Update: Nelson Mandela passed away on Dec. 5 at the age of 95. Earlier this year, Julie MacArthur, an assistant professor in UBC’s Department of History, considered Mandela’s legacy.
Nelson Mandela has been called “Africa’s Lincoln”. Can you comment on his legacy?
For me, Mandela’s legacy will be multiple, as his life and very name embodied the tensions and contradictions of his time – from his first name, Nelson, after a British Naval hero, to his last name and clan nickname, Mandela and Madiba respectively, both harkening back to his royal Thembu lineage. And between these two names Rolihlahla, literally to pull the branches of a tree, in other words, a troublemaker.
He sounded the bell, over and over again, from voicing the urgency of fighting apartheid right from the start in the founding if the ANC Youth League with longtime colleagues and comrades Oliver Thambo and Walter Sisulu to leading the shift to violent resistance in the 1960s and then back again as the architect of reconciliation. Even after apartheid, Mandela continued to shake the tree, being an early voice in the fight against AIDS on the continent.
His main legacy, though, will be in the domain not of the economic or even the political but rather of the ethical. Mandela articulated a new world vision, he called on everyone, not just South Africans, to examine their consciences and connect with their common humanity. He provided a model for the elder African statesman, so rarely followed. He became, in some ways, what he feared most: a symbol, an illusive image onto which humanity projected their greatest hopes. He became a secular, global icon. And while some will ask if the cost of reconciliation was social justice, in his measured and mindful manner, Mandela encouraged an intellectual engagement, a collective engagement in politics, in governance, in social discourse.
What response do you expect to see coming from South Africa after Nelson Mandela’s death?
South Africans have a long history of approaching death, and particularly the funerals that follow, as moments of self-reflection and social critique. During the 1970s and 80s, at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, funerals became the sites of massive demonstrations against the state. These performances of subaltern politics reflected not only the deep, personal pain and violence of this era but also the power of the collective and commitment to remembrance.
I expect to see this tradition continued, to see South Africans come out and express their grief over the loss of a great leader, one of many lost, to remember, to celebrate but also to reflect.
Is there the potential for unrest in the region?
There is always potential, anywhere in the world, and particularly with the intrusive and at times absurd media coverage of Mandela’s illness and final days, weeks, perhaps even months. Even at its end, Mandela’s life has been marked by struggle. But this question reflects a much deeper, more troubling trend – the western liberal fear of black violence.
Since the 1990s, Mandela has been pictured as the only dam holding back an inevitable tide of black violence from engulfing South Africa. When the ANC leader and popular anti-apartheid hero Chris Hani was assassinated in 1993, similar alarms were raised. And it was Mandela who reached out to all South Africans to be reticent in the face of further violence and to remember what Hani was fighting for: freedom for all. And yet, Mandela himself refused to be labeled as a messiah, to be heralded as the only stopgap against mass, and specifically black, violence. This image does a great disservice not only to Mandela but also to the collective that he championed.
What sort of South Africa would Nelson Mandela leave behind?
Mandela leaves South Africa as another generational shift, of which he represented and witnessed several, is taking shape. We now are on the brink of the first generation born without ever knowing apartheid coming of age – and this with one of the youngest populations of any nation, with more than 50% under the age of 24. The ANC is fracturing, really for the first time in its 100-year history. But South Africa remains a regional economic and political powerhouse, despite growing social inequalities. It remains a nation with deep wounds and even deeper divides, and yet a nation nonetheless.