Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Mandela and the Complexity of Righteousness

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on December 6, 2013


Amid the tributes and commentary on the passing of Nelson Mandela, I didn’t have anything particular to add. But then I read this, by my friend Emily L. Hauser, that cuts like a clarion bell through all the well-intentioned hagiography that’s filling the airwaves right now. I hope she will forgive me for repeating it here in toto:


Mandela strove for nonviolence, yet when forced, resisted violently. He refused to renounce the right of  the oppressed to violent resistance, yet after being released from prison, Mandela worked closely with former enemies. His work was fundamentally political, both radical and practical. We should be made uncomfortable by Mandela’s example – not just celebrate it, but study it. We make assumptions, and cherry-pick, and want to file off edges we don’t like, but the work of the righteous should always make us uncomfortable.



Nelson Mandela in 2009 Photo by Media24/Gallo Images/Getty Images.

5 Responses

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  1. Andy Hall said, on December 6, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    Josh Marshall, who’s made his name as a political news guy but trained academically as an historian, expands on this:

    The iconic Mandela of today is the man who walked out of prison in 1990 focused not on retribution or black rule by majority rule, multiracial democracy. There’s the symbolically significant step at the center of the movie Invictus in which he embraced the Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team which had been very much the team of white South Africa. Then later after his single term as President the seemingly ageless revered world statesman.

    But that wasn’t the only Mandela. Mandela also embraced violence to end Apartheid or ‘the armed struggle’ to use the catchphrase of 20th century revolutionaries.

    He didn’t come to it happily or quickly. His initial activism was of the ANC/Congress Party non-violent anti-colonial resistance variety. And he set it aside when a viable path to democracy appeared to open without it. It’s also true that not all violence is equal. Violent revolutionary movements tend include deeply moral people and sociopaths. But Mandela was a revolutionary. He wasn’t in prison because he was framed. He was in prison because he was an enemy of state and committed to its violent overthrow. (Here’s an interesting exploration of the role of anger and violence in Mandela’s world and life by Christopher Dickey.)

    He also had longstanding relationships with a whole list of America’s rolling list of third world bad guys – Gaddafi, Arafat, Castro et al.

    Mandela was no Gandhi. And that’s okay. No appreciation of the man is more than a cliche or an evasion without this part of his story. Indeed, his greatness is impossible to understand without it. Remember, through the Reagan administration Mandela was a confirmed enemy of the state in the United States. Not among the public perhaps (Congress eventually overrode Reagan’s vetoes) but definitely with the government itself.

    • Edwin Thompson said, on December 8, 2013 at 2:39 pm

      Hi Andy – Thanks for posting this. Josh Marshals comments are interesting, but not everything he said is complete. Mandela’s admiration for (bad guys) like Castro is probably well founded. Castro was one of the few leaders that helped the African people. Heck – Castro did better than most American Presidents. During these times, American was friends with guys like the fascist Pinochet and drug dealers like Noriega. In this case, we shouldn’t throw any stones at Castro. I would think that if the civil war has taught us anything, it is that government must have a moral standard. Otherwise, the war over slavery meant nothing.

      The outrage against apartheid didn’t really start until America became outraged with Jim Crow. And it was a slow demise which did not end with the help provided by American’s like President Reagan. It was not his finest moment. But we can look at the bright side, compared to the present Congress, we can say that in the Congress that overrode Reagan’s veto on South Africa sanctions was a Congress we can be proud of.

      Mandela truly rose to the challenge. The country survived without a civil war. He was a great man.

  2. Pat Young said, on December 6, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    As I tell my students, Americans are perfectly comfortable with white people who use violence to achieve change, think George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, but we want non-white heroes to be non-violent, and preferably spontaneous, not strategic.

    • Jefferson Moon said, on December 7, 2013 at 8:02 am

      I’m not ok with the white revolutionaries of the confederacy…

  3. Patrick Young said, on December 8, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    When I was in school, my school handed out little paperbacks from the South African government showing happy blacks in the bantustans. This would have been in the early 1970s in New York.

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