It is important that in the midst of the global outpouring of accolades, gratitude and affection which has attended the passing South African icon and former President Nelson Mandela, we do not make the error of honouring his name in words while violating his spirit by our actions.
This is particularly important since, because the Caribbean as a collective occupied the front lines of the international anti-apartheid struggle when the so-called leaders of the free world branded Mandela as a “terrorist”, we may tend to arrogantly see ourselves as “teachers” who have nothing to learn.
While we reflect on the amazing capacity for forgiveness witnessed in the life of Mandela, and in the middle of the celebration of our own association with his struggle, it is important to remember that we are not as free, democratic or “non-racial” as we claim to be.
Writing in the early 1960s, Trinidadian intellectual C.L.R. James had warned that one of the greatest dangers facing the West Indies is the assumption that we have inherited a democratic tradition in which the habits of give and take, reconciliation, the absence of vindictiveness, and the capacity for consultation, openness to criticism and differences of opinion are instinctive elements of our political make-up.
More real features
Instead, James always insisted that the experiences of the plantation – the authoritarianism of the leadership, the fear and deference to power, the drive to crush and destroy “opponents” – were far more real features of West Indian political life than the much-touted claim to an advanced democratic tradition.
It was the signal lesson of Nelson Mandela, that when he walked out of prison into the presidency, he did so fully aware he was swimming against the tide of a brutal and anti-democratic history, and as a consequence, his every action from his most public posture to his most private and personal moment, had to be geared towards serving as a counter-example to give birth to a new future.
From his decision to forgive his jailers, to his exit from office after one term, it is clear that Mandela lived what he preached, not in the pursuit of an egotistical “sainthood” status, but as practical political responses to what was required, given the society he was inheriting.
It is doubtful that Caribbean leaders today understand the need to work at democracy as a deliberate and conscious set of personal and public habits as an essential part of the region’s anti-colonial project. Today, even the paper-thin holding of proper elections is now compromised.
More importantly, however, it is important not to allow Mandela’s “reconciliation” to obscure his most enduring legacy as a freedom fighter.
It is too easy for those who never shared his political programme to enlarge his image of “forgiveness” as a propaganda device to delegitimize ongoing liberation struggles.
Rest well, Madiba.
• Tennyson Joseph is a political scientist at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus, specializing in regional affairs. Email [email protected]