When I was a kid, my father used to tell me that one day, we black people would take over South Africa and get all of its gold and diamonds and we'd be so strong and powerful that white people all over the world would repsect and fear us. That idea stayed in my head, unaltered for so long that I found myself lying about it for no reason in high school. I told one of my prep schoolmates that I had been to Cape Town. I hadn't of course, but I had imagined myself there with a house overlooking the city. There's a lot of fantastic romance surrounding Nelson Mandela and South Africa. So all the foof around his death is familiar to me.
I happen to be one of those oinks who had pictures on my bedroom wall of ANC propaganda. When I was in my late twenties and I read my first Noam Chomsky and Amnesty International, I decided to try to educate myself about something other than what went on here. I chose not only South Africa, continuing from collegiate shenanigans but Southern Africa, specifically Namibia. But that was oh so long ago. I tried to understand the world uranium trade and imagined myself living in Windhoek in that country, dominated by South Africa, as large as California on the other side of the planet. I remember paying specific attention to the Harare Accords and the UN Convention on Racism and actually spent a lot of time thinking about what foothold racism got in America because the Declaration of Independence, unlike the Harare Accords, didn't speak out explicitly on matters of racist offense. Before I wised up, my like of thought was this:
So how could we, in principle, create a document that exclaims loudly against racism, as the Declaration of Independence did against Monarchy. What goes into creating an Anti-Racist Manifesto? Incidentally, that is what brought me, the second time around to the Harare Accords. If I were a legal scholar, I might ask myself, comparatively speaking, which set of laws between that of the new South African Constitution, which includes significant language from the Harare Accords, and our own system and amendments is more completely anti-racist. I would actually include the new Germany as well as several other nations. I suspect that theoretically speaking, South Africa beats us, considering as I have, some of the work of Kimberle Crenshaw, Linn Washington, Patricia J. Williams and Judge Higgenbotham. Of course, I'm not a legal scholar and am unfamiliar with the details of the South African legal system. However I am aware of the UN Treaty on Racial Discrimination and I know that the U.S. did not become a signer until about 1996. I also recognize that you can go to jail in America for holding up a 7-ll for 50 dollars, but not for firing somebody because you think he's a nigger. We have no criminal law for racism. You can be a capital R racist and run for office in America's form of democracy, because America's form of democracy is compatible with racism. But notice you cannot run for King. You cannot run for president of the supreme Soviet. So I ask you, what is a bigger threat to democracy? Monarchy, Communism or Racism? We've lived with racism longer than with Communism or Monarchy?
I read both books by Mark Mathabene, Wood's biography of Stephen Biko and had a typical Western attraction to the work of Gordimer. Once upon a time, I followed the wars in Angola and could tell you where Cuban troops were fighting and on whose side. I think people forget the extraordinary mashup of international interests and mercenary actions in those days, but how about these words UNITA and Jonas Savimbi. Do you remember if we were for him or against him and why? I could recite the names of various South African leaders and movements, and on my own, I tried to send money to MK, the radical militant terrorist wing of the African National Congress. I discovered, fortunately not the hard way, that sending money to opposition parties in foreign countries is seriously frowned on by the State Department, and you really don't want to be on their list as someone supporting militant operators abroad. So I attempted to satisfy myself by attending solidarity rallys and seminars and such.
None of those activities were satisfying. It was the same combination of liberal bourgeios condescention (poodle lady money), ignorant anger (x-hat illiterates), community organization (hold that sign a little higher for the cameras please), professorial woolgathering, four or five attractive Peace Corps volunteers, Oxfam expatriates and diligence-doing grad students trolling for policy wonk creds, and of course the crowd. Nobody really knows anything for certain, the details are more complex than anybody wants to admit and there are about 30 agendas going on. As for me, half the time I was actually trying to find a good book recommendation, the other half I was just trying to spot the narc or a cute chick in dreads. I wish we had the internet back then. Now we do and the situation is no better.
A lot of people talk about the squishiness of the term 'freedom fighter'. I've never met a Progressive American who likes to talk against GWBush's definition of terrorist vis a vis freedom fighters that are willing to acknowledge that Americans who want to buy guns in defense of their Constitutional rights are freedom fighters too.
You can't really be familiar with Nelson Mandela if you're not aware of his rocky relationship with his wife, Winnie. And while its fairly common knowledge that she was arrested for her involvement with the beat down of some kid named Stompie and her advocacy for necklacing. I understood that vibe completely, I know how black activists get when they discover that black plainclothes cops have been attending their teach-ins. They want to kill the race-traitors. Winnie had that power and she used it, whom are we kidding?
