Over the last few days it’s been both sad and predictable listening to the Right pontificate at great length on the life of Nelson Mandela. They’ve concentrated primarily on two central themes: Mandela’s ties to the ANC which was viewed by them as a terrorist organization; and his conversion from violence after his release from prison which allowed him to become a respected leader of his people and world statesman.
Missing completely from their “analysis” are two undeniable facts that are integral to any full understanding of Mandela and his impact not just on South Africa but the rest of the world. One was the brutal system of oppression that existed under Apartheid in that country; and two was the fact that when it mattered most, all of them to a man and woman were on the wrong side of history.
From Reagan to Thatcher, the West’s reaction to what was going on in South Africa was at best indifferent and at worst complicit. Since the United Nations 1962 resolution condemning that country’s system of Apartheid, virtually nothing had changed. Not only was Apartheid alive and well in South Africa well into the 1980s, it was buttressed by billions in foreign capital, much of it from the United States.
Groups like the Congressional Black Caucus and student demonstrations in this country brought political pressure to bear on elected officials. The passage of Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986 and the override of President Reagan’s veto of it, signaled that times were finally beginning to change. It would take a few more years, but inevitably the system of Apartheid in South Africa fell.
And while it was indeed remarkable that Nelson Mandela chose to, as Lincoln would’ve put, follow his greater angels and not seek retribution on his oppressors, as would’ve been his right given the circumstances, that is hardly an excuse for the majority of the world aiding, abetting and profiting from such oppression, not to mention rationalizing its duplicity on the grounds of some ridiculous cold-war rhetoric. South Africa was many things, but Vietnam or Korea it wasn’t.
Conservatives who fervently persist in focusing only on the violence of a political group attempting to overthrow a considerably more violent government and the “conversion” of a leader who was imprisoned by that government for 27 years and who they themselves rejected when it mattered most, do violence not only to the man but to the history of the struggle itself.
The lesson of what happened in South Africa is far more complex than mere ideology. But one thing should be crystal clear: oppressed people, be they in a foreign country or here at home, inevitably rise up and take back what is rightfully theirs. Those who understand that simple truth will always be on the right side of history; those who ignore it, run the risk of they themselves becoming extinct.