Nelson Mandela Always Focused on Building a Better World for All

“As poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest... Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.” — Nelson Mandela

Hamba Kahle Nelson Mandela

by Jim Cason

When a friend of mine asked Nelson Mandela’s family how he would want to be remembered, the response was as a loyal member of the African National Congress and as a part of the broader movement.

Speaking at the 90th birthday for Walter Sisulu, one of his fellow inmates on Roben Island, Mandela declared, “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” Mandela made that difference in South Africa and around the world.

The Defiance Campaign

I only met Mandela twice in his lifetime, but his struggles, his actions and his words have inspired me for decades. I encourage you to read about the Defiance Campaign and the decades of struggle by the ANC and others before the 1960s to change their country through nonviolence. One group I was privileged to work with in the 1980s, the American Committee on Africa, was founded by civil rights activists (including the Quaker Bill Sutherland) who were inspired by the Defiance Campaign.

Tonight, I went back and read Mandela’s court statement during his treason trial in 1964 in which he recounts why the ANC felt it had to take up the armed struggle. For a picture of the man from this period, I also recommend the video of his first television interview which shows both Mandela’s brilliance and the ignorance of 1960s television journalists.

Mandela’s eloquence was lost on our own government. The United States continued to identify its economic and political interests as tied to the white minority government in South Africa — as was so eloquently expressed in the secret 1968 NSSM 39 to then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that concluded “the whites are here to stay.”

But inside South Africa, despite brutal repression, the ANC, the PAC, the Black Consciousness Movement, the expanding trade union movement and the broad United Democratic Front were building a movement to force change. A small group of progressive churches, working through the South African Council of Churches, also played an important role.

In our country, I was part of a generation inspired to act by the Soweto uprisings in the 1970s that built on the work of earlier generations. While the U.S. government was branding Mandela’s ANC as a “terrorist” organization and supporting South African-backed contra groups in southern Africa, the grassroots movement in this country was working to pressure not only the U.S. government but also the U.S. corporations that were benefiting from the apartheid regime.

I learned from Ben Magubane and from my friend Jennifer Davis that apartheid was also an economic system that allowed the super exploitation of the black majority for the profit of a small minority in South Africa and big corporations from Europe and the United States. Ultimately, it was the people around the United States working together through the churches, the unions and the divestment movement that forced Congress to override President Ronald Reagan’s veto and impose sanctions on South Africa.

The people of South Africa did the hard work to achieve their own freedom and that struggle has inspired me and millions of others around the world. What I also learned during that period is how much our own U.S. corporations benefited from the economic system called apartheid. When the corporations concluded they could no longer benefit from apartheid, they began to push the government for changes in the hope that they could shape future economic policies.

Mandela’s first trip to the U.S.

I was in London at a worldwide meeting of the “free Mandela Movement” on the weekend he was released from prison. We knew immediately that he would come to the United States and that his trip could be a great boost for the effort to achieve one person, one vote in South Africa.

We also suspected there would be many politicians and others who would seek to co-opt the Mandela image for their own purposes and try to go slow on the transition to a democratic South Africa.

A man holds the official program at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, held at the FNB Stadium in the Johannesburg, South Africa township of Soweto, on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. AP Photo by: Peter Dejong

 

The same corporations and governments that had supported the apartheid state would now begin to embrace the man they had helped to imprison and delay the goal of a free, non-racial South Africa. (Although their embrace only went so far — Mandela himself was on the U.S. terrorism watch list until 2008).

I think it was Little Steven Van Zandt, who with Danny Schechter put together the Sun City Project, who suggested the slogan for Mandela’s first trip to the U.S. should be: “Keep the Pressure on South Africa.” And so it was.

We helped organize events at Yankees Stadium, at Robert De Niro’s club (where Mandela focused on the former boxer Joe Frazier and not on Madonna and the other stars) and many other locations. Mandela understood the importance of meeting with local activists who had organized the divestment movement across the country.

He agreed to speak at an event for only 100 people (two from each state) organized for selected anti-apartheid movement activists from around the country who were the grassroots part of the movement. Mandela understood that these movement stalwarts were a key to the work that had gone on and needed to keep going on for South Africa to achieve one person, one vote in a unified state.

He returned to South Africa and, in 1994, became the first democratically elected president of that country. So much of the public narrative about Nelson Mandela focuses on his suffering in the years in prison, the brutal treatment he received and his preaching of reconciliation.

The world we seek

What inspires me is the continuing focus throughout his life on making a better world and his understanding that the movement for change was always going to be bigger than any one person.

For example, Mandela didn’t pretend that his own government had achieved what it set out to do. In his retirement speech, he talked about how, in his own country, “millions still bear the burden of poverty and insecurity.” Mandela wasn’t scared to talk about how the levels of poverty and racial inequality in South Africa today haven’t changed that much from when Mandela took office.

And his focus was not just on South Africa. When a U.S. president decided our country must invade Iraq because of the threat of weapons of mass destruction, Mandela was among those who recalled that the United States is the only country in the world to ever use weapons of mass destruction on a large scale. And asked to explain why President George Bush would invade Iraq, Mandela responded, “All he wants is Iraqi oil.”

Mandela never lost his focus on the better world he wanted to make. In 2005, speaking in Johannesburg, he said, “as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest… Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”

As our friends in Mozambique used to say, “La Luta Continua.”

Jim Cason is a staff member of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL).

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