The death of Nelson Mandela is being commemorated around the world. President Obama even described his own political awakening in terms that paid tribute to the struggle in South Africa and Mandela in particular. Mostly the praises are heaped in palatable shovelfuls that cover over the dangerous meaning of his symbolic and actual life. Poet Matt Sedillo said it best:
History is complex. The US media is not. Mandela is presented here in America as a great man for embracing Apartheid era politicians and American political leaders. His embrace of revolutionaries fighting in the national liberation process is completely whitewashed. Basic point Mandela and the ANC in its inception was essentially a communist organization. Almost all liberation forces of the 20th century were communist. The communist struggle was a struggle against exploitation. Imperialism and colonialism are exploitative processes. Whoever Mandela was the portrayal of him as a great man for embracing American imperialists and racist South Africans is indicative of the racist imperialist values of this country and have very little to do with the actual and complex legacy of Nelson Mandela.
The other important corollary to Matt’s comment is that nearly all of the gigantic national liberation struggles of the 20th century fell under the leadership and control of the national bourgeoisie of those struggles. This in no way undermines either their importance or Nelson Mandela’s contribution to the revolutionary struggles of the 20th century, but instead speaks to the limitations of those times. Communism 50 and 60 years ago was ideology welded with a practical struggle against imperialism. Today it is a practical movement of those expelled from capitalist relations of production against capitalism itself. Nelson Mandela represents the best of that struggle against that exploitative system. His death reminds us of the continuing struggle under different and vastly more promising conditions.
As Matt also points out:
Indeed the aims of all actual and not just rhetorical nationalist movements in the 20th century was to industrialize or at least dramatically alter the relationship between industrial power and said nation. The motion to industrialize sets the groundwork for the struggle between the political formations of industrial proletariat and the bourgeoisie over in whose name industrialization would take place. Whether you were Mao or Atatürk industrialization was a must. This process took place in America as well under Lincoln, Prussia under Bismarck, Japan under Meiji in the same manner nearly a century earlier. Conditions once again are changing. The forces that must contend for the shape of society are in turn shaped by these changes.
Another poet wrote a startling essay on the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990. Here is June Jordan’s column in The Progressive from that time.
Mandela and the Kingdom Come
by June Jordan
The world watches for the face of this
man. This is the face hidden and for
bidden by force. These are the
cheeks and these are the lips and this is
the nose and these are the ears and the eyes
of the head of a country buried in hatred
It’s 5:35 A.M. when I switch on the TV,
and somebody’s complaining that Man
dela’s “really late.” He’d been scheduled
to appear more than half an hour ago. So
he’s late. After twenty-seven years in
prison, after seventy-one years of impris
onment inside South African apartheid, he
is not, the reporter complains, on time.
What could possibly explain the delay?
Didn’t he realize that hundreds of top in
ternational media personnel expected and
needed him to show up? Didn’t he un
derstand that this remarkably elite press
corps felt very uncomfortable? It was hot.
All morning the sun burned above them
and they could find no shade. There didn’t
seem to be a cold beer available, for miles.
But suddenly the helicopters rose into
the sky. And, like a badly lit, slow-motion
movie, you could see a short, pale caravan
of cars making its approach to the prison
gates. Within minutes, it was happening.
He was there. He was here. Hand-in-hand
with his comrade and wife, he stood still
and he did not smile. And then the two of
them began to move: He walked like a
man who does not take the earth for
granted. He took one step after another
with obvious care and delight. Right next
to him, Winnie Mandela stayed close, at
tuned and alert, and radiant.
My spirit divided between terror and
tears. Would he be shot? In the American
tradition of Dr. King and Malcolm X, was
I about to see another black man felled and
bleeding beyond recall?
But this miracle was no kind of re-run!
This Nelson Mandela a.k.a. terrorist a.k.a.
communist a.k.a. felon who had vowed to
resist violence with violence, to acknowl
edge respect with respect, and to confront
the catastrophe of time with total rebellion
against the waste and the weakening that
time entails, this same Mandela was re
turning to near-universal tribute and ac
claim: “His freedom,” a white man on the
radio declared, “is the moment the world
has been waiting for.”
No one would shoot Mandela. He had
outlived the usual meanings of mortality.
