I don’t have anything as eloquent as Tim Burke to say about Mandela and the discourse around his death. Like many politically-active people of my generation, I found great inspiration not just from Mandela in particular but from the grand struggle against apartheid.
Apartheid was the great moral struggle of the late 20th century. In part the monstrous last gasp of European colonialism, and in part the oh-so-modern hybrid of capitalist extraction and scientific racism, it was impossible by the early 1980s to form a morally defensible claim for its support. Mandela became the international symbol of the struggle, and deservedly so, but his ANC was but one piece of the struggle that included allies in the trade union movement (COSATU) and the Communist Party (SACP). Remarkably, this coalition was multiracial and fostered a remarkable leadership including Mandela. An important rival was Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness movement, which looked from outside like a piece of the coalition but was in fact a crucial competitor for ways of thinking about racial justice in South Africa.
It is a huge moral failing of the United States, and an enduring shame, that the Reagan Administration, Congressional cold war hawks, and envoy Elliott Abrams became, de facto, the global sponsor of the apartheid regime. Thousands of people died and thousands more suffered and were brutalized because they considered Cold War geopolitics a priority so overwhelming as to write off the human rights of the subcontinent.
I spent a year or so in Namibia just after its independence, writing for The Namibian and working on my undergraduate thesis. I visited Johannesburg, Soweto (thanks Chris Benner), and Cape Town, as well as Angola, Zambia, and Zimbabwe while I was there, and came away deeply moved by the imagination, creativity, dedication, and commitment of the people who fought for an authentic vision of democracy and freedom. Mandela certainly was a great man, and the movement he led is one of the triumphs of the last century.