As the world remembers Nelson Mandela, one of the most poignant memories of him was not that he was the first leader in South African history elected in a multiracial, democratic election or that he became that nation’s first Black president in 1994,after forty-six years of apartheid. Instead, it is the recollection that he was first named “Rolihlahla,” the Xhosa word meaning “troublemaker,” that remains most poignant. While the world mourns the great president and leader that Mandela was, we must also mourn the loss of Rolihlahla because it is the troublemakers of the world—not simply the statesmen—that challenge the moral fabric of society and change the course of history.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela launched the militant arm of the African National Congress, to oppose the system of Apartheid with a combination of acts of civil disobedience as well as guerrilla warfare tactics against the South African government. Apartheid robbed the Black majority of their right to vote, the right to choose where to live and travel, and other basic freedoms in favor of the White minority. In the spirit of the armed, pan-African resistance to colonialism, racism, and apartheid that culminated in the 1960s and 1970s, Mandela campaigned against the increasingly violent White-power structure.
Upon returning to South Africa after receiving military training in Ethiopia, the troublemaker was caught and sentenced to life in prison during the 1964 Rivonia trials for “sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government.” Even as he faced life in prison, Mandela remained defiant at his trial saying, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
Mandela went on to spend 27 years in prison, despite international pressure for his release; both peaceful and violent opposition to Apartheid was met with heavy-handed government crackdowns in South Africa. Mandela became a revolutionary icon in prison and, in an elaborate attempt to ‘demythologize’ him, the South African government released Mandela on February 11, 1990. Nelson Mandela walked out of prison a free man and made the calculated political decision to embrace his enemies in order to unite his country.
At the time, this act of forgiveness was viewed as being almost as radical as his previous calls for an armed struggle. He understood that peace was the greatest threat against White supremacist rule even as many in power viewed him as a terrorist and claimed that Black rule would launch the South Africa into violent chaos. In a 1990 piece critical of his leadership, the New York Times quoted a White woman’s account of Mandela’s release, “When he came out, I had tears in my eyes…Then his fist went up and I was disappointed.'' Similarly, when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) paid tribute to Mandela on his Facebook page, he was immediately met with angry criticism from his conservative base confronted with the uncomfortable memory of a troublemaker.
Fist up and all, Mandela’s defiant move towards peaceful reconciliation robbed those in power of the moral authority to treat Blacks as inferior, second-class citizens, and eventually silenced those who questioned his right to speak for all Blacks. As president, the troublemaker lunched with the prosecutor who argued successfully for his incarceration, sang the apartheid-era Afrikaans anthem at his inauguration, continued to have a cordial relationship with Zulu opposition leaders, and had tea with the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of the system of Apartheid.
Mandela never stopped being a troublemaker. He was deeply critical of President Bush and Tony Blair for entering into war with Iraq in 2003, maintained close ties with Fidel Castro in defiance of the U.S. embargo as well as snubs and protests by Cuban-Americans in Miami, joined the fight against the scourge of AIDS, and advocated for Palestinian self-determination even as U.S. groups pressured him to change his position. In fact, it was not until 2008 that the U.S. removed him from the terrorist watch list.
As the many eulogies to this great man continue throughout the upcoming days, some will attempt to sanitize Mandela’s struggle for freedom and commitment to Black Nationalism due to what one editorial describes as “an incapacity to recall the radical demand of Mandela's humanism, and a tendency to congeal his personality in bronze and branding.” Already, the party of Ronald Reagan, whose members famously voted against an anti-apartheid bill in Congress, have compared the fight against Obamacare to Mandela’s fight against apartheid.
This Whitewashing of history cannot be allowed to continue. It is our duty to remember Mandela’s greatest role as a rolihlahla, someone who not only challenged a system based on White supremacy but also a man who embraced the global struggle for justice. Although the institution of apartheid has now been dismantled, gaping economic, social, and racial inequality remain the world over (including unequal access to healthcare). Thus, it is not enough to simply memorialize Mandela, it’s also necessary to emulate his example of what can be done together to challenge unjust power structures that leave the majority of people without a voice.
Perhaps Mandela capsulated his legacy best when he said, “To be free is not nearly to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
France Francois is the creator of the award-winning Black in Cairo blog. Follow her on Twitter at @FranceF3