Nelson Mandela was one of the most beloved men in modern world history. All living U.S. presidents traveled to South Africa this week to attend his funeral. Around the globe, from the most modest to the most rich and powerful, mourners are talking about Mandela’s legacy of peace, reconciliation and social justice.
Even in the Pacific Northwest, about as far as you could get from the shantytowns of Johannesburg, Mandela’s incarceration as a political prisoner – he survived 27 years of hard labor – touched off a wide-scale movement of divesting public money from the corporations that propped up the Apartheid government.
Ultimately, in Oregon, Washington State and around the country, universities and municipal government did divest; the Apartheid government fell; and Nelson Mandela visited Seattle in 2009 after finally being taken off the US Department of Homeland Security’s “no fly” list.
The Skanner News spoke this week with Dr. David H. Anthony III, Ph.D., an associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Anthony has studied and traveled extensively in Southern Africa; he was a history professor at the University of Oregon in the mid-1980s, where he served as faculty advisor for the students’ Free South Africa Movement.
We spoke with him about Mandela’s life, South Africa today, and the Pacific Northwest’s role in ending Apartheid.
The Skanner News: Why is Nelson Mandela’s legacy so important? And is there something we’re missing in all these retrospectives on his life?
David Anthony: I think right now there is a high level of amnesia on how Mandela was regarded, especially in political circles in this country, in Britain, and in a number of other Western countries.
That is to say that many of the people who now embrace him at the end of his life as a great champion of democracy, saw him as a threat, saw him as anti-democratic, saw him as a terrorist, saw him as a communist, and tried to block him. They blocked Mandela and the African National Congress and all the people who were part of the mass democratic movement from making progressive change, from bringing democracy to South Africa, for decades.
Another thing that I think is really important is that while it’s understandable that we focus on Mandela as an individual -- because he was a great person -- it’s also important to keep in mind that he was part of a movement just like Dr. King. He became one of its most public faces, but he was always part of something greater than himself as an individual.
In fact he and all the people that he worked with -- including the people he was incarcerated with on RobbenIsland, people like Walter Sisulu -- all saw themselves as part of a movement. This is more than just hero worship, this is more than just individuals. It is a matter of people coming together as a collective to bring about democratic change for the benefit of the social majority. Does that make sense?
TSN: Yes it does. That brings us to the current political reality in South Africa. Can you share your take on that?
Anthony: Well it’s hard to talk about succinctly. And I think one of the reasons for that is that it’s a varied and complicated place.
I think that people sometimes expect someone like Mandela to “fix” South Africa. And no one person, no matter who, could “fix” South Africa. There’s a lot that had to be dealt with, and in a process of democratization in a society where mass democracy had never existed until 1994 because the social majority was kept out of the political process. You can’t really expect that those kind of changes you seek could be made easily and certainly not overnight.
When the ANC transitioned from a liberation movement to a political party it contained all kinds of people who had different kinds of expertise and some people who didn’t necessarily have a lot of expertise but who were very loyal party members.
All of those people have some role to play -- but they don’t necessarily all bring the same kind of foresight, the same ability to whatever they are asked to do. Just like in this country you have different people who have been political leaders, who have been presidents – you have outstanding people and you have mediocre people. In the same way you’ve got that in South Africa.
So one of the things that some people have said is that the quality of leadership has diminished in the time since Mandela. But then if Mandela becomes the standard, that’s a very high bar for anybody to try to meet. You know what I’m saying? In part because he was so astute politically, and also because he did have this sense of selflessness – he was trying to look beyond himself and say, I’m going to take one term here and then I’m going to do other things. That’s a very difficult thing for most people to do in politics. There’s something about politics that’s intoxicating. People want to hold onto it.
Remember this is a political party that for a long time was a liberation movement. There were people, who by the time of liberation in 1990, had never had a full-time job because they had been underground, or they had been incarcerated. Their regular careers had been disrupted, their educations had been disrupted. They had to go into exile. It’s not being groomed to engage in political life as an apprentice to someone else – it’s a lot of disruption, it’s a lot of breaks, it’s a lot of missing pieces.
