Friday, December 6, 2013


Rehearsing Philip Glass's Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera, 2008. Photo by Sara Krulwich/New York Times. via Walker Art Center.
Nelson Mandela did not belong to the nonviolence movement; following the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre he concluded that the African National Congress would have to give up its nonviolent principles and join the armed struggle against the apartheid system in South Africa, and assumed the leadership of the struggle himself, and never expressed regret at [jump]
having chosen that route. Nevertheless he had made a deep study of Gandhi, and if he felt forced to cross that line, he made a point of sticking as close to it as he could. As he wrote in an article for Time magazine, December 31 1999,
The Gandhian influence dominated freedom struggles on the African continent right up to the 1960s because of the power it generated and the unity it forged among the apparently powerless. Nonviolence was the official stance of all major African coalitions, and the South African A.N.C. remained implacably opposed to violence for most of its existence. 
Gandhi remained committed to nonviolence; I followed the Gandhian strategy for as long as I could, but then there came a point in our struggle when the brute force of the oppressor could no longer be countered through passive resistance alone... Even then, we chose sabotage because it did not involve the loss of life, and it offered the best hope for future race relations. (Via Tolstoy Farm)
He very properly refused to consider putting an end to fighting as a condition for his release from prison by the apartheid regime, but after he was released in April 1990 the ANC did begin discussing suspending the armed operation and by August had done it. I think the traditional story is that the idea came from Mandela's white Communist friend Joe Slovo, but the South African journalist William Gumede was on the BBC this morning suggesting that Mandela was the one who especially pushed it, though he had too much respect for intra-party democracy to force it on the comrades; they had to be truly persuaded.

I bring it up because of course all the Americans are out there staking claims on the great man, from President Obama, naturally emphasizing Mandela's inexhaustible willingness to make compromises with the most unspeakably wicked people in the world (you think Republicans are bad? Meet South Africa's Nats—though I guess they were somewhat easier to deal with in that they saw no need to hide their racism and were thus a little more honest), to that worm Max Boot, who writes
Mandela’s example is a ringing etndorsement of what is derisively known as the “great man school of history”–the notion that influential individuals make a huge difference in how events turn out. He certainly made a difference, and for the better. He will go down as one of the giants of the second half of the twentieth century along with Reagan, Thatcher, Deng Xiaoping, Lech Walesa, and Pope John Paul II.
The first two of whom, as you have already recalled, worked very hard to defeat Mandela's cause, while the third invented techniques for growing capitalism without freedom, sort of the opposite of what Mandela had in mind, and was responsible for quite a lot of murders. At least Wałęsa was a genuine union leader, but these Poles didn't have much in common with him either.

The trouble with the Great Man school isn't, you know, that it insists on the contributions of individuals (Tolstoy, in inventing the critique for the purpose of his great novel decades before the French Annalistes began working out the technical details, found himself obliged to posit a great man of his own in opposition to the conventional one, the passive tool of the Zeitgeist Marshal Kutuzov to the psychopathically selfish Emperor Napoléon) but that it insists on the importance of their desires. Napoléon was a Great Man because his desires were so vast and unslakable.

But Mandela was a great man because he wasn't a Great Man; his politics were aimed at the ability of the people to realize themselves. He was very radical, and as I see it more radical for his powerful preference against violence. It's not so bad comparing him to George Washington and old Cincinnatus for his insistence on not being a dictator or king and on growing old in retirement, and to Vaclav Havel, but it's necessary to compare him to Gandhi, and King, an apostle of satyagraha (the tough and practical kind that really works) even if he denied it himself.
Madiba Magic. From Kids Art Museum of Fun.

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