Monday, December 23, 2013

Rewriting history: Mandela and the limits of 'legitimate' protest

Nelson Mandela's death made me realise just how little I actually knew about the history of apartheid. Even though these are events barely before - and some within - my own lifetime, I'm just ever so slightly too young to remember them first-hand, and certainly didn't learn about them in school. It's got me thinking about how short historical memories can be, and how quickly we become dependent on received wisdom and official versions of history. I'm reading Long Walk to Freedom in a vague effort to rectify this, and am currently getting acquainted with a new Mandela, one who hasn't been much talked about in the past few weeks – the angry young radical of the 1950s.

In the days following Mandela's death, it was fascinating to see a few Facebook friends posting tributes which referred to him as a paragon of non-violent resistance. But of course, Mandela at one time headed up the military wing of the ANC. In Long Walk to Freedom, he makes clear that “for me, non-violence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.” In the early 1950s, with the Nationalist government seemingly intent on closing down all legitimate expression of dissent, he says:

“I began to suspect that both legal and extra-constitutional protests would soon be impossible. In India, Gandhi had been dealing with a foreign power that ultimately was more realistic and far-sighted. That was not the case with the Afrikaners in South Africa. Non-violent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do. But if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end.”

All of this raises really interesting questions about the limits of the state's monopoly on legitimate violence, and about what we should do when peaceful resistance to tyranny fails. Given that we’re living in a country where even engaging in peaceful civil disobedience is likely to get you spied on or whacked with sticks or both, it would be nice to think that Mandela’s death might have prompted some introspection about these issues – and about what lessons we can learn from Western leaders having been so catastrophically on the wrong side of the argument in the 1980s. Instead, Mandela the militant seems almost to have been airbrushed out of history.

This is a really interesting case study of what happens when someone violates near universally-accepted social and political norms, yet is almost universally regarded as a hero. Mandela’s probably quite unusual, maybe even unique, in having that stature. The Mandela denounced by Thatcher and Reagan as a terrorist and the Mandela who won the Nobel Peace Prize are, after all, the same man. It’s a truism on the left that “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter”, but seemingly not in wider society – certainly not post 9/11, when 'terrorist' and 'freedom' have been carefully constructed as polar political opposites.

So, perhaps inevitably, the tension between these two Mandelas is apparently being resolved by ignoring the first and co-opting the second. As ever, when the facts come into conflict with our existing beliefs, our beliefs tend to hold the trump card: we deal with the resulting cognitive dissonance by reinterpreting or selectively remembering the facts to bring them back into line with our view of the world. If Mandela is a good guy, he must conform to all the things I assume a good guy does. Thus, the challenge Mandela's history poses to the accepted definition of a 'good guy' is swept away. For those of us who don't know much about South African history, this process of reasserting the dominant narrative is even easier. Why would you even be aware of Mandela’s militant past if you only know him as a quasi-mythical liberator, one of the most politically uncontroversial figures since Jesus?

For me, the whole episode is an interesting window into the way dominant ideas entrench themselves both in official versions of reality and in people's own minds, and thus become stubbornly difficult to shift or challenge. And at a time when we have an Education Secretary who thinks school history lessons should be about political propaganda rather than critical thinking, that's something we should all be concerned about.

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