There are plenty of lessons to learn from the life of former South African president and activist Nelson Mandela. Hundreds if not thousands of books have been written about him over the years. More big budget Hollywood movies are sure to come. Anything and everything that can be said about a man has been said about the 95 year old Nobel Peace Prize winning Mandela over the last three decades, especially this week in the wake of his passing. Open a newspaper, turn on the TV or log onto the internet and, besides football, one will find it difficult to find any other subject being discussed as readily. So what more is there to say? Especially anything new or noteworthy.
Since the aspect of memorializing and paying tribute to the man and his legacy is already being well played all over the world, if not over played, let us instead turn our attention to aspects of the story that are being more or less ignored. Perhaps there are more powerful lessons to be gleaned than the usual “patience forgiveness and perseverance eventually pay off and lead to transformation” one that we are currently hearing so much of this week. For there is more to the story.
Many of us younger than the Baby Boomer generation simply remember Nelson Mandela as a heroic figure of some kind, at times seeming mythic in stature; right up there with Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi. We know he was in prison for a long time and somehow managed to survive. We know he was eventually freed and became president of a country that was ruled by colonial white powers for generations. We know he was a civil rights activist against modern day apartheid, the term used to describe racial prejudice and segregation by minority whites against blacks in the country called South Africa. We recognize his face as being synonymous with patience, forgiveness, racial equality and activism. And for most of us that’s where the story begins and ends. Even if that were the entirety of the story it would still qualify as a powerful legacy and a valuable example by which to live.
But in addition to these well known aspects of the Nelson Mandela story are more subtle and perhaps more profound lessons. The one that possibly engages the most is the fact that for decades Nelson Mandela was considered a villain by The United States and the West in general throughout most of the time he rotted away in a South African prison. He was branded a communist agitator and considered a terrorist, a fact that was commonly known and agreed on by the majority of Americans, and placed on America’s Terrorist List, where he stayed for forty years, until 2008; a fact called “an embarrassing inconvenience” by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when Mandela attempted to enter the United States during the George W. Bush presidency. One can only imagine the level of irony and embarrassment felt by Rice, an African American herself who benefitted greatly from the Civil Rights movement in the United States as she was forced to deal with this “inconvenience”.
At this point in our shared history, the myth making phase of the Mandela legend has long since begun. Now that he has passed the political sycophants of the world will begin the real glory-grabbing as they start announcing official Nelson Mandela Days in their town, state or country, erecting Nelson Mandela memorials, building statues and probably even whole museums in his name; all will qualify for free federal grant money from the tax payers. And this is only the beginning. Along the way sometimes such endeavors also require a good deal of redaction, cover ups and historical revision. Just as Martin Luther King was considered a terrorist threat and constantly harassed and badgered by the United States government — who now begrudgingly admit that they had even gone so far as bugging his house and wiretapping his office and home telephones for years, so too was Nelson Mandela. This is the America that the few the proud the not-Marines know and don’t particularly love. The grand irony is not that they took these actions against these men. If history is any indication, that’s been their job since the country was first formed, to bring down anyone who challenges or resists the status quo, no matter how unjust or unfair it might be.
The fact that historical facts have been leading scholars to believe for decades now that the assassination story associated with the death of MLK was most likely a fabricated one and that certain branches of both the local and federal government were involved in his murder is largely taken for granted by many, especially the family of Dr. King, who sued the United States government several times in court to reopen the investigation into his death in order to exonerate the name of and free the alleged lone gun assassin James Earl Ray.
This is all business as usual stuff for the United States government. But it’s not ironic. It’s just too plain old ordinary to be. The real irony lies in the complete about-face the government takes once circumstances change so profoundly against their will that they are forced to begin to revise their stance and pretend they never held it. Such was the case with their blatantly hostile view and treatment of Martin Luther King and as well with Nelson Mandela. And therein lay a lesson that is just as profound as the more obvious ones being pointed out ad nauseum by pastors, politicians and the mainstream media all over the country today. There are lessons here that if integrated properly can be used in our future to further speed along our evolution to a more civilized, honest and enlightened society.
We must remember that even though Mandela has been propped up on a celestial pedestal now and paraded around political theatres and social circles for years as a legendary activist to the point of near sainthood by American politicians, he spent 27 years of his life behind bars in prison in South Africa, an action that was fully supported by the same United States government. It wasn’t that the United States “just didn’t want to get involved” in the politics and policies of a foreign sovereign state (since when has the United States been known to ever take that stance?), imprisoning Mandela and his comrades in the ANC (African National Congress) as well as the official racist apartheid laws of South Africa were supported and assisted by the U.S. government. Throughout the presidencies of Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and then Bush Sr. the white-minority controlled South Africa was a major trade partner of the United States, in commodities such as minerals, diamonds, gold and uranium. They fought alongside the United States in its various foreign exploitive wars and vice versa. President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were all too happy to assist the South African government in brandishing Mandela “a communist terrorist threat to the ideals of liberty and democracy.” So too were Ronald Reagan and the United Kingdom’s Margaret Thatcher.
