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December 13, 2013: Mandela

Illustration by Faheem Haider for American Circus.

It's fitting that Nelson Mandela died in December. Judging by most of the encomiums I've heard, he was apparently a South African version of Santa Claus — grandfatherly, with a kind face that suggested a deep enjoyment of milk and cookies. Most importantly, Mandela was, at worst, gentle with the bad boys and girls. That is, after all, what most of the fulsome praise he was subject to for the past decades praised — the mercy he extended to the caucasoid slime who had ruled South Africa. In this rendering, Mandela is an eternally octogenarian saint — the details of how he came to be canonized not all that important. 

This patronizing of better men by knuckle-dragging bottom-feeders is a pretty well-worn trick, as American as apple pie and practiced by just about any pol. Even a screeching, short-breathed pig like Glenn Beck damned Martin Luther King with praise, such that he could reappropriate MLK's struggle for aggrieved white racists. So it shouldn't be surprising that the world leaders who assembled for Mandela's memorial treated it like a work-mandated funeral for a co-worker they barely knew. Bush — Jesus, he still exists — probably showed up just for the catering. I take it for granted that these empty vessels came off as utterly bereft of anything approaching dignity or self-knowledge, taking selfies and sounding their phony, crass dirges for Mandela; it was as fitting as it was inevitable.
"Mandela was a good man who ended racism," goes the general gist of it, "but not in a way that was mean or upsetting to white people — and for that we can be truly thankful." I don't see much point in parsing the many public tributes that have been paid to Mandela by the rogue's gallery of elected hacks, tripping over themselves to hitch themselves to Mandela's star and thereby prove their deep humanity and rich appreciation for justice. You've had a week or two to choke down that dog's dinner, which I found roughly on par with eating and digesting a phone book whole. The infantilized Mandela of these tributes is a cuddly toy the whole family can enjoy — even mainline conservatives, engaged these past weeks in the delicate work of appropriating Mandela without bringing up, say, anything in which Mandela believed.
Funnily enough, it was the fascist snakepit that is Sen. Ted Cruz's Facebook fandom that drew me out of the isolation chamber. Here we had hatred — unadorned, not couched in false platitudes or crocodile tears. None of the mouth-breathers hissing in front of their computer monitors care or worry about their public images, because they'll never have one. Greasy, scalding hatred of Mandela — Mandela the Communist, Mandela the Traitor, Mandela the Murderer and Terrorist and Criminal, and most of all, definitively, in bold caps with klaxons blaring, Mandela the Nigger. It was repulsive, distinctly out of fashion, and refreshing. It was exactly the sentiment seventy percent of those leaders weeping over Mandela's casket would've enforced had they been elected in 1980.
Nothing about Nelson Mandela's victory was inevitable. He was maligned, tortured, and imprisoned by a mafia state, captive to an utterly depraved and sick social order — a Confederacy that somehow whipped itself into the 20th century.  The ethnocratic regime he opposed wasn't just bent on immiserating black South Africans by forcing them into big, open-air gulags called "bantustans." The Afrikaner security forces were fond of stoking two fire-pits on their off hours: one for burning the corpses of anti-apartheid activists, and one for grilling steaks.
So, non-violent protests by anti-apartheid campaigners were met with massacres. The prospect of reforms was laughable to goons like Botha, or his neighbor, Ian Smith in Rhodesia. Property destruction and sabotage were similarly ineffective. Nelson Mandela accepted the legitimacy of violent resistance as just, in a situation of unacceptable injustice — as he recounted from his cell, ''We aim for buildings and property, so it may be that someone gets killed in a fight, in the heat of battle, but we do not believe in assassinations.''
Who were Mandela's friends? Oh yeah, he told us — the only people who offered to help the ANC were the commies. Should he have rejected their help before or after he was shipped off to Robben Island, after being captured with the help of the CIA? Would that have ameliorated paid apartheid junketeer William F. Buckley's concerns that Mandela would be the next Lenin, or dissuaded him from believing “immediate integration must be rejected by all realistic men as suicidal"? Would that have stopped Reagan and Thatcher from conspiring to strengthen apartheid, as enacted in the gruesomely-named policy of "constructive engagement"? It is incredible he wasn't executed by the regime's flunkies, the way that the brave Steve Biko was.
He was not a saint; he was a human being who had faults like you or I, and indeed, made questionable political decisions in office. But perhaps his most endearing quality to me is one described by journalist John Carlin, recounting Mandela's trip to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside his erstwhile adversary, F.W. DeKlerk. Mandela lost his temper, seeing DeKlerk, his opportunistic jailer, swanning around Oslo, and somehow unfazed by his lifelong collusion with the apartheid regime. Mandela's lawyer, George Bizos, described Mandela's "money-changers in the temple" moment:
"'He gave the most horrible detail of what happened to prisoners on Robben Island,' said Bizos, referring to the Alcatraz on the southern Atlantic where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in jail. He told a story, Bizos recalled, of prison warders on the island 'burying a man in the sand up to his head and urinating on him. ... He told it as an example of the inhumanity there had been in this system, though he did actually stop short of saying 'Look, here are the people who represented that system.’'"
This guy was not always Santa Claus. Want to honor Nelson Mandela's memory? Support the guy who's unpopular right now, not when he's a secular saint on the cover of Time. Don't condemn Palestinians to the same privations of black South Africans — yes, Israel practices apartheid, too, and as Mandela said in 1990, "We identify with [Palestinians] because we do not believe it is right for the Israeli government to suppress basic human rights in the conquered territories." Do you have the guts to carry that message? The same sanctions movement that eventually destroyed apartheid is gaining strength against Israeli apartheid; will our cultural leaders have the same brave aversion Keith Richards and Gram Parsons felt to South Africa?
Don't forget the qualities that, improbably, put Mandela in a position from which he could exonerate his tormentors. Don't forget the injustices that angered and haunted him — I don't think, for example, Mandela would've approved of Obama's recent murder of fifteen innocent people for the crime of celebrating a wedding.
It's an important truth that needs to be struck, again and again, like hammer blows: Nelson Mandela, the young, tough-looking badass pictured here, was entirely guilty of being a revolutionary, one who reluctantly accepted the legitimacy of force, and who only forgave his jailers after most of his international mourners had done everything they could to retard his struggle. There is a lesson here.

General Gandhi

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