On the Duty to Remember Aright

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The passage of Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) has elicited the attention of national leaders and minor celebrities from around the world. The ruling elite have been seen in the right places and heard saying the right things. There is an aspect of this that is dangerous to our youth because it is instructive of something without meaning to be. That something is that sentiment matters more than truth, and that feeling about one’s cause matters more than either. The cause itself, the manner in which it was achieved, and the consequences it brought about are dismissed as needlessly nuanced.

There is much to admire about Nelson Mandela, but an overview of the facts will render him less deified and more comprehensively human. This is to say that he is not apart from our nature, or our challenges, or our politics. It is this, incidentally, that will make Mandela’s character arc and his story interesting, but it depends upon our telling the whole truth. “No man is a hero to his valet,” wrote Montaigne. As history brings a figure more into focus, the less heroic they are apt to appear. That may seem to be an indictment of all heroes, but all of us, however insignificant our station, should endeavor to be keen students of history because none of us knows all that has been, will be, or may one day be demanded of us. As such, it is critical to learn our lessons well.

There is a popular Chinese curse that was brought to the West on the tongues of members of the British Foreign Service which goes, “May you live in interesting times.” The thing is, however, we all do. It is only that some of us are aware enough to be engaged while a great many more are not.

Mandela undoubtedly lived during interesting times. He was born a second-class citizen and imprisoned from 1962-1990. One writer noted that Mandela began life as his country’s Vladimir Lenin, but ended it as its Vaclav Havel. As beautiful as it is, the problem with this comparison is that Havel rejected communism whereas Mandela did not in his leadership of either the African National Congress (ANC) or Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). Not only did he not renounce communism, but he thoughtfully endorsed violence and terroristic measures.

At the beginning of June 1961, after a long and anxious assessment of the South African situation, I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force.

This conclusion was not easily arrived at. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle, and to form Umkhonto we Sizwe. We did so not because we desired such a course, but solely because the government had left us with no other choice.

In other words, the decision was deliberate, considered, and premeditated. If anything, his wife Winnie was even blunter when she noted that, “with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.” The necklaces she spoke of in 1985 were a popular form of execution in which a tire filled with petrol was placed around a victim’s neck and lit afire causing them to be burned alive. Not that we should wish to do the Devil’s arithmetic, but it bears remembering that in 46 years of apartheid, whites are estimated to have killed 7,518 black South Africans, whereas in a relatively few years of active struggle against apartheid, blacks killed 13,482 blacks, and most of these in the horrendous ways described above.

Horrific as they are, these are not the images called to mind when we see the Economist photograph of Mandela looking pensively out of the prison cell he occupied on Robben Island. We should remember that there are times in our own history that most of us feel have justified revolutionary language and revolutionary actions. Jefferson, for instance, wrote in the Declaration of Independence that, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”

What we remember about Mandela is a classically admirable quality, namely, magnanimity. The sense of forgiveness exuded by Mandela in his later life is worth pondering. He noted in explaining this that “resentment is like drinking a poison hoping it will kill one’s enemies.” This is a profound point, but a country and a people must, in time, become responsible. History is an explanation – not an excuse. They must, as Jefferson noted, transform themselves into the type of people and the type of society that not only can throw off a despotic government, but provide new guards for their future security. We know something about the moral character of those who upheld the apartheid regime, or at least we think we do, but what of those who have replaced them? It was Lord Molten who wrote that,

…to my mind the real greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent of this land of Obedience to the Unenforceable. It measures the extent to which the nation trusts its citizens, and its existence and area testify to the way they behave in response to that trust. Mere obedience to Law does not measure the greatness of a Nation. It can easily be obtained by a strong executive, and most easily of all from a timorous people. Nor is the licence of behavior which so often accompanies the absence of Law, and which is miscalled Liberty, a proof of greatness. The true test is the extent to which individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey self-imposed law.

Has Mandela left his countrymen with this legacy? How much better off are the people of South Africa after ending apartheid? The country now leads the world in rape, has a stratospheric murder rate, a stagnant economy, and is a breeding ground for mercenaries and private militaries. Given that the cost of legal equality has meant an increase in crime and unemployment, has the price paid been worth it? These are genuine questions students of history should ask and would ask if history were presented in a way that so encouraged it.

One of the lessons of history in matters such as these is that legal equality provides only opportunity, which people must then act upon for themselves. No government has ever given people equality of condition. The best governments in the world do not have such lavish and utopian aspirations. Instead, they try to secure the conditions by which people can secure their own happiness with as little interference, encumbrance, or obstruction as possible. Achieving democracy, as the world and history have repeatedly demonstrated, does not mean that the people who live underneath the ensuing regimes will be happier for it. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, “Hence it is, that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths.”

What sorts of people can enjoy the fruits of a democracy? Students should ask this not only of people from faraway places, but of their peers and neighbors. A partial answer is that it is only an educated and acculturated people who seek truth, practice wisdom, and honor virtue. A government may be unfair, horrible, and homicidal, as the apartheid government was, but each of us will be remembered (if we are remembered at all) by what we do, and this part of our lives is entirely up to us. It was also entirely up to Mandela, and if we sanitize the man’s history, every student will suffer for it.

The politically correct xenophilia by which we have recently been gripped is the truer threat to our children’s education, and by extension, to our liberty. It is the greater threat because such puerile versions of history are the ones most likely to guarantee that we repeat the types of crimes committed by the apartheid regime, and by the ANC in their bid to remove the apartheid regime, and by the millions who have tolerated innumerable crimes and lawlessness since the end of apartheid in 1994. Our children, students of history as they undoubtedly are, deserve better than the nonsense history and pablum they are now being fed by Bono and other celebrity politicians and hypnotized members of the media. The death of Nelson Mandela should neither lead us to condemn nor sanctify him, but to reflect on his life and on history more generally, and insist that both he and it be remembered aright.

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