I liked MK more than the mainstream ANC. I was rather all-in from my distance. When it came to the elections, I didn't necessarily want them to win. I was one of those who wanted the country to be renamed to Azania, because I was hip like that. Yes of course I was one of those geeks who could name more than five townships and could sing Xhosa lyrics to my favorite Miriam Mikeba songs and had all that Sarafina! jazz in my mixtapes and talked about how wimpy, yet beautify LBM were when they sang. After all, they were Christians, not true freedom fighters. When it came to the ANC, I preferred Thabo Mbeki over Joe Slovo. But because I had ingested so much of those politics and culture, it didn't come to me as any possible surprise that there were dirty doings in the details. So while a lot of Americans were priding themselves on know how to do the Toi Toi dance or sing Nkosi Sikelele Afrika, at some point the whole thing became like discussing American politics from the perspective of interpreting a Public Enemy record. Just more radical chic.
When Mandela came to Los Angeles, I think I went to one of the events. I don't remember precisely. What I do remember was that I got my Pan=African red black and green flag from a vendor who made it in South Africa. Along with the posters in my bedroom, it was my outward sign for a long time. When I moved to Hermosa Beach and went to hang out on the and play volleyball, I would stick the little palm sized flag onto my beach chair so that I could easily be found.
Have you ever gotten very sick or had somebody close to you die and noted the difference between the people who send you 'best wishes' and those who say 'you are in my prayers'? Sometimes of us want the best wishes, and some of us want the prayers. That's how I view the sentiments towards Mandela, a whole lot of best wishes and prayers waiting for a post-facto testimony to the power of positive thinking. I actually did want to see some blood, but I wanted to have some cool music as well, and I think I was about as connected as it's legally possible to be and not be a part of a university department or government liason office.
Then of course there was trade. And I have gotten into debates about how Dick Cheney and George P. Schultz, two men I admire a great deal, went contrary to the popular best wishes and prayers for Mandela when it came to the Boycott movement. I went back and forth about Reagan's policy of Constructive Engagement, and finally decided not to care. And to this day I think it is the most compelling of the stories I have, at my silly distance to the power politics of nation building.
You see while Mandela was still in jail, South Africans were drinking CocaCola. Now if you wanted to boycott the Nationalist Party, you would want to support a ban on all trade and starve the people of American goods, so that internal political pressure would be brought to bear. And similarly it would go for other American companies. But on the same list of American companies that, according to us anti-apartheid activists, should not be doing business with South Africa would be Boeing. So should South Africans be forced to ride on less safe aircraft while Boeing is restricted from selling parts or providing maintenance? Or should the policy make special loopholes? And what should we do about those companies like Coca Cola who, here in the US, have one of the best Affirmative Action programs in the world? Wouldn't they be more likely to hire blacks than the native companies? Some of the hardliners said whatever, the point is that evil Reagan is supporting American Businesses, and the Sullivan Principles really don't go to the heart of the matter and we're really just finding a way to split the difference because none of this is going to overcome the obstinance of DeKlerk. So they concluded the reverse. We should just keep doing business as usual with South Africa so that the blacks there can see that all of the White Power Strucutures in the world are doing business with the Nationalist Party, and that will bring the revolution even sooner.
The whole thing should have taught me earlier the limits of democracy and activism. Well, it kinda did, which is why I was hoping for some militant solutions. I had no doubt that Inkhata and those Zulus would have some cans of whoopass while those like Mbeki would be all diplomatic with the Europeans.
Personally, I prefered Stephen Biko and I have come to unabashedly admire his style of leadership. We here in the US have that same idea in the form of the aphorism "There's no limit to what you accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit". Mandela today is getting all the credit. I can't honestly say what he did before he went to jail. It didn't seem to matter. After all, here in the US, lots of people could outthink MLK, but MLK was the one who could draw the crowds - the figurehead of a movement whose actions were well understood by 100 more on the ground and unknown around the world. Mandela in jail became Morgan Freeman before there was a Morgan Freeman. Grandaddy. Godfather.
I don't know what's going on in South Africa and I don't much care. I like the South Africans I know, but they're all here and must be here for a reason. I've read a bit by Thomas Sowell and he gave a lot of interesting background on Jews and Indians in South Africa, people whose roles we Americans never pay attention to. Whatever happened if South Africa, I cannot imagine that Americans can take much credit or blame outside of our foreign policy of Contstructive Engagement, and I'm not sure at all on how to judge its worth or effect. As I said, even here, we were all over the place on it and its complications amounted to.. well I don't know. Were they wishes or prayers?
Kant's Categorical Imperative says, if I remember it correctly, that you can judge a person based upon their moral sentiments which we intuitively and inherently know to be good or evil. So I suspect that's what a lot of the second guessing is all about. We were all morally right. We wanted to see blacks in South Africa achieve self-rule, and our sentiments and gesundheits for the late lamented Mandela are our outward signs to show that our hearts were in the right place. I think he was heroic, but I also think he was more ready to go to war than a lot of Americans like to remember. My guess is that South Africa is poorly run and that it took about three weeks for the newly elected people to realize how to redirect the grift - that the black masses have still not truly achieved self-rule.
We're all good people and we say gesundheit as a matter of good manners. It takes more than good manners and recognition of good manners to achieve and sustain freedom.