The great world leader Nelson Mandela died on the 5th of December, 2013, at the age of 95. This sample descriptive essay reflects on the significance of Mandela’s life and work and his ongoing legacy in the contemporary world.
Nelson Mandela’s legacy in South Africa
Apartheid was a system of racial segregation that permeated every aspect of South African society. As Finnegan has written: by the 1950s:
“the political landscape had become dramatically harsher…after Afrikaner nationalists, propounding a fiercely racist program that they called apartheid, won a whites-only national election in 1948. The dispossession of black South Africans accelerated. The Communist Party was outlawed. The state took over the education of blacks, with malign intent and ruinous consequences” (paragraph 6).
The Afrikaners constituted the white minority within South Africa, primarily descended from Dutch colonists within the nation. Apartheid consisted of a system through which this white minority systematically oppressed the South African black majority.
Apartheid literally means “apart-hood,” and this captures the nature of the policies implemented under the apartheid regime within South Africa. For example, one of the signature aspects of apartheid consisted of the forced resettlement of people into designated group areas on the basis of their ethnicity. Virtually all aspects of South African became segregated along racial lines, with blacks within the nation even being deprived of their citizenship and being assigned to nominally self-governing tribal areas called bantustans; and black political representation at the national level was also outlawed.
Apartheid, then, was not a system of slavery or the like, but rather one of the most virulent forms of racial segregation ever seen by the modern world. In retrospect, the injustice of this system seems more or less self-evident. Mandela, however, saw through the injustice right as it was happening, and thus dedicated his life to combat it without relent.
The imprisonment of Mandela
One of the consequences of apartheid was that resistance leaders within South Africa, fighting for liberty and civil rights, were outlawed by the reigning government. This eventually led to Mandela being convicted as a criminal and imprisoned for his work as a civil rights leader. As the Nelson Mandela Foundation has indicated:
“On 9 October 1963 Mandela joined 10 others on trial for sabotage in what became known as the Rivonia Trial…On 11 June 1964 Mandela and seven other accused…were convicted and the next day was sentenced to life imprisonment” (paragraph 11).
Mandela initially faced the death penalty, and he exhibited deep courage and fearlessness in the face of his prospect. Indeed, some of his most famous words consist of his statement in this situation that he has dedicated his life to opposing domination of all kinds, and that he would be willing to die for this idea in the case that this proved to be necessary. In any event, this was the start of Mandela’s 27-year stay in prison within his own beloved nation.
Nelson Mandela’s efforts continued in prison
Mandela continued with his activism even within the context of prison life. As Woolridge has indicated:
“Prisoner 46664, as he was known—the 466th prisoner to arrive in 1964—would be the first to protest over ill-treatment and he would often be locked up in solitary as punishment” (paragraph 9).
He also strongly encouraged fellow prisoners to take advantage of all study privileges that were available within the prison, on the grounds that if they were to ever win the war against oppression, they would need to learn and understand as much as possible about society and culture in general, and the enemy’s own society and culture in particular.
Over time, Mandela’s public profile grew as supporters protested his wrongful conviction, and he came to be recognized as one of the most important political prisoners in the world. Through the entire experience, Mandela would seem to have maintained a startling capacity for humbleness and humor, which enabled him to continually view his own difficult experiences in light of a broader human context and thereby render those experiences endurable.
The President of South Africa
Eventually, the tides of history shifted, even as Mandela’s prestige and public profile continued to grow. This culminated in Mandela actually winning the presidency of South Africa, upon his release from prison:
“The critical decade was the 1990s, when Mandela was at the height of his power, having been released from jail in February 1990, taken the South African presidency in 1994 and left office in June 1999” (Bond, paragraph 4).
The reversal in Mandela’s fortunes mirrored and paralleled the reversal in the fortunes of his nation as a whole. Within the general election of 1994 that brought Mandela into power, the apartheid regime of South Africa also officially came to an end. Given that Mandela had dedicated his life to the end of apartheid, it can only be said that there was a great poetical coherence to this turn of events.
