Nelson Mandela and the Communion of Saints

Posted by Sappho on December 10th, 2013 filed in Peace Testimony, RIP, Saints and Witnesses


“Don’t call me a saint,” Dorothy Day is often quoted as saying. “I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

I’m reminded of that quote as mourning of Mandela from across the political spectrum gives way to reminders on the left that some of his current mourners once considered him a terrorist.

Saints, both the ones who have been canonized and our secular saints by popular acclaim, face a few challenges in being taken seriously.

There is, first, the trap of the Helen Keller treatment, where we remember the least controversial aspects of the saint (deafblind woman overcomes severe disability!) and conveniently forget whatever might be more contentious. (That deafblind girl to whom Anne Sullivan spelled the word W-A-T-E-R became a socialist, a suffragist, a sharp critic of Woodrow Wilson, an advocate of birth control, and a co-founder of the ACLU, forceful in expressing opinions that you may love or hate.)

Second, there is the “I’m not a saint” trap, where we admire our heroes, but all the while console ourselves that nothing so heroic shall be required of us.

It’s said that we know we have made God in our own image when we see that He hates all the people we hate, and the third trap our saints face comes when we bend them to all our own opinions. And so you may see Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., conservative, who surely, were he still alive today, would make his chief causes opposition to affirmative action and lamenting the decline of the black family.

Noah Millman writes:

Mandela is being praised for two qualities more than anything: his firmness and determination through decades of struggle for justice, and his extraordinary magnanimity in victory. Neither quality is particularly common, and both are highly praiseworthy—but they are particularly extraordinary in combination.

And we are most likely to applaud the half of that combination that we can most easily see applying to us. So, those who thirst for justice are more likely to look up to his tenacity and uncompromising pursuit of right. And those who fear revolution are more likely to praise his eagerness to reach out to his former oppressors and integrate them into his new South African order.

All of which has an unfortunate way of turning Mandela against our current opponents….

Is it any wonder that people protest the popular canonization even of those they admire? (“Don’t make a plaster saint of him.”)

Then to side with truth is noble,
While we share her wretched crust.
Till her cause bring fame and fortune,
And ’tis prosperous to be just.
Then it is the brave man chooses,
While the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue
Of the faith they had denied.

And yet… isn’t that praise, with its implicit assumption that we are all on Mandela’s side now, itself a victory? Mandela was, as Obama has said, “the last great liberator of the 20th century,” and I prefer seeing the latecomers who join in his praise to the remnants who still grumble about his alliance with Communists.

One conservative who is no latecomer to defense of Mandela is Newt Gingrich, and many that I read are passing on Gingrich’s defense of Mandela to some naysayers on the right:

Some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington attack Mandela when he was opposed to oppression in his own country.

After years of preaching non-violence, using the political system, making his case as a defendant in court, Mandela resorted to violence against a government that was ruthless and violent in its suppression of free speech.

As Americans we celebrate the farmers at Lexington and Concord who used force to oppose British tyranny. We praise George Washington for spending eight years in the field fighting the British Army’s dictatorial assault on our freedom.

Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Thomas Jefferson wrote and the Continental Congress adopted that “all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Doesn’t this apply to Nelson Mandela and his people?

Some conservatives say, ah, but he was a communist.

Actually Mandela was raised in a Methodist school, was a devout Christian, turned to communism in desperation only after South Africa was taken over by an extraordinarily racist government determined to eliminate all rights for blacks.

I would ask of his critics: where were some of these conservatives as allies against tyranny? Where were the masses of conservatives opposing Apartheid? In a desperate struggle against an overpowering government, you accept the allies you have just as Washington was grateful for a French monarchy helping him defeat the British.

Gingrich nails it. I don’t think any, among Mandela’s remaining critics on the right, are actually pacifists themselves. Rather, they’re selective pacifists, unwilling to grant that apartheid might justify the ANC taking up armed struggle, but happy to approve the same in people like my Minuteman ancestors.

But what of those of us who have taken up the Peace Testimony? Heroes are complicated, and this one, now known as much for his forgiveness and magnanimity in victory as for his role as liberator, was still no pacifist.

