The “funeralizing” of Nelson Mandela has ended. It was part MLK Day, part rock concert. Pundits, starlets and TV personalities fought for air-time to proclaim their nearness to the departed leader.
But, for some of us who marched outside the Chicago consulate of apartheid South Africa in the dead of winter in years gone by, Mandela is more. He was part of a nonracial African National Congress that promised not only political power, but also economic justice. The anti-apartheid struggle was only about campus divestment campaigns and denunciations of the white minority rule in the UN. We must remember that workers, especially mine workers, long demonstrated against the workplace color bar.
Nelson Mandela was an almost miraculous man. Above all, the transition to majority rule from 1990 to 1994 was peaceful. This is a magnificent testament to Mandela’s perseverance, tact and political acumen. However, by the time of his passing the wealth gap between the new black elite and masses has become a chasm.
South Africa may be well down the road traveled by so many African countries. We must remember that in 2005 Senator Barack Obama sharply criticized the corruption and cronyism of his father’s Kenya. In the 1960s the demand for land redistribution had been replaced by a demand that large estates once reserved for whites be opened up to “Big Men” like Jomo Kenyatta. Chinese foreign minister Zhou Enlai visited and remarked that Kenya was ripe for a second revolution. He was asked to leave.
And this is an interesting point. Mandela resembles not only MLK and Gandhi. The South African leader also has much in common with Sun Yat Sen, the now somewhat obscure, but saintly, founder of the Republic of China a century ago. Sun had suffered racism while leaving in the United States and spoke passionately of making the Chinese people masters in their own house. He was an avid Christian, but was equally avid for aid from Communist Russia before his death in 1925. (His wife rose high in the Communist Party; his sister in law was the wife of Chiang Khai-shek). Today both Nationalists and Communists revere the same man. A similar mythopoesis is occurring in South Africa. Mandela/Madiba, the founder-god, swathed in mystery as to his true intent, leaves his descendants a legacy they will bitterly contend.