Mandela’s inefficiency as president
Aside from the obvious fact that Mandela’s rise to the presidency marked the end of the system of apartheid, however, people have since begun asking some important questions about just how good Mandela’s presidency actually was from a broader historical perspective. For example, South Africa no longer has the system of apartheid; but then, it still suffers from the broader problems of late capitalism, including
This raises questions about the extent to which Mandela’s presidency, while obviously doing the good of ending apartheid, also laid the seeds for the problems that currently plague South Africa today.
Mandela’s ideology and moral beliefs
There has been a tendency in popular culture to conceptualize Mandela as a kind of saint. This idea of him can surely be supported by his clear willingness to make real personal sacrifices in the name of high ideals. However, there is also reason to believe that the picture of the full man may be considerably more complex than such a portrait may suggest.
Among other things, there is the disconcerting fact that Mandela espoused Communist sympathies for much of his life—that is, capital-C Communism, as developed and implemented within the Soviet Union. It would be difficult to reconcile the picture of a man wholly dedicated to human liberation with that of a man who supported an ideology that produced the atrocities of the concentration camps during the Holocaust.
Trancinski has elaborated on this matter further in the following way:
“It is the American left that has not really wrestled with the Cold War and the evils of Communism as a system of global oppression. They have not accepted the way in which Mandela’s Communist sympathies made it impossible for America to embrace his cause while the Soviet Union was still in existence” (paragraph 12).
The Soviet Union, Cold War, and Mandela’s rule
This point is perhaps underscored by the historical fact that the fall of the Soviet Union on the one hand and the end of apartheid in South Africa on the other happened very much within the same narrow historical timeframe. To Mandela’s credit, though, he did seem to shift in his ideology over time, insofar as he played a key role in turning South Africa into the liberal democratic society it is today. But on the other hand, this same point could also be used to argue that Mandela was partially responsible for the problems that emerged in South Africa in the aftermath of his presidency.
Moreover, regarding the impulse to imagine Mandela to be a kind of saint, it is perhaps worth noting that Mandela was not, in fact, a radical pacifist and did not renounce violence altogether as possible political or pragmatic tactic. This is for the simple reason that Coates has stated in admirably succinct terms:
“Violent resistance to tyranny, violent defense of one’s own body, is not simply a political strategy in our country, it is taken as a basic human right” (paragraph 7).
This consideration should temper the impulse to identify Mandela with a figure such as, say, Mohandas Gandhi. Both Mandela and Gandhi were famous individuals of their time and very much similar in that they were both the key liberator figures in their own nations; they are quite different, however, at the level of politics and strategy. It would be fair to state that Mandela’s ideology has always been tempered by liberal and pragmatic assessments of what must be done in order to achieve success within a given political and historical context.
Bond, Patrick. “When Mandela Was President.” Socialist Worker. 9 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Mar 2016. http://socialistworker.org/2013/12/09/when-mandela-was-president.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Mandela and the Question of Violence.” The Atlantic. 11 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/12/mandela-and-the- question-of-violence/282255/.
Finnegan, William. “Postscript: Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013.” New Yorker. 8 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/postscript-nelson-mandela-1918-2013.
Malik, Kenan. “What Happened to South African Democracy.” New York Times. 22 Sep. 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/23/opinion/what-happened-to-south-african-democracy.html?_r=0.
Nelson Mandela Foundation. “Biography of Nelson Mandela.” 2016. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. https://www.nelsonmandela.org/content/page/biography.
Tracinski, Robert. “The Unsung Legacy of Nelson Mandela.” Real Clear Politics. 12 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2013/12/12/the_unsung_legacy_of_nelson_mandela_120935.html.
Woolridge, Mike. “Mandela Death: How He Survived 27 Years in Prison.” BBC. 11 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-23618727&