A Mandela Legacy Locally?

Geoff Gilson's picture
There will be much talk over the coming days about the true legacy of Mandela. What it is, and what it isn't. And possibly whether or not it has any relevance to democracy and politics in Orange County.

First, Mandela himself, and his immediate legacy. For me, a middle-aged white Brit, of American parents, a former Thatcher groupie, but now more center-left, the lasting legacy of Mandela will be his achievement in creating the space which allowed South Africa to transition to black majority rule without massive bloodshed.

While a reasonably successful activist with the British Conservative Party in the Eighties, much to my discomfort, the partner in the law firm which I managed took great pleasure each month in adding to the spread of literature on offer in our waiting room the propaganda magazine from the South African Embassy.

I had always opposed apartheid. While finding favor with much that the British Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher was achieving in restoring balance to the public finances left in an unholy mess by the British Labour Party in the Seventies (a situation with which some find analogy with the current Conservative-led UK Coalition Government).

Not surprisingly then, there was regular discussion, both in the office, and in my immediate political circles, about my views on South Africa, not least because they differed with so many of my political confreres.

There was, however, one thing on which we agreed. And this agreement was fueled not only by what we read, but also by direct contact with white expats of South Africa. Namely, that transition to black majority rule would only occur after a bitter civil war. No-one believed it would be possible without.

Yet, from the moment Mandela was released from prison, he lived the reconciliation he preached. This incredible and continuing act of statesmanship allowed others, both black and white, to put aside anger and fear and guilt and hatred. And create new institutions of governance in an atmosphere of peace and calm.

That is Nelson Mandela's greatest legacy. All the talk of what has happened since. The corruption. The lack of progress towards justice. All of this should be laid at the feet of his successors. Not his.

A couple more points about justice since we are here. It's all very well the smug armchair progressives of the West decrying the lack of progress in South Africa. Look to your own countries, and the hundreds of years it took to progress to what you now calmly accept as your democratic and liberal birthrights.

And something I think that Mandela himself would have (and has) emphasized, if he were presenting his own eulogy. He did not release himself from prison. He did not achieve black majority rule on his own. It took the magnanimity also of white Afrikaan leaders, responding to the space Mandela created, to work with him in partnership to bring about a new South Africa.

Indeed, as some of you will know, I am regularly disappointed in my own locale, Chapel Hill/Carrboro NC, one of the acknowledged bastions of progressivism in the US, as to how those who shout liberal platitudes the loudest, are very often those who forget them when the difficult moments arrive, and they have to put themselves, their careers, their reputations at risk actually implementing genuinely progressive ideals.

I think of the co-op where I work, where many of management and the Board of Directors speak and write far more eloquently than I about the benefits of liberal ideology. Yet, they all too happily run a co-op based on capitalist ideals of profit and productivity, rather than democracy and inclusion in decision-making.

I think of the local progressive discussion forum which censors views it does not like. I think of the local community radio which castigated me for inviting a Republican election candidate onto my chat show. And I think of the local liberal folk who operate a water-tight political machine, to ensure that only the chosen receive endorsement, so as to keep local political office pure.

Each and every one of these so-called progressive activists could learn something from each and every one of the Afrikaan leaders who worked with Mandela to help him create his legacy.

For each one of those Afrikaan leaders had the courage to act in a progressive fashion, based simply on blind faith. Regardless of their own instincts and fears. And in so doing, they acted more progressively than many of the so-called progressive leaders in my co-op, my municipality and my community.

There is a long way yet to go in South Africa. But Mandela has shown the way. By using his own decency to create the space for others to find their courage. That example has much to teach the rest of us. Not least my fellow local progressives ...

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2 Comments

OP Editors's picture

Comments of registered users are not censored

In case your comment about "the local progressive discussion forum which censors views it does not like" is a reference to OrangePolitics:All registered users may post content on OrangePolitics. The editors do not moderate or "censor" users' content (as long as it is not "abusive, obscene, vulgar, slanderous," etc, as described in the Community Guidelines).Thanks for posting.

Geoff Gilson's picture

Definition

Censorship comes in many shapes and sizes. Some sledgehammer. Some more subtle. Back when I first attempted posting on OP (2006), as an eager progressive democracy-loving chat-show host on WCOM, OP just as eagerly removed or refused commentary it did not like.The fact that even today only the chosen few make it onto the main feed, while the rest of us are consigned to the sidebars or the sidelines, suggests that censorship is still a matter of definition.In this instance, as with so much of the 'democracy' practiced by the various progressive machines in Carrboro and Chapel Hill, I would suggest the definition might be "beneficent massaging of the outcome."And thank you for engaging.