In December, the international community came together seemingly unanimously to make a last reverence to South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela. At Mandela’s funeral, heads of states, religious leaders and eminent personalities gave great speeches that conveyed their deep respect for Mandela and the impact of his charisma on their personal life. Witnessing the international acclaim for Mandela was a very puzzling experience for me.
On one hand, I could not help but join the world in celebrating the greatness of a man full of compassion and humility. Mandela was living proof of the virtues of love and forgiveness we all talk about but struggle to actually practice in our lives. Although he spent 27 years of his life in prison for fighting a system that enforced white supremacy and dehumanized his people, Mandela found the strength and dignity to pardon his oppressors and advocate peace, unity and racial reconciliation. How could I not celebrate the life of such a great man?
On the other hand, I felt ashamed to be a product of the very “international community” that turned a blind eye to the injustice perpetrated against black people and other nonwhites in South Africa. It seems a bit hypocritical for Western powers to celebrate the life of a man whose ideals of freedom and justice they once criminalized. As Mandela fought the apartheid system and its blatant disregard of human rights in the 1950s, almost all major Western powers labeled him as a communist and made no attempt to support his cause. According to the BBC, the names of many former African National Congress leaders, including Mandela, remained on the U.S. terrorism watch list until 2008.
Certainly, one can compellingly argue that Mandela would not have been released from prison if the international community had not pressured the “white” South African government. Numerous South African goods were indeed boycotted in many countries in support of the “Free Mandela” campaign. In the United States, for instance, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 prohibited importing steel, iron and agricultural produce from South Africa and banned exports of computers or computer technology to or for use in South African national security agencies. Still, it is worth considering whether Western powers would have mobilized to demand the liberation of Mandela (a potential communist) if they hadn’t won the Cold War.
Whatever the case, Mandela’s passing is an opportunity to assess his legacy. Upon his release from prison in 1990, Mandela envisioned and endeavored to build a country in which all South Africans could live together in peace and enjoy the same political rights regardless of their race. As we celebrate his life, we must also acknowledge that some of his ideals have yet to be embraced by all South Africans. Interracial relationships and economic opportunities remain critical issues in the country. According to the 2013 SA Reconciliation Barometer, a public opinion poll conducted by the South African Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, almost 40 percent of South Africans do not interact with people of other races. South Africa’s economic prosperity — often presented in the mainstream media as a model for other African countries — hardly benefits all South Africans, particularly the Black minority, which accounts for roughly 77 percent of the population. In 2010, the World Bank estimated that the richest 20 percent of the South African population received roughly 68 percent of the wealth generated by the country, compared to 64 percent in 1990.
Our tribute to Nelson Mandela would be meaningless if we didn’t take a moment to reflect on our role in denouncing and fighting injustices in the world. Mandela’s life should be a source of inspiration to all of us. It forces us to ask ourselves difficult questions. What sacrifices are we willing to make for our beliefs and principles? How persistent are we in our fight for justice and equality in our schools, workplaces and communities? Just like Mandela, are we prepared to die for the values we stand for and the injustices we see? We may not be as tenacious as he was, but we must strive to be models of peace and justice wherever we are.
Stephane Nanga is a member of the Organization of African Students and a student at UC Berkeley.