I was converted to nonviolence in high school, by reading Gandhi’s autobiography, and only later, in college, came to attend a Quaker meeting. At the time, I remember being drawn to nonviolence, but struggling with it (in some ways, this has proved a lifelong struggle). One of the things that allowed me to accept nonviolence was something that Gandhi said (I can’t find the quote again now), about how, while nonviolence was always the best choice, if the only choices you saw were between violence and cowardice, it could be better to choose violence. It is not so much that I wanted to reserve a willingness to prepare for violence if nonviolence failed; I was prepared to affirm nonviolence (and, later, the Peace Testimony) altogether, and make no alternate plan. What I have trouble doing is, in a world in which nearly everyone is violent if pushed far enough, making myself out to be superior to those who choose violence in circumstances I have never faced. This includes, after all, my own grandfather, who died fighting the Axis. In a time and place where the actual choices made were between violent resistance and collaboration, do I get to decide that I would have been better than any of the actual people who lived that time, and find a nonviolent path? (I’m thinking of my grandfather, here, and of my uncle who fought as a guerrilla during WWII.) For me, “We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons” is a commitment for what preparations I am willing to make, not a statement about who I know I would have been in another place and time.

Here it gets a little complicated, because my high school and college years were also shaped by the victory of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, who were, to say the least, anything but magnanimous in victory. Three different families of Cambodian refugees, who had fled the killing fields, stayed with my mother. There have to be limits to that “I hesitate to judge violence by people in circumstances I have never faced” principle, or else I get to protest no killings at all, since I walk in no shoes but my own. And not everything that bills itself as a struggle against oppression proves to be that, when all is done. Communism, in particular, was, in its heyday, a double-edged thing. There were sound reasons why people hated Communism. And there were also, as Noah Millman explains, reasons why some fighting oppression sought support from Communists that no one else would give.

But given the scale of the anti-Communist victory, wouldn’t it be more in tune with the moment for conservatives to be magnanimous, and say: you know, it’s entirely understandable why the ANC sought Communist support. Indeed, it’s entirely understandable why many groups fighting oppressive structures and regimes accepted or even sought the support of Soviet-backed groups during the Cold War. What looked like the most important moral question from the perspective of Washington would not have looked like the most important moral question from the perspective of Transkei, or any number of other places. So maybe, now that the Soviet Union is dead and buried, we should stop harping on ties to Communists as some kind of unforgivable sin, in this case and in general.

Mandela took up armed struggle in response to the Sharpeville Massacre and its aftermath.

On this fateful day, Black people congregated in Sharpeville, a township near Vereeniging, to demonstrate against the requirement that Blacks carry identity documents (under the Pass Law). Estimates of the size of the crowd vary widely, from 5 000 up to as many as 20 000 with the larger figures coming from the police, wishing to stress how much danger they had been in. The crowd converged at the local police station, chanting and challenging the officers to arrest them for not carrying their passbooks. In response, approximately 300 policemen opened fire on the demonstrators, killing 69 and injuring an estimated 186. All the victims were Black, and most of them had been shot in the back whilst trying to flee the scene. The crowd was unarmed. Many eyewitnesses stated that the crowd was not violent, but Colonel J. Piennar, the senior police officer in charge on the day, justified the action by saying, “Hordes of natives surrounded the police station. My car was struck with a stone. If they do these things they must learn their lesson the hard way.”

This event became known as the Sharpeville Massacre. On the same day, in Langa, two protestors died and 49 were wounded as a result of police action. In the wake of this event, a massive stay-away from work was organised and anti-pass demonstrations continued. Prime Minister, Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, declared a state of emergency, giving security forces the right to detain people without trial. Over 18 000 demonstrators were arrested, including many in the ANC and PAC leadership. A month after the anti-pass demonstrations, the government banned both the ANC and the PAC as reports of police opening fire on unarmed demonstrators were flashed around the world. As if the ban was not enough, a far more brutal and intensive phase of state repression followed. Its major purpose was to eliminate any remnants of internal resistance in future….

