Memory is a topic I've written on frequently here as I'm an historian. Most recently I discussed Remembrance Day and the passing of Thatcher. These are both examples of how popular history and political discourse intersect. This is incredibly relevant this week with the death of Nelson Mandela.
It was a moment that people will take with them: where were you when you heard that Nelson Mandela died? Very few people make an impact so wide and so deep on popular history. The story of Mandela's opposition to apartheid in South Africa is full of easily identifiable good and bad, much like the story of Nazi Germany. Mandela stood up against an oppressive regime that rested on a deplorable notion of legal racism. For standing up for freedom, democracy, and equality, Mandela was jailed for 27 years. After his release in 1990 he went on to help dismantle apartheid all the while preventing racial conflict. When he was elected president he went on to nominate a cabinet that included former administrators of the apartheid mindful to not hold onto grudges. It also allowed the nation to heal from its incredible wounds. Forgiveness was a key part of his vision, leading to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
His works and his beliefs have earned him numerous accolades, not the least of which being the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. Mandela will go down in history as an example of compassion, humbleness, and dedication. He is the rare figure that is extolled by all. While this is a wonderful recognition of the universality of struggling against injustice, it also falls into a basic paradigm: understanding history as a linear process and categorising actors as dualistic. Ultimately, South Africa has become a much more equal place but there is still an incredible amount of injustice. Likewise, Mandela is neither a sell-out nor a saint.
In framing Mandela's life virtually all outlets have focused on the notion of how oppressive the past was and how this fog has been lifted. There were clear enemies and heroes and a starting and ending point. Few sources have truly examined modern South African society by looking at how apartheid lives on by manifesting itself through neoliberal economic policies. Nor has attention been put on how unequal Canadian society is. Limited focus has been put on examining why apartheid was enacted and who supported this regime or why. Little has been said about other actors who helped change South Africa. The narrative of Mandela has largely left out details that don't fit into the clean box of pro-western freedom fighter. The narrative of South Africa has been painted without contemporary turbulence.
From my perspective, freedom, justice, or democracy are not destinations. They are ideals to try to remain close to. As a Marxist historian I try to keep in mind that social pressures hold these ideals in a place of perpetual tension. It is therefore important to continue to agitate and to motivate others to participate. In today's climate that encompasses diverse struggles such as fighting against surveillance and discrimination and fighting for environmental justice and more human rights.