Nelson Mandela: the last giant of our times is gone

Rare is the revolutionary hero who does not betray his own by a “drift to authenticity” known as tyranny

Abdallah Schleifer
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Rare is the revolutionary hero who lives so long – think of Trotsky who did not, struck down at the age of 60 in Mexico by a Stalinist assassin, or Che Guevara, whose global revolutionary vision was so out of favour with the Russians who were propping up the Cuban revolutionary state, that he would leave Havana and die as a failed guerrilla-leader, after being hunted down in a South American jungle.

Rare is the revolutionary hero who does not betray his own by a “drift to authenticity” known as tyranny (think of Fidel) or welcoming it with open arms (think of Lenin and Mao), who displayed tyranny laced by paranoia -think of Stalin - revolutionary heroes who lived long enough to become utterly corrupt (think of the bottom line to so many brief heroes of African, Arab and Latin American revolutions).


Nelson Mandela lived long - for 95 years - and was neither tyrannical nor corrupt. To the contrary, he became a symbol of decency and reconciliation in the last three decades of his life, literally stretching his hand out across that bleak terrain known as apartheid to clasp the hand of the last white President of that now unthinkable, almost inconceivable social system that Mandela had devoted a lifetime to overthrow.

Symbolic triumph

For at the symbolic if not actual moment of triumph, released from prison in February 1990 at the age of 71, after 27 years serving out a life sentence for organizing acts of sabotage and conspiring to overthrow the Apartheid regime - which indeed he had done.

Mandela then entered into direct negotiations with South Africa’s President F.W. de Klerk. De Klerk, who had committed publically to phase out the minority-white racist rule over the disenfranchised and segregated black African majority, would eventually share the Nobel prize with Mandela.

For the younger-than-I generations who think about South Africa, Mandela was the Great Reconciler and always moderating force, but in fact he was also a revolutionary, who, in despair, abandoned non-violent resistance

Abdallah Schleifer

But the actual triumph would come two years later, after difficult negotiations over a interim constitution finally led to free elections in 1994 and a majority for Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC).

And it was all these noble qualities of Mandela (he was the son of an African tribal chief), the ability to eventually “forgive and forget” the atrocities and humiliations inflicted upon the black Africans, that set into place that extraordinary moment when the end of exclusivist white rule was neither the product of a bloodbath nor leading to a blood- bath.

So for the younger-than-I generations who think about South Africa, Mandela was the Great Reconciler and always moderating force, but in fact he was also a revolutionary, who, in despair, abandoned non-violent resistance.

Change of tactic

Mandela’s pronounced change of tactic came after the Sharpesville Massacre, when South African security forces opened deadly fire on a non-violent mass demonstration (ironically not organized by the ANC but by its more radical rival - the far smaller Pan African Congress, that had split off from the ANC.)

So Mandela, who was not yet the President of the ANC, became commander-in-chief of the ANC guerrilla wing. The wing’s armed actions, again reflecting Mandela’s combination of decency and pragmatism, were initially acts of sabotage rather than terrorism (attacks on civilians), but increasing repression from authorities convinced him that all-out guerrilla warfare was the only available response.

He was a revolutionary as well as the Reconciliator (and I am not capitalizing that title with any sarcastic intent - that was what he would inevitably become and a major source of his greatness).

I never met Mandela, but in the early sixties I interviewed two of his deputies in Rabat, Morocco. I was a very occasional, freelance correspondent for Pacifica Radio, a very independent, almost iconoclastic radio” network” (stations in New York and San Francisco). The ANC maintained an important liaison office in Rabat. Algeria had just achieved independence, so Rabat played a role that would be soon and more boldly be assumed by Algiers as a haven for the African Revolution.

Fellow revolutionaries

At that moment I was sort of shuttling back and forth between Tangiers –which was a sort of watering hole for the literary movement known as the Beat Generation which I identified with, and Havana –which was of course the watering hole of choice in the early sixties for Latin American revolutionaries and North American would-be revolutionaries (a far smaller contingent.)

In those years, while the ANC had a small number of individual white sympathizers and even members, from its beginnings the ANC was committed to a multi-racial society, and theoretically was itself a multi-racial organization, in those times, the only organized movement of white South Africans in alliance with the ANC was the Communist Party.

Back then, Mandela, had a picture of Lenin on his walls and his speeches were sprinkled with Marxist formula – to such a degree that more three decades later, when Mandela described the political system that would replace the white supremacy regime, he described it, however positive his tone, as a “bourgeois democracy” which is a formula that only a Marxist or someone at home with Marxist rhetoric (like me, at that moment in Rabat some 50 or so years ago) would use.

Guerrilla group

When I interviewed Mandela’s two deputies in Rabat they told me about their newly-formed guerrilla group -“Spear of the Nation” (Umkhonto we Sizwe).

My contribution to the Revolution, which was worthy of someone whose first job out of university with a Madison Avenue advertising agency was the design of a very simple dramatic drawing of an African warrior shield with an spear running vertically and upward through it. The simplicity of the symbol meant that it could be quickly scrawled in chalk onto a wall by ANC militants.

I have no idea if the Umkhonto we Sizi (then training clandestinely in Tanzania for eventual infiltration back into South Africa) ever used it but Mandela was the commander of the guerrillas and so his name was fixed in my mind as some sort of radical socialist revolutionary.

In fact he had been deeply impressed by British parliamentary institutions, and the South African state he would eventually take over and reshape as its first black President, with a black, predominantly ANC majority in parliament was not socialist.

In the years that followed, years when so much of his effort was taken up in establishing the very racial reconciliation that spared South Africa from chaos, the social-economic situation of Black South Africans -aside from a relatively small elite and middle class- has not significantly improved.

Signs of nobility

But the financial situation of many of the ANC leadership that clustered around Mandela and to whom he passed on power certainly has. One of the signs of nobility, which Mandela epitomized, is concern for the poor and the weak, and I cannot but think that he must have been deeply troubled in his last years by the ongoing deprivation of most black South Africans.

For me, Nelson Mandela was the last great man alive during the World War II era and the subsequent Cold War generations of great leaders: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and the aura of JFK, if not for his short-lived performance, and if we can detach greatness from moral value, Stalin, Hitler and Mao. Now Mandela is gone.

And if at this very moment my eyes are tearing up, it is probably as much for myself, my sentimental memories of meeting with his deputies in Rabat half a century ago, and my meditation at this moment upon death, as they are tearing up for Nelson Mandela. May he rest in peace.

Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya's Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary "Control Room" and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem.”

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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