In the 1980s celebrities around the world began to stand up and speak out against South African apartheid — (sometimes one wishes that people would just call it what it was, flat out self-serving racism, discrimination and segregation of an entire race of people based purely on the color of their skin, so as not to potentiate any misunderstanding of how brutal and oppressive a law and practice it was). As always it was the artists and entertainers of the world who first took up the torch for this blatantly obvious human rights abuse, (but notably many years AFTER the real heroes of these issues — the activists, who almost always rise up long before anyone else has the knowledge or courage to do so in civil societies). This eventually led to the U.S. congress drafting a strong sanctions bill against doing any business or trade with the government of South Africa in the mid-eighties until they did away with their apartheid government. The bill passed. President Reagan vetoed it. His views were strictly Cold War anti-communist, human rights be damned. He also didn’t want to lose the valuable trade relationship the United States had with South Africa.
The Congress, to their credit, pushed the bill into law anyway. In the meantime, president Reagan promoted the idea that the real problem wasn’t racism by whites but tribal conflicts amongst blacks that was the true cause of the suffering of the South African black people. Where have we heard that argument before?
None of these facts are secret or disputed or conspiratorial in nature. They’re well known to anyone who was alive and old enough to be aware of the world around them at the time that they occurred. Even though we may not be. Anyone over the age of 45 to 50 can easily remember the names Nelson Mandela and the ANC being commonly known as renegades, communists and terrorist threats to be feared, subdued and put down by “lovers of Western liberty and democracy”. Just as Islamists are in today’s world. It’s ironic that these same powers are now taking every advantage possible to tout the merits of the man and his mission and publicly drool over his legacy as if he were the black Jesus. But irony aside, how can this knowledge serve us now?
I have always contended that a knowledge of history is useless if it’s not brought forward and used to better gauge and inform our views and actions in the present. Knowing what we now know about Nelson Mandela — how he was viewed and treated by the United States and other Western governments, what areas of the world or social and political figures of today are bound to be relegated to similar changes of viewpoints and about-faces by the powers that be? What horrors are we currently supporting or permitting that we will later regret as a nation so much so that we will feel compelled to not only change our views but attempt to cover up our former ideals and actions? Where is there blatant ignorance malfeasance or injustice being committed in our name simply because we as a people are too lazy or too afraid to stand up for what we believe in?
As Meet the Press, Face the Nation, 60 Minutes, CNN, the White House and every other corporate lapdog step over each other in a mad dash to be the first seen gloating with admiration over Nelson Mandela and his indomitable spirit of rebellion and passion for change and human rights, these are the questions that we should instead be asking; because THIS seems to be the real meat of the Nelson Mandela legacy, the most profound lesson in the now and moving forward; and perhaps the best way to honor the man at the moment of his passing. At the very least, it seems to be the one lesson that we might have the most to learn from in terms of ideas that haven’t been fully or properly addressed yet.
Who are we overtly branding a threat or a terrorist and suppressing NOW?
Iran comes to mind — which is ironic since almost all of the real wickedness perpetrated in the world in regards to Iran over the last 100 years has been taken by Western Nations against Iran, not by Iran. One day, when or if history eventually rights itself, the Islamic Revolution that took place in Iran in 1979, though not perfect, will be viewed as it is in Iran itself: a momentous people’s revolution where the people of Iran took the country back and got rid of the foreign occupiers (the United States and Great Britain) and acted valiantly and bravely during the American Hostage Crisis by not killing ONE American citizen. All they were asking for was their former king/dictator Shah Palavi to be returned to them so he could stand trial in a court of law for his nearly constant abuse of powers and illegal activities. The United States refused to comply with their request. Even though it was their country.
[As this is a very nuanced, detailed and muddled subject, it is difficult for anyone objectively minded to take a stand on this one particular issue. On the one hand the United States government was defying the will of a sovereign people once again, placing their own will above that of the people of this foreign country. Which they clearly had no business doing. Such is the very nature of the United States of America and the reason why the country is so questioned and reviled by intellectuals on all sides of the fence as well as true lovers of human rights and freedom. On the other hand the United States government, along with Great Britain, was the entity responsible for placing the Shah back in power in Iran in the first place — completely against the will of the Iranian people, and surely felt a certain amount of loyalty and responsibility towards the Shah. They knew that if they handed him over to the Iranian people that he would most likely be put on trial, found guilty and be put to death. It didn’t hurt that he had more than enough money to compensate the powers that be in Washington and elsewhere in order to assure he would not be extradited back to Iran to stand trial. Tricky stuff. But the moral of the story is obvious: The United States should have never gotten illegally involved in the affairs of Iran in the first place, period.]
