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Mandela, sanitized

December 21, 2013

by Mumia Abu-Jamal

He was born Rolihlahla in July of 1918, in a nation of which he was not truly a citizen, into a country called the Union of South Africa, a part of the British Empire.

Defense lawyer Nelson Mandela speaks to his co-defendants at their Treason Trial, which lasted four years, 1956-1960.
The world would come to know him as Nelson, a name given him by a grade school teacher: Nelson Mandela.

At long last, after 95 years of life, Mandela has returned to his ancestors.

Between birth and death he has blazed an amazing life of love and revolution, of struggle and resistance, of prison and isolation, of freedom – and now death.

At his passing, American media has painted him as a kind of African “civil rights” leader, perhaps Martin Luther King the Fifth, with a halo of white hair. An American president issued a statement lamenting his “wrongful conviction.”

In fact, it is dangerously misleading to make of Mandela a King or a Malcolm. He was neither.

He was himself: an African lawyer who used every tool available to him – legal when he could, illegal when he must – to resist a system that crushed African lives like peanut shells. He was a revolutionary, an armed guerrilla and commander of a guerrilla army, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) of the African National Congress (ANC).

The South African government after 1948 became an instrument of the terror and torture that only a paranoid people, like the South African Boers, could muster. Under the banner of the National Party, the government erected the odious barrier of apartheid (Afrikaans for “apart-ness”), which took white supremacy and Black subordination to truly insane and dehumanizing levels.

Mandela mends his prison clothes on Robben Island in 1964.
South Africa became the embodiment of legalized white racism and blindingly brutal oppression, designed principally to extract and exploit Black labor at the cheapest price. At every opportunity, it strove to sow humiliation, pain and violence in African lives. It corrupted every facet of African life – economy, education, health, jobs and family – to white ends.

When Dr. Nelson Mandela was thrown into prison, it was after being convicted of sabotage – as part of his paramilitary efforts – and he was sentenced to life.

The growing anti-apartheid movement and the subsequent divestment campaign, which forced Western institutions to disinvest in the apartheid regime, convinced the leading sectors of white South African power to take the negotiating table and to transform their politics.

They did so, with one important proviso: They turned the political machinery over to the African National Congress (ANC), and they removed the economy from political control.

Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of post-colonial Ghana, once said, “Political independence without economic independence is but an illusion.” Nkrumah’s adage was proven true after South African independence, which opened the door to elected office but closed the door to South Africa’s vast wealth by putting it in private hands.

Dr. Nelson Mandela was hired to consolidate this state of affairs, and today South Africa is one of the most economically unequal nations on earth, exceeded perhaps only by the United States.

That said, what Mandela did was lead a nation known as an international pariah and transform it into one of the world’s most respected nations. He closed the door of history on a country that seemed to be seeking to succeed the Nazis in its racism and hatred.

Zulu men perform traditional dance on hill overlooking Qunu during Mandela state funeral 121513 by Chip Somodevilla, AP
Zulu men perform a traditional dance on a hill overlooking the town of Qunu during Mandela’s state funeral on Dec. 15. – Photo: Chip Somodevilla
A child born to the royal house of an African tribe in a land claimed by the British Empire, in a nation where race and complexion entitled one to privilege or oppression, opened the door to a new nation by leaving the political prison house to enter the presidency.

This is the stuff of high drama, of dreams made real, of epic losses, of aching loneliness, of doing the right thing at the right time.

My brother-in-law, an American diplomat, once told me that South Africa was the most beautiful country he had ever seen but that its racist politics and practices made it one of the ugliest.

Dr. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and the vast, global anti-apartheid movement helped bring its beauty back.

Mandela inspired millions, both in and out of South Africa. He inspired millions of whites and Europeans by what they called “reconciliation,” but what they meant was that he and his government allowed them to keep their ill-gotten gains and lands.

Africans received pride and political domination. Whites received wealth, land and economic privilege.

Once again, Blacks paid the price for social peace and political compromise.

Apartheid may be gone – but privilege ain’t.

To millions of South Africans, the long walk to freedom still ain’t over.

© Copyright 2013 Mumia Abu-Jamal. Read Mumia’s latest book, “The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America,” co-authored by Columbia University professor Marc Lamont Hill, available from Third World Press, Keep updated at For Mumia’s commentaries, visit For recent interviews with Mumia, visit Encourage the media to publish and broadcast Mumia’s commentaries and interviews. Send our brotha some love and light: Mumia Abu-Jamal, AM 8335, SCI-Mahanoy, 301 Morea Road, Frackville, PA 17932.


One thought on “Mandela, sanitized

  1. Fanon

    Mandela's image has been "sanitized" to fit certain politics. In the meantime, as brother Abu-Jamal points out the reality for millions of black South Africans is very much the same as in the Apartheid era. In fact, police officers under the current president carried out the killings of several mining workers strikers. So, I agree with brother Jamal that freedom remains an illusion in South Africa. In the meantime, the oppressors would remain free.


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