Special disco mention #12- Nelson Mandela


Whats left to be said about Nelson Mandela? Weve had a week of global coverage thats seen everyone and their aunt wheeled out to toast the great mans life, anyone who knew him (or indeed, if you watched the day of tributes in parliament – anyone who knew someone that had maybe met him, once) has spoken in passionate, cracked tones about how much he effected their lives, informed their thinking. 

Its not quite been on the Diana scale of media-grief-frenzy, but it has been pretty much blanket rolling news, which for the death of a man in his 95th year is quite something. But then, of course, Nelson Mandela really was quite something. Hes not the only world leader to have risen from being an imprisoned terrorist to a premier (we recently covered the Uruguayan president Jos Mujica whos life shared a similar trajectory) but hes certainly the most well known.

For us in the UK specifically, we should of course remember that our government in the 1980s refused to be part of sanctions against the apartheid regime – that Thatcher and her cronies in fact went out to South Africa during the time to increase our trading relationship with the country. Its galling to hear Cameron speaking of Mandela as an inspiration in the wake of his death, when he belongs to an ideology (Thatcherism) that saw him and his fellow ANC members as terrorists. Those things, though, are in the past, and in the spirit of Nelson Mandela, maybe thats where we should let them remain. 

What is important, though, is the present and the future, and whats seemingly been missing from the conversation, in this writers point of view, is the issue of terrorism today, and specifically, how its defined. Surely the greatest legacy of Mandela would be the application of his particular wisdom to the myriad political nightmares that rage the world over right now? We appear stuck in an endless two dimensional outlook through which all conflict is viewed in the stark terms of wrong and right dependent on where our allegiances (usually driven by trade and diplomatic reasons rather than any sense of morality) lie at the time. A group of people fighting for a cause are either terrorists (terrible, heinous, inhuman) or freedom fighters (noble, oppressed, heroic). The same group, fighting for the same cause will often be labelled as one of the two extremes at one point in time, only to be re-evaluated and re-labelled as the polar opposite at another. Surely, the time has arrived for these things to be looked at differently – surely in the wake of Mandelas passing there is an opportunity for a discussion to be opened up? 

Because whats become apparent is that Nelson Mandela came to represent more than the situation in South Africa, his victorious struggle has come to represent something that closer resembles a kind of universal morality. If we could learn to evaluate a situation on the terms that weve come to evaluate Nelson Mandelas (and the ANCs) own situation (ie – that the means the ANC used to fight the regime of Apartheid were just because the regime of Apartheid itself was unjust) then maybe we, as a species, could finally make some progress in overcoming the terrible, bloody deadlock that exists in conflicts the world over. It would be a wonderful thing if all the world leaders who scrambled to eulogise Mandela in the wake of his death actually took stock of what he represented and actually began to apply some of his wisdom to their own conduct. In the UK, for a start, we could admit how wrong Thatcher was in carrying on a relationship with the Apartheid-supporting government and take that as a lesson going forward. It sounds completely absurd and unrealistic but, then again, when looked at on paper, so does the life story of Nelson Mandela.