The fact that the Iranian people showed such discipline and commitment to their religious values and restraint by not killing any of the Americans they took hostage speaks volumes about the difference between them and their American foes. It also speaks to what is currently happening in respect to Iran as it is being uniformly demonized, especially by Western nations and Israel, for wanting to build a nuclear energy program for itself as it projects that it will be completely out of oil by the year 2020. The United States and Israel most notably, along with Saudi controlled Arabia, do not “want” Iran to have a nuclear energy program for fear that they will escalate the program to eventually make nuclear weapons, which could “offset the balance of power in the Middle East”. What this really means is that Iran will once and for all be in full control of their fate as a sovereign nation as opposed to being in constant fear of the more powerful countries of Israel and the United States who both have nuclear weapons.
This too is a tricky subject; one which we have already shed gallons of ink on over the last five years. It is more than ironic that the country telling the world that “a nuclear armed Iran poses a real and imminent threat to the entire world” happens to be the only country in the history of human civilization who have ever used nuclear weapons to obliterate other people, i.e. the United States. At the same time, it is true that Iran has been known to sponsor various “terrorist organizations” around the Middle East such as Hamas and Hezbola. This is a valid concern. A frightening reality.
At the same time there are more Jewish people living in Iran than in any other country in the Middle East except for Israel because they are free to practice their religion as they always have been since King Cyrus the Great freed them in ancient times as is relayed in the Old Testament. Iran is NOT anti Jewish, as much as some may try to distort that reality. Instead they are anti-Zionism. They are against foreign invaders entering a land by force, taking over the towns and villages until they eventually gain control over much of the entire country, and systematically killing its people just because they have access to more money, more influence and more weapons than the inhabitants who were already there, which in a nutshell sums up what Zionism has been over the last sixty years in the land called Palestine.
Would Israel be safe if Iran obtained nuclear weapons? That’s an existential question. For no one knows the answer. Iran claims that it has no intention of building a nuclear weapon and it would never use one against other living human beings. At the same time they have expressed their complete opposition to the existence of “a national Jewish homeland in the former state of Palestine”. Again it’s tricky stuff. Perhaps if Israel weren’t borne so unjustly and barbarically and out of so much bloodshed at the expense of another people, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries wouldn’t be so angry and Israel wouldn’t have to be so afraid, defensive and assertive.
[Personally I’ve been to all three countries and seen it all firsthand. It is not merely hearsay as some loudly contend but experience which informs these views. Jews do live comfortably and relatively free in Iran. At least as free and comfortable as Iranian Muslims do. On the other side of the coin, Palestinians live under what could be easily called extreme fascist control and at times concentration camp-like circumstances in many parts of Israel and Palestine under an iron fist of Jewish-Israeli rule. It is more than heartbreaking. Picture the poorest of poor African countries, now add a giant cement wall and barbed wire fences caging them in, along with the addition of Israeli troops carrying machine guns surrounding them on all sides AND no access to running water of any kind that they can control themselves. Again it is more than heartbreaking and speaks volumes about why the Iranian people might just be a bit angry at how their Muslim brethren are being treated. It is also no small testament to the morals and fortitude of the Iranian people that out of all the countries in the Middle East, they are one of the last holdouts who still refuse to cave or compromise their basic values in return for being allowed to suckle the corporate breasts of the most powerful country in the modern world.]
To get back to the point, will we one day see a world where the powers that be in Washington and the West trip over themselves to publicly praise and guffaw over the bravery and gallantry of the Iranian people and their commitment to freedom and human rights? Maybe. One day. It really depends on one of two things: Either, one: the Iranian people find a way to eventually free themselves from being bullied and dominated by the current Rome of the modern world, The United States of America and it’s “allies”, and create true economic and political freedom as a nation — think China. The Chinese are not a free people; in fact they really ARE communists. But you don’t see them being bossed around and controlled like puppets on a string by the U.S. as the Iranian government presently is (think of the so-called “sanctions”, in reality a euphemism for what is known as economic terrorism). The reason is because the United States is afraid of direct military confrontation with China, and two, the U.S. needs their money more than they care about the Chinese peoples’ freedom or liberty. If Iran ever gains a strong economic foothold for itself and becomes competitive in the world, the U.S. will do a 180 degree turn in its views on Iran. The other option would be if the Iranian people are ever successful in their slow and steady quest for true freedom and democracy. Right now they live in a “not so free” country — the only openly and admittedly “Theocratic” government left on earth — though one could argue that China is a “Secular Theocracy”; not to mention the more obvious theocratic states like Saudi controlled Arabia and Afghanistan et al. Only future history will tell.