You have to transform yourself if you are going to rule in the interests of the people. You have to learn how to do that, and not everybody is able.
TSN: I’d like to step back and look at the divestiture movement. I remember being a student at the University of Oregon, we agitated to try to get the University to divest its retirement funds from the South African government. Can you talk about that?
Anthony: That’s another huge question. Let me try to talk about it from my standpoint as somebody who played a small part. From 1984 to 1988 I was a faculty member in the history department at the University of Oregon in Eugene. And that time overlapped with the emergence of a wide-ranging free South Africa movement offering liberation support and counseling divestment from then-Apartheid Southern Africa. (Anthony is pictured at left with Walter Sisulu, who was jailed alongside Mandela for 26 years; he died in 2003).
By then I had been involved in liberation support work for over a decade, having been a member of MACSA -- the Madison Area Committee on Southern Africa -- while in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the 1970s.
In Southern Africa, from about 1984, a grassroots resistance campaign developed to make the townships ungovernable. And this aimed at disrupting business as usual in Apartheid government-appointed town councils and in the townships throughout the segregated so-called “black areas” of the country.
The campaign spread into industrial areas as well, especially mining regions such the strategically vital Vaal Triangle north of Johannesburg – now known as Gauteng -- containing steel and oil from coal processing facilities, and the nearby Vaal Dam, where South Africa drew energy from water.
So this unrest, as it was called in South Africa, peaked around 1986, at which point allies of the mass democratic movement outside South Africa began sympathy protests and other actions intended to raise awareness of Apartheid and its effects, including in the United States, where people regularly marched outside of South African embassies and consulates, leading to a steady stream of arrests including of high-profile Congresspersons, actors and other leaders who brought mass media attention. The marches and arrests were covered on radio, TV and in newspapers nationwide.
While pushing for divestment of US corporations and government and university funds, a number of campuses became the sites of student-built shantytowns constructed to dramatize the conditions under which the majority of South Africans were forced to live. University of Oregon, you may remember, was one of several places where this occurred.
At the same time, U of O students came together to form a branch of the Free South Africa Movement, taking the acronym FSAM as their name. They asked me to serve as faculty advisor.
In Eugene itself community members formed AACE, the Anti Apartheid Coalition of Eugene, which engaged in consciousness-raising activities. All of these measures were ways in which local people, rank and file, got involved in the anti-Apartheid struggle -- at the same time that South African activists of all backgrounds, both within and outside the country, were fighting for majority democratic rights. Each had to play a part in bringing about the end of Apartheid and ushering in a new era in South Africa.
TSN: I have heard a few people say: What about the next Nelson Mandela? Are there more Nelson Mandelas out there and as citizens of the world, what is our job in supporting what they’re trying to do?
Anthony: You are asking really challenging questions.
I don’t think you’re going to see another Nelson Mandela any more than you’re going to see another Dr. King. I mean these people were unique, they were individuals, they became spokespersons of movements because they had very singular skills.
But I think you can look at movements sometimes in very local ways. It’s not necessarily going to be the political leaders who are engaged in high-profile political change in the way that we have understood it in South Africa.
Sometimes its local leaders who are doing grassroots work who need support from outside -- and often need outsiders to stay out of their way. One of the big problems with the South African situation was that the United States was giving support to the Apartheid government.
So part of what we need to do as people is to research and look at the dynamics of social justice movements as they are taking shape in different areas of the world and to try to learn as much as possible about those movements because we are all connected.
Now through the web we can make all kind of changes – the WTO movement, the Occupy Movements, all of these things have developed in a very different way than the older politics and they haven’t necessarily thrown up the kind of leaders or leadership that we talk about with someone like Nelson Mandela.
So things change. And the important part of that is that we need to educate ourselves about the process of change, and understand that not everything is about us. We are not always first, there are people who are involved in social change movements who don’t necessarily speak or think in English, and it is our responsibility to find if it is our call to make things better, to find a way to do that.