His resolute endurance of hard labor and
three decades of solitude and confinement
and love suspended and fatherhood
snatched away completely mocked the al
leged power of only death. You could
shoot Mandela but Mandela could not be
killed. He would not die. He would not
consent to that. We would not consent to
He had borne the unimaginable and so
he had become the unimaginable among
us: A brilliant, steady lover who will nei
ther fawn nor forgive nor forget. This was
the man South Africa had hoped to erad
icate. This was the life and the dignity that
apartheid means to efface. This was the
leader that stone and whips and censor
ship and stone and night after night of no
respite and no remnant caress and stone,
and the de facto annulment.of marriage,
the ridicule of desire, the torture of prin
cipled conviction, night after night after
night of stone and rock and lifting an ax
to the rock and smashing the rock for the
stone after stone, this was the leader the
lover-in-exile that nothing (not even age)
could diminish or destroy.
His voice is not deep. His words do not
roll and break, mellifluous. He reads from
pieces of paper blown by the wind. He hes
itates. The page will not turn. He waits.
He tries again. The page turns. He goes
He is not young. He does not move
easily, or fast. He stands tall. His arms rise,
effortless, to the clenched fist salute of
I am crying because I am overwhelmed by
victory: The cost is not forgivable. Tears
come from someplace uncontrollable
and free and right around now anything
uncontrollable and everything free looks
and feels pretty good to me. I am crying
because last week two white men accosted
me, calling me “Bitch!” and calling me
“Nigger!” and last week Mr. Nelson Man
dela was still locked away, a prisoner of
racist white men, and I was not sure about
the swift and certain demise of apartheid
but this morning I am sure. It’s over.
His victory is big news. Enemies of his freedom
have died or they will die or they
must welcome him. This is not about the
falling apart of the Berlin Wall. This is
white Western hegemony acceding to the
non-European future of the planet. You
cannot rule somebody who would rather
die than kneel. You cannot intimidate
somebody seeking his freedom or your
His victory is big news. This is an Af
rican black man who says, “I stand here
before you not as a prophet, but as a hum
ble servant of you, the people.” Mandela
is not a man of the cloth. The African Na
tional Congress is not the Church. Um-
khonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the
ANC that Mandela founded in 1960, sig
nified and continues to signify armed
struggle, here and now, for the kingdom
to come, here and now.
He personifies a secular revolt against
here and now violations of human rights.
He calls on no authority beyond the au
thority of the pain and the degradation of
living in black South Africa.
Mandela’s rhetoric avoids religious or
other abstract allusions. He remains spe
cific. He speaks a language appropriate to
a task-force committee meeting of actual
men and women. He proceeds, meticu
lous, in his matter-of-fact giving of thanks
to “Comrade Oliver Tambo” and to the
South African Communist Party and to
the South African white women of The
Black Sash and to “the mothers and the
wives and the sisters” and to his “beloved
wife and family” and to “the world com
munity” and he does not, anywhere, thank
Mandela bodies forth a humanist, dem
ocratic vision in which all human life oc
cupies the first and last position of con
cern. Human beings create tyrannous
conditions: Human beings must over
throw these tyrannies. His practical, prag
matic vocabulary does not accommodate
delusion or despair. His summoning forth
of “a democratic and free society in which
all persons live together in harmony and
with equal opportunities” resonates as
There is a man lifting his daughter high
above his own head so that she can see the
leader who believes she has the power to
be free. There is a young boy climbing the
rough hard wall of Capetown’s City Hall.
He never looks down and he never looks
behind him as he rises high enough to
glimpse Mandela just about to address a
world that wants to hear whatever he will
say. After twenty-seven years of silence
imposed by the innermost prisons of
South Africa, Mandela chooses this one
word from Xhosa, his native language:
He hurls the word into the darkness:
AMANDLA! (POWER!) And the standing
throng of 20,000 instantly responds:
NGWETHU! (IT IS OURS!) NGWETHU! (IT IS
OURS!). So be it.
THE PROGRESSIVE / 13
12 / APRIL 1990
June Jordan appears in this space every
other month. Her latest book, “Naming
Our Destiny: New and Selected Poems,” is
available from Thunder’s Mouth Press in
New York City.