What is Mandela's Legacy?

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> This article was updated on December 11th, 2012. The former president of South Africa was hospitalized four days ago at the age of 94, because of a pulmonary infection. The authorities say that he is responding to the current treatment. 

"Contrary to what I was told by one of my young visitors, Mandela was never the leader of a small black group that metamorphosed later in life, once he came to power. Before and during his imprisonment, he always refused sectarian ideas. He has always defended a high idea of democracy. This is why the leaders of the apartheid were so afraid of him." Richard Sisulu, grandson of one of Madiba's great comrade, fiercely watches over the legacy of South Africa's giant.

While he guides the tours of one of the family homes that, in recent years, became a mecca of South African history, he explains to visitors the journey of the founders of the African National Congress, Mandela's party.
He shares this work of "transmission" with many others, including the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue. "We must do everything to ensure that the values ​​and actions of Mandela are correctly transmitted", he explains emphatically. But what is this legacy?

The strength of commitment

As a youngster, Mandela could have stayed in his native Tanskei, he could have accepted to be subjected to the apartheid and the traditions of his clan who wanted to force him to marry a specific woman for example, and he could have enjoyed a relatively affluent life within the royal clan of the Thembu.
But the son says no to his family and, in the process, thrusts himself into political activism. In 1948, he has already signed a pact with the fight when white extremists establish a nauseating political program: "Kaffer op sy plek die" ("The Kaffir in his place") based on the fear of "Swart Gevaar" ("Black peril"). Soon the revolt, which he leads throws him more than once in to prison, for a long time... 
> Watch one of his first interviews:

We know a lot about Mandela in prison

Most of all, we know that prisoner Number 466/64 would never forget the meaning of the word freedom, even in the depths of imprisonment. "Imagine a man reduced to breaking stones, isolated, with one letter and one visit every six months for almost three decades," recalls Richard Sisulu. "When one sees how his beliefs became stronger because of that, it teaches us to resist, whatever hardships we are confronted with."

A fight that should not be "too personalized"

Jan van Eck, one of the oldest white ANC executives would like to "reframe" the current celebration of the legacy of Mandela. "Today, everyone speaks of the exceptional man Mandela is. That's good. But we, South Africans, would like to highlight two things: without the long international civil mobilization, Madiba would probably still be in prison. Yet at the same time, we keep in mind that a genuine democrat languished in jail for 27 years, with the arrogance of a segregationist regime maintained by state and diplomatic systems."

Indeed, it is an undeniable reality: the South African leader embodies both the hope for the human, but also a certain destructive cynicism towards political systems. To go from there to underlining a link with important news related issues especially regarding people who are still dominated, is only a small step. 

"The political meaning of Mandela"

"He is an exceptional man. It is true", insists Mutele Thinawanga, a young ruling party executive. "The strength of Mandela is first and foremost himself. We are confident that South Africa would not have been what it is without an extraordinary leader like him; and those who followed him have shown that you cannot replace a giant." 

But immediately, he warns us: "Be careful, the struggle should not be too personalized. His fight has no meaning if it is not analyzed within a socio-political framework. Here and there I hear people who reminisce about Mandela, his exceptionality, while eclipsing the injustice that defined his commitment."

In the same vein, others insist on setting Mandela's journey back in the past, but also and most of all in the present. 
Ludwine Moshua, a journalist in Cape Town, wishes that the celebration of Mandela would be imperatively used to salute the courage of all those who fight everywhere for freedom and dignity. "It would be absurd to speak of Nelson Mandela without a thought for those that are now being oppressed by totalitarian states while other powers remain silent."

An undivided and shared freedom

There is no praise to humanity, in South Africa, which doesn't recall the noble Mandela in prison and his strong friendship with his white guard, James Gregory.

Until the end, Mandela advocated for a shared and inclusive freedom, which led him to make enemies among the black extremist fringes, which dreamed only of taking revenge against white people. Which led him to disown Winnie Mandela, who was still his wife, because she was becoming unbearably radical. 

One of the first sentences that the free Mandela delivered on February 11, 1990 from the balcony of Cape Town Hotel, sticks to the mind: "I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. My strongest ideal was that of a free and democratic society in which everyone lived together in harmony and with equal opportunities."

> Watch the video of his liberation:

"With his battle," comments Richard Sisulu, "Mandela has a message for political leaders today: Democracy makes no sense when it claims to liberate a people at the expense of others!"
The world today would benefit greatly by tapping into the depth of this "holistic wisdom, which addresses in an inter-connected manner all the major questions posed by democracy," reckons Jan van Eck. 
"Look, one of the great strengths of Mandela's reflection is the indivisibility of freedom, of dignity. In his personal and his political journey, he has always refused the rationing of rights, as he refused to separate the dignity of the black people from that of white people."

Indeed, it will be recalled that this man refused to exchange his political commitment against freedom. That he said no to some of his friends who wanted to separate the fate of white people and black people. More fundamentally, he always advocated for a global political commitment, which separates nothing, neither men nor the various dimensions of dignity.

A deeply social philosophy

Those who know him well speak of a man deeply convinced that political rights and social rights are inextricably linked. In his first major autobiography *, he himself admits that it is politics which came to him to structure his daily commitment, and not the opposite.

"(Before and during the prison), we fought injustice where we saw it, and it did not matter whether it was big or limited, and we fought it to preserve our humanity. (At the beginning), I had ideas that were more advanced socially than politically. Whilst I would not have considered to fight against the political system of white people, I was ready to revolt against the social system of my own people."

One of Mandela's most famous speeches which was delivered at the United Nations General Assembly in 1998, still resonates as a humane social project: "What I am trying to say is that all these social ills which constitute an offence against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not a pre-ordained result of the forces of nature or the product of a curse of the deities. They are the consequence of decisions, which men and women take or refuse to take, all of whom will not hesitate to pledge their devoted support for the vision conveyed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This Declaration was proclaimed as Universal precisely because the founders of this Organization and the nations of the world, who joined hands to fight the scourge of fascism, including many who still had to achieve their own emancipation, understood this clearly that our human world was an interdependent whole. Necessarily, the values of happiness, justice, human dignity, peace and prosperity have a universal application because each people and every individual is entitled to them. Similarly, no people can truly say it is blessed with happiness, peace and prosperity where others, as human as itself, continue to be afflicted with misery, armed conflict and terrorism and deprivation."

With regards to the current debate on the social responsibility of the state and its citizens, Mandela takes a firm stance. "Overcoming poverty is not an act of charity. It is an act of justice," he said in 2006 at a ceremony organized for him by Amnesty International. 

Let us keep in mind this passage from Mandela's speech, before he officially retired from politics in 1998. 

"As I sit in Qunu and grow as ancient as its hills, I will continue to entertain the hope that there has emerged a cadre of leaders in my own country and region, on my continent and in the world, which will not allow that any should be denied their freedom as we were; that any should be turned into refugees as we were; that any should be condemned to go hungry as we were; that any should be stripped of their human dignity as we were."

* Nelson Mandela, A Long Walk To Freedom. 1994


This article was initially published in 2010. Translated from French. 


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