Friday, 6 December 2013


I was eight years old when I heard a slice of Sangoma on the radio. My father was driving me home from a swimming session in Loftus. It would be nice - if not particularly original - to say I'd never heard anything like it before, but honestly my parents were so supremely disinterested in music that I could say that about almost any song I was exposed to at that age.  I don't even remember which song it was or how it went.

What I remember is what the radio DJ said afterwards: that the singer, Miriam Makeba, was in exile from her home country of South Africa, and would never return until it was free, remaining until then what she called "a spotted leopard among cheetahs".  I asked my father to explain why her country wasn't free.  Did my father mention Nelson Mandela?  Did he even know who Mandela was?  I no longer recall.


I knew who Mandela was by 1994.  Who didn't?  I remember thinking two things when Mandela became the President of South Africa for the first time. The first was a deep respect for the outgoing president F.W. de Klerk for knowingly torpedoing his political career in favour of doing the right thing.  The second was a feeling of elation that the singer I had heard six years earlier could finally go home.

Nelson Mandela was never a man who it was hard to respect.  There is nothing in my life that can allow me to comprehend the suffering he endured in his involuntary tour of various prisons at the hands of a system that needed to despise him simply to justify its continued existence. That he emerged from over a quarter of a century of incarceration without any obvious desire to tear his tormentors apart is alone is nothing short of miraculous. I couldn't imagine how anyone could be so calm and forgiving, not when I was fourteen, and not now.  Maybe even less so now; I've just absorbed so much more about the world and about people that I despise.


In early 2002 I was in my final year as an undergraduate in Durham.  There was a girl in the next block I had something of a crush on, so I spent a lot of time on her corridor.  Also on that corridor was an Afghan student by the name of Taj.  I won't pretend we were close, but we chatted from time to time, and thousands of miles and years of cultural differences never seemed so important as our shared annoyance at who had set off the fire alarm at 3am or why our college charged us for glasses broken in a bar we spent no time in.

One night he told me how much he'd enjoyed the celebrations back home when the Twin Towers went down.  How there was no such thing as a Westerner who didn't have it coming, so long as they were old enough to vote.  If they can vote, they should vote to stop being imperialist monsters in the Middle East.  If they can't find a party to vote for that will do that, they should start their own party, with as many demonstrations in the streets as possible along the way. Whether anyone in the Twin Towers was attempting just this remedy was unknown,  but such people were "collateral damage".

As were the children.


In 2003 we met David Brent's Labrador, named after Nelson Mandela, and someone nearby objects to Brent's hagiographic gushing over his pet's namesake. Mandela was not, after all, in the business of flower-arranging in the years before his arrest and trial (either his original one which was kicked out for lack of evidence, or the second one that began once the state had had time to twist things around a little bit).  Brent, as one would expect, sneers shakily at this as racist.


My then girlfriend had taken a summer job in London when bombs started exploding on the 7th of July, 2005.  It took hours for me to confirm she was safe.  A girl I'd known well years before and lost track of after university seemingly disappeared that day; it wasn't until several days later that someone was able to confirm she was fine. I thought of Taj, and wondered whether he was somewhere celebrating.


A few days ago Phil Sandifer reached "Planet of the Ood" in his epic analysis of the entire history of Doctor Who. "Planet of the Ood" is a remarkably original slice of Who for one major reason: the people the Doctor believes deserve freedom win that freedom with minimal help from him.  He is far more observer than he is participant in the Ood revolution.  Not only that, but there's a total absence of hectoring from him about how one should go about fighting ones oppressors.  He understands that it is none of his business. The oppressed can - and must - decide for themselves how they are to win their freedom.

Except... that isn't some kind of iron-clad rule.  The Oodsphere contains exactly two types of people: the Ood themselves, and the humans who have deliberately - almost comically so - mistreated and oppressed them.  Either you have a faceful of tentacles, or a mouth sneering at your slaves whilst waiting for them to make your tea. The only form of oppression shown is the deliberate lobotomising and enslaving of sentient creatures.

Out in the deserts of the Real, we cannot rely on such simplicity. When the planes slammed against their targets, there was no special escape route for those not affluent white men.  The bombs in London killed those who benefited least from life in the UK along with those who gained the most.  People the US and the UK both have happily subjected to economic oppression died because they were judged to more properly belong to the category of oppressor. There must be more to deciding how a world is run than simply granting total moral authority to whichever group of oppressed people happen to get the guns - or the Merkava tanks - first.


All of this is whirling around my head today. The Brentish urge to gloss over those aspects of Mandela's past which make white people uncomfortable must be resisted. Not in order to sully the memory of a great man, but so as to contextualise what he did and why he did it. So as to understand what it means to dedicate ones life to fighting the state in situations where it is so clearly true that fighting is necessary.

Further, for all that I sympathise deeply with the basic point of Sandifer's rhetoric - it is obscene for the oppressors to lecture the oppressed on how they should approach their struggle for freedom - the corollary that I can state no support for Nelson's approach to the struggle compared to that of the suicide bomber or the carpet bomber sits deeply uneasily with me.  Doubtless this cannot be entirely untangled from the fact that my preference is for revolution that doesn't end up getting me or my loved ones blown to pieces (though that day in July 2005 remains the only time in my life I've felt any personal connection to an act of terror; even during the IRA bombings of the '80s it all felt very far away from the North East of England) but I cannot believe that there is no more to it than that.

I do not believe that my respect for Nelson Mandela is born simply from the fact his approach kept me and mine safer than the random murder so beloved by Taj.  Nor does that respect force me to ignore the fact that under Mandela the ANC bombed civilian targets in the 1960s. Civilian casualties were not the aim, simply an inescapable consequence of attacking the state's infrastructure.  The people those bombs killed are no less dead for that fact.

A life like Mandela's is deeply complex by necessity. We cannot glaze over.  Nor can we argue every violent act he is responsible for is outside our right to parse. Not if we want to pay tribute to the man, the whole man.

As a whole man, Mandela left his country and the world better than he left it, and did so at every point under the guiding principle that violence was only ever a last resort, when every other possibility had been identified and honestly attempted. He was not, nor did he claim to be, perfect; by his own admission, there was far more he could have done to fight the AIDS epidemic that currently sees almost one fifth of the adult population suffering with HIV/AIDS.

But what he did do, surely, must be considered enough for any one man. How many black South Africans owe their careers and status and even their lives to him? How many white South Africans are where they are today because Mandela had so little interest in the kind of collective punishment so many might have believed was just? How many of the racist bigots that infest our political class are having to spend today paying tribute through gritted teeth to the sworn enemy of their abhorrent philosophies.

All because Nelson Mandela fought and won. You can either accept all this is true and that Mandela believed terrorism was preferable to capitulation, or you can't.

Me? I say he earned his status in the world.  He has most certainly earned his rest.

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