Watching the Mandela coverage – obits, eulogies, reflections, quotes – pour over my Facebook feed yesterday, I had one single reflexive thought: “Fuck apartheid!”
To listen to the majority of the obits, you’d think Mandela’s greatest accomplishments were becoming president and meeting Bono (they conveniently leave out his and his successor’s role in crafting a devastating AIDS policy). Yes, the fact of his presidency was historic. Yes, the fact that South Africa did not become, say, Zimbabwe is near-miraculous, and Mandela’s work for peace and reconciliation before and during his presidency were part of that (I give most of the credit to the millions of South Africans he inspired).
Zimbabwe. While Mandela was in prison, Zimbabwe, then a brutal colonial state called Rhodesia, was torn apart in a bloody civil war for independence that resulted in three decades of violent, inept African dictatorship. This happened for one reason: apartheid. Apartheid violently oppresses until it inevitably foments violent resistance: it is good for nothing else. And apartheid is not receiving sufficient attention in the wake of Mandela’s death. Which is to say: apartheid is not the central focus of the coverage.
Apartheid is why Mandela is Mandela. Apartheid is why he spent nearly three decades in prison. (He was president for only five years, but that’s practically all we’re hearing about.) Apartheid is why a man who is now being compared to Washington and Lincoln was, for the majority of his life, compared to Castro (and why he, in turn, admired Castro).
Comparisons to Lincoln are particularly stomach-churning because they simultaneously overstate and understate Mandela’s achievements. They conflate or too easily link slavery and apartheid. Lincoln waged a horrific war to dismantle a slave economy, which was then replaced by an apartheid-style society. Lincoln’s program was not wholly anti-racist. Mandela briefly fought, was jailed for, and came to symbolize the international fight against apartheid, which is in so many ways more difficult to exorcise than slavery (we’re stilling learning that in the United States). Mandela’s program was almost completely anti-racist.
The praise is doubly sickening because it pulls a curtain over the very recent past. Throughout the 1980s, most of the former colonial powers and the United States not only approved of the apartheid government, they supported it. In the U.S., one political party deserves the brunt of the blame. Sam Kleiner (linked above) writes:
Officially, the goal of the Reagan administration was to end apartheid. But its behind-the-scenes work revealed a startling degree of comfort with the South African regime – or at least ignorance of how apartheid worked. For a July 1986 speech to the World Affairs Council in Washington D.C., Reagan rejected a moderate State Department draft and instead instructed his speechwriter, Pat Buchanan, to draft a version arguing that Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) employed “terrorist tactics” and “proclaims a goal of creating a communist state.” (Buchanan later dismissed Mandela as a “train-bomber” and defended the hardline position.) Reagan himself never seemed to really understand the moral repugnance of apartheid. He described the system in a 1988 interview with ABC’s Sam Donaldson as “a tribal policy more than … a racial policy.”
Some of today’s most recognizable political operatives also played a role in pushing the apartheid government’s agenda. In 1985, following his term as national chair of College Republicans, Grover Norquist was brought to South Africa for a conservative conference, where he advised a pro-apartheid student group on how to more effectively make its case to the American public. While there, he criticized anti-apartheid activists on American college campuses: Apartheid “is the one foreign policy debate that the Left can get involved in and feel that they have the moral high ground,” he said, adding that South Africa was a “complicated situation.”
The praise for Mandela has also pulled the curtain over apartheid. Its particularities, its history, and its horrors – a truly totalitarian system that imprisoned black South Africans within their own communities – have not been mentioned in the past 36 hours nearly as much as Truth and Reconciliation or Mandela’s pleas against anti-white racism. In American terms: we’re hearing too much Dr. King, not enough Malcolm X.
Further, the whole concept of apartheid is being ignored. The word, like fascism, has an historically and politically local origin, but just as governments beyond Mussolini’s Italy can reasonably be called fascist, so governments beyond pre-1990 South Africa can reasonably described as apartheid. The United States was an apartheid nation from 1863 until…well, take your pick. England ran a global apartheid empire throughout the 19th century. There are apartheid governments in the world today.
Mandela was not Gandhi. Mandela did not shy away from the option of armed revolt. Mandela believed in African autonomy. Mandela fought against apartheid, colonialism, and white supremacy, and he was jailed because the South African government feared (rightly) that he’d make good on his word. Almost the entire Western world was against him; he was against it. But to read the obituaries and eulogies, you’d think he was an activist without an enemy in the world. Enough! Mandela had enemies in 1955. He had enemies in 1962. He had enemies in 1985, 1990, and 1994. And he still has enemies today. Let’s name names.
[/1] History has weighed against the word “segregation,” but I don’t take a totally dim view of all segregated systems, at least not in theory. Throughout the 20th century, many black activists advocated segregated institutions to help form a separate, thriving black society, a “nation within a nation.” Jewish society was frequently cited as a model. But Southern governments would not allow such institutions to thrive, and integration became the best option in the minds of most black leaders. But even today, many scholars and students of black history believe the separatists may have been right.