Nelson Mandela's death is the best thing to happen to politicians everywhere. In death, he's frozen in history as St. Nelson, posing with every political hack and minor pop star whose PR advisers had enough clout to get them in the same room as him.
Here's the son of a notorious racist and some manufactured corporate pop stars getting their moment.
Here's the Prime Minister posing with the world's favourite grandpa, with his twinkling eyes and lovely sense of humour:
Last night I watched Richard Branson almost claim that Mandela couldn't have done it without him. Louise Mensch is currently tweeting that Nelson Mandela was never a socialist.
Even Elle fashion magazine feels that it has to communicate its deep sense of loss amidst its usual parade of banality (let's not be so cruel as to calculate the white/black ratio in its pages):
Meanwhile everybody on Twitter, especially those with a public profile, are calling him 'Madiba', as though they spent the last 40 years in that prison cell with him, or storming the barricades with the ANC. Sorry: unless you're a black South African, a comrade or a personal friend, it's Mr Mandela to you.
Because let's face it: Nelson Mandela is no longer a real person. He's hyperreal. He's become a brand, an icon, a signifier. Now he's dead, he's anybody's property. Take David Cameron, for instance.
while the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, called Nelson Mandela a 'grubby little terrorist'. She wasn't alone, either:
'This hero worship is very much misplaced'- John Carlisle MP, on the BBC screening of the Free Nelson Mandela concert in 1990And of course there's conservative satirist Kingsley Amis, who once remarked that the situation was easily resolved: 'You should shoot as many blacks as possible.'
The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation ... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land' - Margaret Thatcher, 1987
'How much longer will the Prime Minister allow herself to be kicked in the face by this black terrorist?' - Terry Dicks MP, mid-1980s
'Nelson Mandela should be shot' - Teddy Taylor MP, mid-1980s
But the point of history and politics when it reaches the public sphere is that the facts don't matter nearly so much as the battle over the airwaves. It's back to Karl Rove's statement about politicians 'creating new realities'. Celebrities and politicians (and us) can flood the media with platitudinous statements of sorrow and we'll forget what they really did and said. And we all get that little bit thicker, lazier and more dishonest.
It's not fair to Nelson Mandela. He wasn't a saint. He wasn't a god. He wasn't perfect (though he got closer than most). Putting him on a pedestal is dishonest partly because it makes him fair game for the opportunists I've mentioned above, but most importantly because it denies the complicated realities of what he did and what we all did. He shouldn't be turned into an all-purpose photo opportunity for people on the make. David Cameron shouldn't be allowed to cuddle up to him without question, Richard Branson shouldn't be allowed to claim him for capitalism. Louise Mensch certainly shouldn't be able to claim, unchallenged, that he was 'above' politics: this is a man who ruled in coalition with the Communist Party of South Africa.
You just know that whenever anyone rudely asks Tony Blair about all the kidnappings and deaths, or mentions tax evasion to Bono, these elitist capitalist shills scowl and then brighten as they pull out their mobile phones and point to one number. 'I'm on the side of progress', they'll say, 'I've got Nelson's phone number'.
Instead, let's deal with some hard truths. Nelson Mandela was a terrorist. He was a non-state actor using violence to advance a political cause. Now, I've seen some people last night using the defence 'OK, but he changed'. WRONG. The proper response should be 'Yes, he was a terrorist. Good'. But that means that we'd all have to engage in a little thinking beyond 'terrorists bad'. Nelson Mandela used violence against a state which used greater violence against his people. He never renounced this: when negotiating his release from prison, he refused to commit to non-violence, qute rightly.
Another example. I remember very clearly the flag-waving in Northern Ireland. At football matches, nationalist and republican supporters would fly the Irish tricolour, Palestinian and ANC flags. The unionists and loyalists flew Union flags, Israeli and apartheid South African flags.
|1980s ANC/IRA mural|
Distastefully opportunistic and reductive of multiple conflicts you might say, but it's pretty clear that the IRA got it right and the loyal subjects of the crown got it wrong. The nationalists saw themselves as native peoples oppressed by settlers, the unionists saw themselves as superior bringers of civilisation now encircled and threatened by uppity natives incapable of running their own lives. The IRA, it seems, helped train the ANC's armed wing and carried out bombings for them, and Mandela – despite the cuddly persona – didn't think they should have decommissioned their weapons.
I've also been listening to news reports and interviews in which apartheid South Africa is presented as a uniquely horrible country, isolated from the international community which was merely waiting for it to catch up with civilised standards of behaviour. This too is a massive lie. Segregation in the United States was legal until the 1950s and still operates in practice. Australia had an official policy of banning non-white immigration, the 'White Australia' doctrine which wasn't overturned until 1966, and that country's current rules don't look much different. New Zealand was little better. Let's not forget, either, that apartheid didn't come from nowhere. South Africa was a British territory until 1931 and had a British Governor-General until 1961. Apartheid was merely the most recent legal system of racial separation, with plenty of British precedents.
Apartheid South Africa wasn't a pariah state. While you and I boycotted South African oranges, sherry, cricket teams and the British banks which invested there, it was a full member of the capitalist side in the Cold War. Aided by the French and the Israelis (who saw the apartheid regime as spiritual allies) in the 1970s, it built a nuclear weapons programme in case of Soviet attack, and was treated as a bulwark against communism by NATO. In return for remaining anti-communist, the South African racists were allowed to do whatever they wanted to their black population (many of whom consequently became communists, including Nelson Mandela). The US Navy had military bases there and President's from Kennedy to Nixon and Ford, then Reagan preferred apartheid South Africa to free South Africa.
Former President Ronald Reagan told CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite that if the United States could negotiate with Russia it could surely continue to negotiate "with a friendly nation like South Africa" that "strategically is essential to the free world in its production of minerals."Dick Cheney even voted against a resolution calling for Mandela's release from prison.
All very complicated. I'm not going to tell you what to think. But I do insist that you do think. Look at the rightwing newspapers canonising Mandela today: they don't want you to remember what they said about him, the ANC and black South Africans back then. Nor do the politicians, nor the celebrities who don't really know who Mandela is, but whose PR agents have told them that they should say nice things about him.
Nelson Mandela has become a shell to be filled with idealised, dishonest and mendacious perspectives of opportunists. Now he's dead, it'll be even easier. We owe it to him and to history to make it more difficult to appropriate him for any cause, position and ideology. If we see him as a complex man, who held unfashionable and inconvenient opinions, who changed his mind multiple times, who didn't fit into the Madiba mould of the world's kindly grandpa, then we retain a history which is ambiguous, unresolved and much more interesting. More importantly, it's honest - a commodity in short supply this morning.
Forget Saint Nelson. Welcome – and remember – Nelson Mandela: terrorist, communist, lover, President and flawed human being. He's a much greater man than the one they're talking about on the news.