I was sitting at home this afternoon, quietly working, when my Twitter feed suddenly started swelling with grief. Though the world had known that the life of Nelson Mandela would end sooner, rather than later, and that the year had been filled with precarious moments during his repeated hospitalizations, the news has hit us hard. My eyes welled up with tears, and as I communicated with friends, and shared the news of his death, we mourned together, silently. It was as if a hush had come over all of us, a quiet knowledge that with Mandela’s passing, we were witnessing the end of an era, witnessing the death of one of the greatest freedom fighters we have had the privilege of knowing.
And yet, in and amongst the messages of sorrow at his passing, and joy in celebrating his life, were a number of statements about Mandela—both by politicians and by citizens-at-large—that erased an important part of his life: the ways in which he actively fought against violent white supremacy, and the ways in which the global community turned their backs on apartheid in South Africa. Predictably, while it is being remembered with deep sorrow and a deep recognition of history, the death of Nelson Mandela is also in danger of becoming branded and sold, commodified and traded on the public market of memory.
While I do not begrudge anyone their grief, or wish to condemn their expressions of sorrow, of honouring, and remembrance as insincere, I believe that on the occasion of such a death, we must also honour and remember the difficult things, the things that we do not necessarily wish to commemorate.
Let us not forget that for all the years of freedom Mandela had, and for all of the years of political change he was able to enact in South Africa, the government of his own country had, with the support of other nations, sought to absolutely destroy the anti-apartheid movement. Let us not forget that politicians, including Margaret Thatcher, labeled him as a terrorist.
Let us not forget that Mandela spent 27 years in prison, forced to undertake hard labour. It is far too easy to forget, perhaps because most of us cannot ever really imagine, nor will ever be forced to experience, what 27 years in prison was like.
Let us not forget that until 2008, when Mandela was 90 years old, he was still on the U.S terrorism watch list.
Like many other social justice activists and freedom fighters, Mandela’s actions, words, and legacy have often been co-opted and folded back into the very systems that continue to oppress racialized communities. Whether spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr., or Rosa Parks, by bell hooks or by Maya Angelou, the words of racialized anti-oppression activists are often stripped of their context, and of the historical and political specificity of their struggle. Their quotes now circulate the internet in numerous memes, deployed, understandably, for inspiration, but it is crucial not to forget under which circumstance words have been spoken. The words of anti-apartheid or anti-racist freedom fighters have been used to inspire workouts at the gym as much as they have been used to sell products and to uphold the greed of capitalism. Forgive my bluntness in saying that the fight against cellulite is not equivalent to the fight against white supremacy, and that for the words of anti-poverty activists to be used as a capitalist selling-point is absolutely reprehensible. And while it may be nice (pleasant, even) to use these words, including those spoken by Nelson Mandela, to sell the illusion of a multicultural society that simply needs to love each other, we often do so in order to turn a blind eye to the violence that continues to rage around us, or to elide our own complicity in systems of racist oppression. The words of anti-apartheid struggle do not belong to us all equally (if they do at all), and we must be mindful of how they are appropriated. Some words may not be ours to use.
Confronting death is difficult, especially when it comes to the deaths of those figures who seemed to embody a nearly superhuman sort of dedication, resolve, commitment, and leadership (though of course, Mandela was a human being, and not a saint). Confronting a legacy is difficult enough without having to look critically at the social, political, and economic problems that still persist, without having to acknowledge that we do not by any means live in a post-racial society, that we do not live in a world where “peace” and “love” can simply transcend or erase racial boundaries, because there are active forms of oppression, apartheid, and genocide in our world today.
For me, confronting Mandela’s legacy means continuing to acknowledge the various privileges that I have in my life, and in the community where I live. It means acknowledging that while I am of mixed race, I still have a large measure of white privilege. As a citizen of Canada, living on the West Coast, it means being critical of the ongoing legacy of colonialism and violence towards Indigenous communities, about recognizing that the country I call home has attempted to wipe out entire Indigenous nations. It means listening to the testimonies of survivors from residential schools. It means acknowledging my status as a settler on unceded Indigenous lands. It means knowing that this violence was no mere accident, and that Duncan Campbell Scott, a Canadian politician and poet, actively called for Canadian policies to “kill the Indian in the child.” This is the work to be done in my country and community: others have their own geographically and socio-politically specific legacies to confront.
To honour Nelson Mandela’s legacy is a difficult task. To do so, we must look around, in our own lives, in our own communities, and know that his work is not finished. Indeed, it is the time to remember that Nelson Mandela cannot be, and never could be, the sole source of courage, of action, and of protest, neither in South Africa, nor in the world at large. We must look at the leaders we have in our respective communities, and we must support those who are fighting for freedom, for equality, for environmental protection, for economic justice. These great tasks are our collective responsibility, one that he has now, in no uncertain terms, left to all of us. We must fight for equality and justice in this lifetime, on this earth, as Mandela did.
Madiba, rest in power. We are grateful for your fight.