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Saying goodbye to Nelson Mandela

Mandela was a visionary freedom fighter who knew how to inspire supporters and enemies alike.

Last Modified: 25 Jun 2013 12:46
Danny Schechter

News Dissector Danny Schechter edits MediaChannel.org. He is the author of The Crime of Our Time.
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Mandela transcended the limits of race and showed the world that a righteous and well organised popular movement could not be denied [Al Jazeera]

The clock is ticking down Nelson Mandela's life. The latest news is not good. His condition is now said to be critical. Doctors in intensive care have downgraded their "stable but serious" diagnosis. Members of his family may have paid their final visits this past weekend. 

The 94-year-old former political activist turned prisoner turned president is suffering from the infirmities of his age and a lung condition he contracted in prison that weakened his system. He has defied the odds in living as long as he has, but no one lives forever. 

His voice is still, but it seems like the whole world is crying out for him. A well-known Southern African singer told me that on a recent visit to Spain, she was asked repeatedly how he is doing. There's no doubt that the "Madiba magic" that moved South Africa also touched the world, a world that supported his country's fight for freedom. 

He has said what he had to say and done what he had to do. His legacy is secure, in part, because of the integrity and sacrifice he was known for. He transcended the limits of race and showed the world that a righteous and well organised popular movement could not be denied. 

The movement he helped build had four spokes - mass organising in the townships, an army of trained guerilla fighters based outside the country, diplomatic initiatives at the UN and a grassroots international solidarity campaign. The "Free Mandela" activism inspired economic sanctions, as well as bank and cultural boycotts to pressure the apartheid regime and its many supporters overseas. 

A very long walk

Many in South Africa are ready to let him go, but some in the white community who never supported him now fear a wave of retaliationand recrimination from a people, who in their majority live a life of economic apartheid with many still jobless and poor.  

S Africans wait anxiously for news about Nelson Mandela

The scenario of imminent doom may only play with a fringe minority, while other journalists debate and discuss life after Mandela. Al Jazeera reports the media is on a deathwatch.

"Local and international journalists spent the day outside the two entrances to the Pretoria hospital where Mandela was believed to be. Security guards had been posted at the entrances. More than 10 broadcast vans were there. Some journalists had erected small tents and others had generators. Passers-by stopped to ask about Mandela."

But as all the attention is on the man and his condition, what else needs to be said about what he could not accomplish in part because of  pressure from the wealthy elite who still control the country's economy? Mandela triumphed politically - but economically he was obviously constrained by powerful self-interested forces. 

Mandela has already confessed to some of his personal flaws and has always said he was not a saint or a saviour. South Africa's Daily Maverick columnist Justin McCarthy wrote

"Anyone who believes Madiba to be flawless and above reproach is naïve in the extreme. Every leader is forced to compromise at some point - tough decisions have to be made that may conflict with one's own ideals, but serve those of the collective body one represents.  These ideological clashes are common, but it doesn't necessarily mean that one betrays one's integrity. It is precisely this acute integrity that Madiba displayed on each occasion he was called upon to take tough positions…. In simple terms, he walked the walk." 

Yes, he did walk that walk - and a very long walk it was as he describes in his own Long Walk To Freedom - but along the way, he seemed better at coping with his very public enemies among the Afrikaner supremacists than the economic guardians who ruled the country from the shadows and played a much more seductive game. 

Ronnie Kasrils, who fought in the underground under Mandela's command and went on to become the Minister of Intelligence, has just written a new introduction to his autobiography Armed and Dangerous

He raises questions about Mandela's role in endorsing conservative neo-liberal economic policies that made it impossible for his government to honour its pledge to end poverty. He writes: 

"History will judge whether we lost a golden opportunity to press on then rather than make the concessions we did regarding economic control.

It has become a debatable issue whether Mandela and his economic advisers buckled under pressure from the IMF and corporate business to follow a 'prudent' economic course.

… I do not want to be self-serving here. I was as guilty as others in focusing on my own responsibilities and government portfolios and leaving the economic issues to the ANC experts."

This mea culpa and the questions it poses are likely to be buried in the outpouring grief and tributes that will follow the death of the man who everyone calls Madiba, his clan name, or "Tata" (father).

Visionary freedom fighter

He was the father of South Africa's democracy and a visionary freedom fighter who knew how to inspire supporters and enemies alike. He has been the symbolic glue that has kept his country together, at least in the eyes of the world, even as economic pain and corruption let down many of his most fervent supporters.

The South Africa Mandela envisioned and fought for dramatically changed the environment, taking the edge off the race war that threatened for so many years. While not transforming all the structural inequities, it did lead to a democratic government with constitution, perhaps the most advanced in the world that defends human rights. 

Anyone who believes Madiba to be flawless and above reproach is naïve in the extreme.

Justin McCarthy, Daily Maverick 

As a leader, Mandela took on unpopular causes, became a global advocate for HIV/AIDS sufferers and spoke out for nuclear disarmament and against the Iraq war. His moral appeal may have been stronger than his ability to achieve all of his political goals. He was honoured by almost every nation in the world for his integrity and willingness to express his beliefs.

He now clearly seems to belong to another era. Unlike President Obama, who is facing bitter disenchantment and criticism from his one-time most enthusiastic backers, there has been no similar backlash against Mandela.

His legacy as a liberator is assured - not just as a celebrity who is famous for being famous. Mandela himself frequently asked that he not be regarded as a saint or a saviour. He confessed to his flaws, including chauvinism and not spending enough time with his family.

A lifelong believer in "collective leadership", he credits his comrades and his movement for the successes he had.

The world protested for Mandela but public opinion on the leader who claims to be inspired by him has changed. Barack Obama, who has been compared by some to the South African leader, is expected to be the target of widespread protests when he visits South Africa soon.

He is expected to visit Robben Island, the prison in which Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years as a “terrorist”. Obama had pledged to close Guantanamo, the closest thing we have to it, but he is yet to do it.

If there is a funeral, he is sure to be there, right up front, but without the track record or loving respect that Mandela enjoyed. They may share a pigment, but not a political vision.

Some years ago, I covered Mandela's visit to the White House on his last visit to the US for one of the seven documentaries I made about his life - what a privilege. Bill Clinton brought the house down when he said, with a tear in his eye, "We would all like to be Nelson Mandela on our best day."

News Dissector Danny Schechter been documenting the making and meaning of a major Mandela biopic, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, set for release in November. He edits Mediachannel.org and blogs at Newsdissector.net. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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