Nelson Mandela addresses crowd at a Port Elizabeth rally on April 1, 1990. (Reuters)
To fully grasp the meaning of Nelson Mandela’s death, at the age of 95, imagine for a moment that his life had turned out differently. What if he’d perished as a child, like so many youngsters of his generation in the rural backwaters of the Transkei? Think of what might have happened, or not happened, if he’d died in the mines of the City of Gold, Johannesburg, where he arrived as a young man after running away from his village. Of course, he survived not only the privations of apartheid—that savage and extreme system of racial segregation—but also the long liberation struggle as well.
Should it go without saying that Mandela was not shot in the back, like demonstrators at Sharpeville in 1960, or gunned down in the streets like young protestors in Soweto during the June 16 uprising in 1976? Though he believed in armed struggle, and became a leader of an armed guerrilla insurrection, he escaped the fates of so many other comrades who were killed in the bush, blown to pieces by letter bombs sent by the authorities, poisoned by secret agents or hanged for treason or sabotage, which seemed the likely result when sentence was pronounced for him and other top leaders of the African National Congress after a long trial back in 1964.
Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela was spared the death penalty a half-century ago. He wasn’t forced into exile, like so many others, and did not lose his sanity or have his spirit broken from decades of imprisonment. He managed to survive tuberculosis and prostate cancer, outliving nearly all of the closest friends of his generation. Though it was once illegal to publish his photograph or quote him by name in South Africa, his image was picked as the rallying symbol of a global campaign against apartheid in a massive international organizing drive much like the effort to end slavery a century earlier. It was only natural then, and just, that when Mandela emerged from prison in 1990, he felt such a powerful sense of obligation to the fallen. It would be a shame if, in celebrating the remarkable arc of his life, we neglected to mention millions of others not lucky enough to become—like him—exceptions to old rules.
Mandela outlived not only his contemporaries but also three of his six children. He survived long enough to witness the first stages of revisionist histories written about his life and politics. This meant having to face up honestly to the myriad ways in which the grand early hopes for radical transformation ran aground. After all, in April of 1994, when democracy arrived in South Africa, advanced global capitalism and AIDS also swept in the door. This meant that structurally high rates of unemployment and rising inequality coincided with massive loss of life from the pandemic which, in turn, conspired against the aerie dream of establishing a nonracial, antisexist, non-homophobic and more egalitarian society at the southern tip of Africa.
Time has exposed Mandela’s own failings. In office, he failed to respond to the rise of HIV/AIDS. He protected cronies accused of corruption and failed to enforce distinctions between personal favors, party business and government decision-making. His dedication towards the governing party, the African National Congress, meant that he subjected himself to the policies of its “collective leadership” and, after stepping down as president in 1999, supported two flawed successors during election campaigns, tarnishing his own image in the process. In the last decade, quarrels with old comrades also spilled wince-worthy details of dodgy financial arrangements into public view. There were even lawsuits within the family over money.