Mandela mystification; give it noble purpose (Dimetros Birku)

Mandela is all over the media and the way events leading to final resting is being exploited is bothersome that it is hard to avoid venting out thought. In fact, there is a different reason to pay tribute too. Presumably, by this time most of us know that Ethiopia was one of the inspirational spots in Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom.”

This past week Ethiopian veteran Fekadu Wakene , now 77, who was entrusted with providing military training to Mandela recounted what Mandela’s month long intensive military training was like in Ethiopia in the early 1960’s. Mandela himself fondly remembered his attachment to Ethiopia in his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom.”

After his release from prison, Ethiopia was one of the first countries that Mandela visited. Former Ethiopian president Mengistu Hailemariam remembered Mandela’s visit to Ethiopia in his recent interview with the Amharic service of SBS radio and that $100,000 cheque was issued to Mandela to help cover some of his travel expenses. Needless to say, what Ethiopia tried to do to Mandela was because of what Mandela stood for and was meant to be helping influence change in South Africa. The purpose here is not to give a narrative of Ethiopia’s contribution to the struggle of South Africans for freedom.The purpose is to inquire the purpose of mystification of Mandela; .

Mourning and celebration, as two opposite acts, barely coincide. Probably, Mandela’s send-off is unprecedented event and was dominated by celebration rather than mourning. The question is what is the purpose of celebrating Mandela’s endurance of the long and tenacious walk to freedom, and his reconciliatory efforts? Is the celebration consciously handled with a long-term objective of bringing more freedom to South Africans?

Besides media noise to exploit this remarkable time in South Africa’s history to create, apparently, ‘false consciousness’, what is celebrated about Mandela’s life and times, and what should rather be celebrated could be a matter prone to divergent opinion even among people with real passion and respect to Mandela’s achievement as a political leader who has undergone torture and nearly three decades of incarceration.

Mandela was successful in combining revolutionary political qualities like defiance with a not so revolutionary qualities like diplomacy and forgiveness. Apparently, all qualities have played a part in the negotiation process which resulted in his release from prison and the creation of today’s South Africa. Yet, his humility is as remarkable as the rest of his qualities as a political leader. I have a feeling that Mandela would not be too happy with the mystification of his life. In fact, he is quoted as saying: “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” Let historians dig what the failures were as they are relevant for the next phase of struggle and focus on those qualities which can not be disputed at all.

With skillful leadership of Mandela and his comrades, South Africa managed to leave behind institutionalized racial oppression. That is quite an achievement. However, the economic form of repression in a country as resourceful as South Africa and the misery it has created for quite considerable portion of the South African society should not be forgotten for a moment. More so, the potential of economic injustice to transform itself into political injustice need to be underscored. Just a year ago in “free South Africa,” about 34 mining workers were brutally killed at Marikana in much the same way like the years of Apartheid. Jacob Zuma’s administration has indulged itself in another shameful act when it donated $2 billion dollars to the international monetary institutions while there are quite considerable slum dwellers South Africa. Economic exploitation is going on.Clearly, the struggle is far from being over.

Mystification and apostolic view to the life and career of Mandela is only desirable if the purpose is creation of many more Mandelas who are capable of continuing the struggle to create a just society in all its forms. If, in the contrary, the mystification of Mandela is not creating more determination, and if it is projected in a way, deliberately or otherwise, to take away political consciousness and make the generation sleep in the rhetoric of reconciliation, I am afraid the project will do more harm to South Africans than benefiting them.

Yes, reconciliation is something to be valued but the burden of the cost of reconciliation should not be on the section of South African majority which has been victim of years and years of racial and economic oppression. If the “freedom” image being projected now in the media is taken in its face value, and if the false consciousness is further rooted deep, its negative repercussion in the consciousness of this and the oncoming African generation is huge –both within and outside of South Africa.

The way forward is justice in all its forms. To relate justice with a rule of law where business interests of minority wealthy class is privileged at the cost of the majority poor will not ultimately help the much talked about reconciliation.  Scrutinize the rhetoric of “progress” and how it will help the country, not just few individuals. As such struggle should begin with self; with one’s own conscience. A freedom fighter with conscience and with the ability to multiply the number of freedom fighters by “leading from behind,” as Mandela is quoted to have said, is capable of creating a strong movement. And strong movement will finally win.

By Dimetros Birku
Writer can be reached on twitter @dimetros

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