Between 1948 and 1991, the apartheid government banned thousands of people. Banned persons endured severe restrictions on their movement, political activities and association with other persons and organizations. The government”s intention was to silence opposition to its apartheid policies and stop their political activity. The banning of political opponents – along with other more severe forms of repression, such as indefinite detention, torture and political assassination – were weapons the apartheid government used against the liberation movements.

He lived to see victory and to make peace with his former opponents. And Mandela the magnanimous victor, Mandela the supporter of reconciliation and restorative justice, was the same man as Mandela the freedom fighter: a man prepared to move strategically between the ways of war and the ways of peace, as the occasion changed. I could compare Nelson Mandela coming to work with Frederik Willem de Klerk to the Greek revolutionary Eleftherios Venizelos making peace with Turkish leader Kemal Atatürk in 1930. And that, too, is worth celebrating. The world is full of people who have trouble seeing when a war has ended. To accept victory and turn to making peace is an accomplishment rarer in any country than we might wish. To be both steadfast during oppression and magnanimous in victory is rare indeed.

There is still a place for heroes, once we have rejected “plaster saints.” Dorothy Day, who didn’t want to be dismissed as a saint, still had an ongoing relationship with those who had gone before her.

Dorothy’s own relationship with saints was anything but cynical. Both her daily speech and her writings were filled with references to St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Teresa of Avila. She treasured their stories. For Dorothy these were not idealized super-humans, but her constant companions and daily guides in the imitation of Christ. She relished the human details of their struggles to be faithful, realizing full well that in their own time they were often regarded as eccentrics or dangerous troublemakers.

And so I celebrate the man who was once, to some, a dangerous troublemaker, who lived to become everyone’s favorite statesman.



2 Responses to “Nelson Mandela and the Communion of Saints”

  1. Hector_St_Clare Says:

    Tragically, the gap in incomes between South African Whites and South African Blacks is essentially unchanged since the end of apartheid. White South Africans make eight times as much as Black South Africans. South Africa has remained one of the world’s most economically unequal societies over the last twenty years, and that’s remained almost unchanged even while Latin American countries like Brazil and Venezuela- which had similar levels of inequality to South Africa in the early 1990s- have gotten much better. Thanks largely to the HIV epidemic, South Africa’s average standard of living- measured by the Human Development Index- has gotten substantially worse since 1994, both in absolute terms and relative to the rest of the world. While Black South Africans are unquestionably more free than they were in 1994, they’ve seen little economic progress (the real winners in the post-apartheid era, by contrast, are the South African Indians).

    Mandela’s achievements were great ones, and the fact that he was able to couple the end of apartheid with relative social stability is certainly a good thing, but the story of South Africa since 1994 is as much a story of missed opportunities and failure as it is of success. (In fairness to Mandela, Black South Africans’ economic situation did actually get better during the first few years of his tenure, and have stagnated under his successors).

  2. Sappho Says:

    True, the economic gap remains. And HIV had a huge, negative impact.

    I’ve been thinking about the pairing of Mandela, the good statesman, post-apartheid, and Mugabe, the horrible dictator, post-apartheid, and how that leaves out another country, Namibia. Namibia’s first post-independence ruler, Sam Nujoma, comes across as more self-promoting than Mandela (15 years of rule to Mandela’s single term, complaints about the expensive new presidential jet, though I suppose it’s more that Mandela was an unusually non-self-promoting post-independence ruler, sort of like George Washington, than that Nujoma was unusual in the other direction), and more cautious about his land reform than Mugabe (Namibia has gone with a willing buyer/willing seller program, though it looks as if now they’ll start expropriating some farms). And the country is a relatively stable democracy, multi party but still dominated by SWAPO, where life expectancy has declined since independence due to AIDS. I think Namibia actually did better than South Africa about facing up to AIDS (not Mandela’s fault, but Thado Mbeki’s), but has faced difficulties because their particularly sparse, rural population has made it hard to reach people.

    So HIV looks like a huge challenge regardless of who rules your country. And none of the post-apartheid countries has yet figured out a way to deal with the wealth division between the races that results from years of apartheid (Mugabe tanked the economy for everyone, and Namibia and South Africa still have deep wealth divisions between the races). I guess these problems are just very hard to fix.