Another people in the BIGGER picture who are currently suffering from being demonized as being terrorists and general threats to freedom and liberty by the West are almost any and all “Muslims”, especially in the United States and especially in Middle America, where the word Islam is nearly synonymous with “terrorism” to the average person. Just having brown skin in fact nearly uniformly renders a person either a “terrorist” or an “illegal immigrant” in today’s Middle America. Now that may be an unfair stereotype. But if it is, let Middle America show that to be the case. We in the North and the coastal states will surely be more than happy to express our relief and our sincerest apologies if they ever do so. It sure doesn’t appear that way from the outside looking in though. Just as it didn’t appear that the United States government was a big fan of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela when they were brandishing them as being communists, terrorists, and threats to the safety and security of freedom and democracy.
Other obvious ideas that come to mind regarding these questions are the countries of Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen. All countries where the United States and its military are actively engaged in killing, looting and covert operations in the name of “defeating terrorists” and “saving the ideals of liberty and democracy”. One day if democracy ever flourishes in these nations and they find a way out of their impoverished states or manage to somehow gain an economic or political advantage over more Westernized powers, then it will only be a matter of time that their leaders will be held up and celebrated as valiant heroes and legends the way that Nelson Mandela currently is. It may sound crazy, but we have to remember, again, that this is a man who in the not too distant past was considered a rebel, a criminal, a terrorist, a communist, and a threat to everything freedom loving people the world over stood for. It is only NOW that he is being rebranded by Washington and the mainstream media as the legend that we all know and love.
Of course, the manner in which he achieved his success and his presidency, through non-violent means, diplomacy and civil disobedience are all reasons why it was so easy for all to so easily change the label that they once attached to the man. And THIS is what makes him such a pivotal figure in global politics. He chose NOT to go the way of military action or violence once he was released from prison. Many facts point to the possibility that had he NOT been imprisoned when he was that he was well on his way toward a more violent and military path towards freedom for black Africans. Which is why he was singled out, arrested and imprisoned in the first place.
As well on the list might include countries such as so-called “Saudi Arabia”, Israel and Palestine. They also come to mind in a reverse engineering sort of way. The country that we now commonly call Saudi Arabia is in reality Arabia. As in Lawrence of Arabia. The same Arabia that’s been around for thousands of years. The term “Saudi” refers to the last name of the family that currently acts as the fascist dictators who nefariously control that entire country full of people against their will. Call it a forced monarchy, oligarchy, a fascist state. None of these words really matter. What matters is that the Saudi family has gone so far in their quest to take over the entire country to use it for themselves that they even changed the name of the country. It would be akin to an American president changing the name of this country to BushMerica or ObamAmerica. It’s that dastardly. And it’s been done with the approval, support and military assistance of the United States — who supposedly will do anything to defend the ideals of freedom, liberty and democracy. In truth the United States government only “defends the ideals of freedom, liberty and democracy” when they have something material to gain from a military intervention in said country. These are ideas only, words only, tools of convenience, semantics.
When a rebel group eventually rises up to defeat the Saudi government in order to free the Arabian people and bring true democracy to the region and proves itself to be stronger than the current regime that occupies the country, one can bet that the United States will be the first in line to send weapons and troops to “defend the Saudi Arabian people”. And only AFTER the Saudi family is put down and democracy rules in Arabia will the United States government change its views and start pretending that it’s “always stood for freedom and democracy for the Arabian people”. Just as it now pretends to have always stood for freedom from racist rule for the South African people even though for decades it directly opposed to it.
There are myriad examples of these types of situations all over the world today. Tibet is another that comes to mind. An easy choice for defending the freedom and liberty of a people IF the powers that be in Washington or other Western nations really cared about such ideals. So too does Myanmar. As do many countries in Africa still. Freedom and democracy are malleable concepts at this time in human history. So too it seems are the ideals that we attach to political figures such as Nelson Mandela when we see an opportunity to use them to our advantage. It isn’t that Mandela wasn’t a noble man of courage and strength, patience and fortitude. He surely was. And more. His ability to forgive in the face of extreme abuse and wickedness was and always will be exemplary. So too was his decision to transform South Africa into a Westernized-like democracy when he gained power and the presidency. But in the bigger picture it is an odd irony that President Hu Jintao of communist China is just as celebrated when visiting the United States — black tie dinners and 21 gun salutes and all — as Nelson Mandela is today in America. The two men and what they represent couldn’t be more different. And yet from the outside looking in it does not appear that the American government or The White House recognizes this fact, one that seems to be so obvious to the rest of the world. Along with the manner in which Mandela was viewed and treated by the United States for thirty years prior to his success in South Africa, this makes it difficult to ascertain how truly sincere all this fanfare over the Mandela legacy really is.