There is a tendency in dominant discourses to make radical historical figures palatable to a larger public by showcasing only some of their views over others. This allows society to elevate these people to the status of a “hero” without internalizing the politics or issues they were advocating for. The way we see famous figures is an artifact of time. For one moment in time, Nelson Mandela, a man I continue to be fascinated by, was a radical and outcast. In another, he was lauded as an indispensable liberator of Black South Africans. Did Mandela fundamentally change as a person or simply how we saw him? Is it both?
To us, the moral legitimacy of a democratic South Africa with justice and equity for the millions of Black South Africans is self-evident from our seats in 2020. To some folks in the ‘80s, that was a world worth fighting against. Likewise, in that time Mandela transitioned from a villain for some to a hero for all.
While reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, I see the nuances of how his views, and the way he was perceived evolved with time. It’s challenging to tell the story of a leader’s life, with its temporal changes, nuances, and growth. The result is simply snippets that may be relevant for a given moment, puzzle pieces at best.
In autobiographies, figures tend to spend longer on their younger years, recognizing the role they played in shaping them. Before he was a revolutionary, he was the son of a chief from the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe, destined to be a counselor to tribal leadership. There was a time when he was aspiring to become a bureaucratic translator and dissuaded from political endeavours. However, he slowly found himself embedded in the political organization of the African National Congress, first through association, and then directly.
He was loyal to the cause of African Nationalism but initially resistant to cooperation as a means to achieve it. When speaking about his early activism, he shared “my idea at the time was that the ANC should only be involved in campaigns that the ANC itself led. I was more concerned with who got the credit than whether the campaign would be successful” (page 109). His perspective on this later shifted to the necessity for collaboration with different groups such as the Natal Indian Congress. This is just one example of many in which his views evolved over time.
In other instances, his views never altered but the world’s presentation of them did. Throughout his career, he maintained that “[A]frican nationalists and [A]frican communists [had] far more in common than dividing them” (page 121). Although he was primarily criticized for his work with communists during apartheid, his respect for their contribution is shoved under a rug when he is discussed in the 21st century. Similarly, protest in the present day climate is only respected by some if it meets the principles of peace, but activists like Nelson Mandela realized that “nonviolence was a tactic that should be abandoned when no longer worked” (page 272). For acting on this view, he served almost 30 years in prison. Nelson Mandela, as well as any revolutionary, deserves to be remembered for all that he stood for rather than only what is broadly appealing. I believe the complexity of time and context must play a fundamental role in adding nuance to the narratives we have about historical figures. The history of a person is not stagnant, it is a response to the turning dial of a clock.
Primary Source: Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela
A son of a chief
Strong and courageous
But he was so much more
He fought for African solidarity
His message broadcasted
Yet still a little unheard
His image deserves more than 2 dimensions
We must look a little deeper, listen a little longer
Because there is always more to the story
He stood for ideas not everyone got behind
Your enemy is not my enemy
Only collective action seeds success
Violence may be necessary
To bring everyone to the table
Poverty does not need pity
Poverty needs justice
Freedom from poverty is a right
Racism does not fade with time
Unless you do something about it
Do not mold a great man
Into one everyone can see as great
When he speaks, you listen
When he leads, you follow
When he bleeds, you forget
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.
After climbing a great hill, one only finds
that there are many more hills to climb.”
Labeled as violent terrorist and peacemaker,
Contradictory terms marked with
The waves of time.