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NELSON MANDELA: PLAYER IN HISTORY December 9, 2013

Posted by wmmbb in Modern History, Personal Experience.
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History in our age of global communications can often occur, like sport, as spectacle. Events take place and  the personal experience is disconnected, or the direct autobiographical and personal context and location is very different.

How we make the  connection and draw the lesson of such history lies in the realization of our common humanity.  Growing up in New Zealand, I could not be more remote in distance the events in Palestine and the Suez Canal, Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Birmingham, Alabama, Laos, Vietnam, or anywhere else. The puzzlement exists because the assumptions of one European settler society, and historical frames are very different – sometimes by the good fortune of the coincidence of time.

General human intention or virtue can operate as a distance. Human beings, as perhaps Marx observed, make history. And then there are opportunities in a unformed society starting out where everything is seemingly “molten and mercurial”. Once there was a sense of possibility that somehow persists. Still when you grow up with direct personal contact with Maoris, Samoans and Tongans, and in which the State ideology promotes a bi-racial society, other societies are not immediately understood.  In part because the cards of history are differently dealt. In part because the social class and other aspect of  personal social immersion are not comprehended. It is somewhat shocking to become aware of the differential rates of imprisonment between social and racial groups, and the deep complicity in the continuous imperial politics of power and structural violence, which was, and continues to be represented as security.

New Zealand on rational grounds  would seem to be a safe place. Beyond the kinship groups of Polynesia and Melanesia, and the cousins in  Australia. This was a connection that emerged from the Second World War, a genesis for some, death and destruction for millions more. The Chileans kept to themselves, except when their training ship, The Esmeralda visited Wellington, and they were kind enough to acknowledge our presence on the heights of Seatoun  waving to them as the sailed away. The memories remain and they are a personal wall paper for later events as for example, the coup that toppled Salvador Allende.

South Africa was  another European settler-dominated society. My grandfather, I learnt when young, had gone to South Africa during he Boer War. At least he was more fortunate in that respect, unlike my Australian forebears, his contemporaries who were butchered in the First World War – something I cannot forget or forgive. The other connection for New Zealanders is rugby union. I can remember the radio report of people attempting to stop the plane with the All Blacks on board by throwing themselves onto the tarmac. The games were broadcast early in the morning from known and unknown places such Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth. Many of the population we understood supported the team called the All Blacks, and the Springboks were a symbol of Apartheid. And when South Africa defeated New Zealand in 1995 for the Rugby World Cup, with Nelson Mandela in the stands sitting in his No. 6 Springbok jersey given to him by Francois Pienaar.

Sports commentators become interpreters. Sport, like history, is an expression of consciousness of national identity. Nelson Mandela’s prison guards were doubtless fans of the  Springboks, the emblem of Apartheid Losing was the right result despite “For the All Blacks heartache and heartbreak”

Rabbi Michael Lerner provides another perspective.  Gandhi lived in South Africa for 21 years, and was helped by Jewish business people. For many critics of Mandela as of Gandhi, and perhaps Martin Luther King, reconciliation based on compassion for the oppressor is counter-intuitive and counter-productive. These policies might seem obvious in retrospect, but realizing them in practice is no mean feat. Michael Lerner observes, correctly identifying the dimension of political compromise with economic power:

Mandela’s framework of compassion is deeply resonant with Jewish worldviews. It was part of the greatness of galut (exile) or Diaspora mentality that Jews had grown to see the primacy of compassion (rachmanus in Yiddish) as central to Jewish life. Having been thrown out of our ancient land by Roman imperialism, Jews came to recognize that our survival depended not on our military power (of which we had none for most of the past 1,800 years) but on the ethical quality of our lives. When the king of nearby Moab had sought to destroy us by having the prophet Bila’am come to curse us, but the prophet instead said, “How goodly are thy tents O Jacob, thy dwelling places, O Israel,” the medieval biblical commentators said he was praising the high ethical standards that were manifest in the way the Israelites comported themselves. No wonder, then, that so many Jews felt a special kinship to Mandela because of his insistence on ethics and compassion.

Mandela made a fateful choice in accepting a deal with the white minority government that granted political power to black South Africans without dismantling the white-dominated economic power system that continues to leave tens of millions of black South Africans in deep economic misery. Preferring an imperfect democracy to the bloodbath that was the likely alternative, Mandela achieved a first step toward full liberation, and created political structures that could eventually lead to economic democracy as well. It was the same choice made by the American revolutionaries of 1776.

It remains to be seen whether we or other societies that made that compromise will ever be able to use democratic forms effectively so long as the economic elites are able to use their huge wealth to shape public discourse and manipulate electoral outcomes. Yet democratic political rights give some power to the people to expand those rights, and this expansion of rights is generally a more effective, lasting vehicle for transforming society than an armed struggle is. So here too we have to appreciate Mandela’s choice, even as we cheer on those who now will seek the next steps toward greater democratic control of the economy and substantive (not just formal) equality.

The implementation of principle of the fair go for all is what stands between hardening arteries of social violence and the possibility of peace, life and dignity. The challenge is toe extend the fair go for all the people of the world. History is both an aid and a barrier. The adulation of Nelson Mandela will fade. History and experience will be revised to suit other agendas.

Nelson, I hardly knew you. I know this. Sometimes it does matter who wins, and that success may not last. If nothing else, you gave Africa reason to be proud. That accomplishment, which we who look on from elsewhere, sometimes isolated in our cultural and political history, can only applaud. It is something no one can take away – even as the murdering drones fly  over parts of the continent. Presumably, the midnight raids breaking down the doors to the family homes is to come later.

As the means of communication change, so do the relationship between the participants in the process.  Our perceptions changed with print, radio and television. However determined “The Five Eyes” and their masters, who literally call the shots, are to violate the privacy, and the integrity of the internet, and to spread fear, changing relationships changes the world. Democracy is only authentic, when it is never taken for granted. Citizenship can be as perilous for the native born as for the denied, dehumanized refugees courageously following hope on the open sea. Perhaps only compassion can dissolve fear and change fundamental the relationship of violence. The kernel of argument has to be addressed that those who respond to violence are condemned by means rather than ends.

Nelson Mandela changed himself as a human person, which was heroic, and then he was able to bring about greater change by suggesting that what others could be and do. We have a choice to work with a  informed vision founded on truth combined with kindness, or be blind to what is possible allowing the blight of systematic human cruelty to reign, unchecked and unmatched.

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