The Passing of Nelson Mandela and Selective Memory

English: Young Nelson Mandela. This photo date...

English: Young Nelson Mandela. This photo dates from 1937. South Africa protect the copyright of photographs for 50 years from their first publication. See . Since this image would have been PD in South Africa in 1996, when the URAA took effect, this image is PD in the U.S. Image source: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


It is time to say fare the well to a titan. Most, if not all, of you reading will now by now that Nelson Mandela has shuffled off his mortal coil. He lived a long, and very interesting, life. At 95 we, most of us, knew we would not have him for much longer. Still, his passing leaves a gaping hole in the world. He was wiser, braver, and kinder than most, and encouraged all who would hear to be the same. The passing of such an energetic person is, of course, expected to stir up bitter memories, and that has certainly been the case.

I will not write too much how so many of those who will spend the next few days honoring the man vilified him for years, even after his release from prison. Worse, and again others have already spilled bandwidth on this, many who will exalt him today voted against acting to do what we could to end  apartheid. This was not some far away policy of a bygone era. There are members of Congress today who voted to ignore the brutally systematic oppression of a colonized people. My admonitions today are not meant for those folk though.

No, I want those who will be in denial about those folks to remember their stances. I want people who will be apologists for the Dick Cheney’s of the world to remember that they too supported turning a blind eye to the suffering of non-whites in South Africa (mostly the native black population, but apartheid targeted any brown person. Something else we should not forget.) So many Americans deserve to have finger thrust in their chest and be reminded that they cannot remove themselves from culpability in this. We are right to remember those Senators that decried Mandela as a terrorist, but we should also remember those family members, and neighbors, who did the same.

We also need to remember that those accusations against Mandela, while self-serving, were also right. More importantly though, we have to remember that he was right. We like to paint a pretty picture of him. We like to look at the liberated Mandela, the Mandela who knew it was time to move on to a calmer tactic, and portray him as a pacifist. He was a man of peace, to be certain, but he was also a man of action. He supported militant groups because he had to.

The lazy left wants to remember all of our human rights heroes in the least threatening terms. We want to remember the King of “I have a dream…” but forget that, while his tactics may have been non-violent, he could get angry, real angry, and rightfully so. They  want to remember the aging, seemingly toothless Nelson, but forget that he helped wage a sabotage campaign against his oppressors. They want to do this, not because they want to hold him higher, but because they do not want to admit that sometimes anger is a gift.

Today in America we discuss Critical Race Theory. We discuss the de facto criminality of just being black in our society. Mandela was fighting a system of de jure criminality for being black. The ugliness that seeps, often unchallenged, throughout our culture was codified into laws even more onerous than the cowardly and disgusting Jim Crow laws of our nation’s past. What is more, Mandela and his companions were fighting this in their homeland. They were an occupied people fighting for the right just to be in a land that had been their home since before the Bronze Age. So they lashed out and, again it is so important to remember this, they were right to do so.

They lashed out and made their oppressors angry. They lashed out and made the oppressors’ allies across the sea uncomfortable. They lashed out, and made liberal proponents of “gradualism” uneasy. They went against the easy to swallow model of non-violent civil disobedience which, while a worthy and noble tactic, is overly romanticized. Non-violent action requires the other side to view you as human. That is why, while it was not the only factor, it was successful in India. In South Africa, where the law all but completely stripped them as their status as people, black people could not count on the conscience of the folks beating them.

To my knowledge Nelson Mandela never apologized for his involvement with the sabotage campaign. I am glad he did not, because he should not have. He was a man who realized that there was a time to talk, and a time to fight, and that you should not be ashamed of engaging in either if it was done at the right time. I know this makes a lot of folks uncomfortable, because it makes us wonder when the oppressed here are going to decide talking is not enough. It should make you uncomfortable, as should the inevitability of that scenario if you do not learn to act for the oppressed with greater vigor, honesty, and real empathy. If you want to not be a hypocrite when honoring the man today, then don’t just call out those who stood against him, remember him for all that he did, and honor it. Remember the man who used every tool he could to campaign for his people. Remember you may be called to do the same.




2 thoughts on “The Passing of Nelson Mandela and Selective Memory

  1. Christine, I’m so glad you wrote about Mandela’s passing. You have done a brilliant job here and have managed to both honor Mandela while also exposing the hypocrisy of so many that colluded with systems that worked against him. Well done!

    • Thank you Michael. I hope folks also learn a little about tactics in our struggles. I will always look to non-violent action first, but if the oppressor shows no shame in his actions, if he beats and imprisons children to protect his privilege, at what point do we, the champions of the oppressed become culpable for oppression in our unflinching devotion to non-violence?

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