.

So why are these two divergent narratives? Because there is Mandela’s politics, in which many of his promises went largely unfilled; and there is Mandela’s ethics, in which his efforts were largely successful.

In Western liberal practices, the West reserves political judgment for itself. All assessments of the efficacy of “native” leaders are confined to the area of ethics. Native heroes are acknowledged based on their ethical behavior. Thus, leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are universally celebrated. Mandela can only be universally celebrated if he fits into this category of ‘saints.’

In the Western liberal tradition, politics encompasses the spheres of economic justice, law and responsibilities of citizenship. It is valid to employ violence to maintain this order. The violence of colonialism, imperialism and neo-colonialism is legitimized by this logic of politics. The heroes in the liberal tradition are generally conquerors, empire builders, loyal “explorers” and janissaries of neo-colonialism. This trend had prompted Emmanuel Levinas to warn us that, “politics left to itself bears a tyranny within itself.”

The native hero cannot be universalized unless he contributes to the maintenance of the imperial order. He has to forgive its violence, and accept its economic exploitation. Non-universal native heroes are habitually described as socialists, terrorists and dictators. Whenever liberty from imperial dominance came through revolution, the native hero is demonized. Wherever freedom emerged from embracing the imperial dominance the native hero is universalized.

One must question the rationale according to which Mandela has become a universal icon. Did Mandela deliver politically? I would love to say yes, but evidence and experience have shown otherwise.

South Africa’s latest census data show an economically disenfranchised people. Widespread urban poverty has made the country one of the most crime-ridden places in the world. Charryl Walker et al.’s momentous work “Land, Memory, Reconstruction, and Justice” has documented unequivocally the failure of land restitution policies. If one was to wander the streets of Johannesburg during the past three weeks, or to visit the ghettos of Soweto or the townships of Guguletu in the past three years, as I did, one would experience the normalization of black poverty. It is often remarked that the Soweto that Mandela described in his autobiography “Long Walk Toward Freedom” is no different in standard of living from the Soweto that wept for his death Dec. 5th. There was no emancipatory politics after apartheid, only forgiveness and a systematic move to normalize inequality under the disguise of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

In constructing Mandela’s greatness, values of forgiveness and reconciliation are selectively erected. But where is justice -- the foundation of political stability?

There is a striking problem in this construction. The ability of victims of oppressive peculiar systems to move on with equality and equity is only guaranteed by the orderly administration of justice, and certainly not by institutionalized forgiveness. The substance of forgiveness is justice, and not the reverse. Mere forgiveness does not level the ground in which economic disparities were germinated. Rather, it allows a safe path of escape to the agents of apartheid. South Africa’s marginalized communities were damned in the TRC processes. The old economic order was allowed a free path that was amended with a few faces of the black elite.

If one holds this arrangement as morally valuable, one must also admit that it is socially unwise and economically unfair. We should have learned from the American and Brazilian models of recovery from socio-historical trauma. Both are not ideal, they are inherently problematic. In order for the victim to move on, unshackled by the weight of circumstantial disadvantages of the past, both equity and equality has to be ensured.

Nazism and fascism’s agents were prosecuted and held responsible for their crimes at the Nuremberg trails. Apartheid agents were advised to reconcile with their victims at the TRC, where crimes of torture and murder were hesitantly forgiven. Jean AmÈry, a philosopher and an Auschwitz survivor who went on to commit suicide, warned us that, “anyone who has been tortured remains tortured.”

Did Mandela deliver ethically? Yes, by all measures; he spent 27 years behind bars in Robben Island. It might also be true that the ethical Mandela survived Robben Island, but the political reformer did not.  As Yuliya Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian political prisoner, so eloquently put it, “it is not Mandela the statesman who touches my soul and fires my imagination. ‘My’ Mandela is the prisoner, the Mandela of Robben Island.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney was eloquent in framing the ‘terrorist’ Mandela as a "great man" who had "mellowed" after his release from prison.

Our love of Mandela must not lure us to lower the bar of expectations and reforms for future leaders. Greatness in leadership should largely be measured through the extent to which the lives of ordinary people are improved.

Mbaye B. Lo is assistant professor of the practice in Duke University’s department of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies.