Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Watching Mandela Dance

A torrent of contradictory emotions overtook me the other day, when I positioned myself in front of my TV and watched Nelson Mandela celebrate his seventy-something birthday. The veteran African leader seemed elated as he received an endless procession of distinguished guests who had come to attend a banquet at his honor. Yet, for some reason I felt rather disconcerted. I could not escape a feeling of uneasiness as I was struck by the conspicuous absence from the festivities of Mandela’s companions of old. I thought, “Whatever happened to his comrades in arms”? Why was none of them present in the feast? And if present is what they were, why was it that journalists who covered the event did not bother to come up with a single picture of any one of them? The coterie of Mandela’s new-found admirers seemed to me as a strange fellowship indeed. Among them was Bill Clinton, former US president and ravager of Yugoslavia. Next to him was Bono, the Irish pop-idol and self-appointed protector of Africa. Third came the ebonic Naomi Campbell, a celebrity top-model and… well, not a hell of a lot more. The luminous assortment was completed by corrupt African heads of state, decadent representatives of Western nobility and others of their ilk.
It suddenly occurred to me that what I was watching was not so much a solemn tribute to an ageing politician, as it was a glamorous upper-class affair. What business could an old revolutionary have in such an event? But the illustrious surroundings and expensive silverware, all trademarks of elite life-style, were not the main reason to cast an old revolutionary as the odd one out in such a gathering. Gradually it became apparent to me that it is by virtue of these highly-publicized, informal rituals that the new system of racism and exploitation obtains indirect legitimacy for itself. True, the celebration was an ostensibly non-political event. But political action is the instrument by which the oppressed seek to remedy their problems and correct the injustices inflicted upon them. By contrast, the symbolic meaning conveyed by such receptions is to signify that the time for struggle is past and that we have now entered into an era of social peace and harmonious racial coexistence. The point was being made that the modern enlightened rulers of this earth eschew racism and stand in solidarity with those who at one time fought against it. Non-political occasions of a public show of affection between former adversaries make for statements of political cooptation nonetheless. They amount to an active demonstration that reconciliation is now the norm, instead of the antagonisms and racial divisions of the colonial era. In fact, the dichotomy between colonialism and post-colonialism is the main theme defining the nature of the relationship between North and South in the New World Order. In the declarations of the global elite, a post-modern disposition of aversion for traditional forms of white oppression and exploitation against the global black underclass is constantly affirmed. The privileged strata of this earth magnanimously recognize the inhuman face of white oppression in Africa, thereby pointing to the qualitative transformation which the international system has undergone and the reorientation of the North-South relationship towards a humanitarian context of cooperation, compassionate financial assistance and humanitarian aid.[i] In accordance with this general trend of appeasement, Mandela, the sacred cow of the black liberation movement, with his impeccable revolutionary record and his path of martyrdom through the Afrikaner’s gulag, has been officially awarded the status of global elite member emeritus. With this gesture, the residual elements of a black power ideology must be made to appear obsolete and black consciousness must gradually succumb to the ideological force of the new paradigm of global hegemony.
However, even though Mandela’s struggle for liberation might be over, Africa’s struggle against Western domination continues. And, to all appearances, it will be fought by virtue of methods other than the ones Mandela had employed. Africa’s problems are too urgently in need of a solution for an activist to docilely condemn himself to fifty years of imprisonment in the hope of evoking some benevolent response in the hearts of his opponents. The degree of suffering and distress inflicted upon that sorry continent is gruesome enough to warrant the employment of any sort of tactics in the effort to put an end to it, short of waiting around for the Christian impulses of the perpetrators of this gross injustice to spontaneously awake and urge them into correcting it.
To be sure, there is a fundamental congruence between Mandela’s chosen method of political action and the current outcome of his struggle and, under this light, it would hardly seem surprising that directly upon his release from prison, the old African leader was granted admission to the ‘palace’. Integration had always been Mandela’s principal political objective. His vision of a free Africa was one in which blacks and whites would learn to coexist as racial equals in a culture of mutual recognition and respect. There was no provision for a substantial reform of the abject social condition of blacks in South Africa and the economic plight of the Negro population was allowed to continue unchallenged even after the collapse of the Apartheid regime.
No wander then that one can argue that the aim of integration has now been fulfilled and keep a straight face, even when confronted with the monstrous rate of global inequality which has produced the humanitarian disaster and misery that have become habitual companions in the (short) lives of the vast majority of Africans. For what better proof that integration is working may one require, than the white-man’s willingness to accept a Negro leader to the palace? After all, it is only wise on the part of the politically experienced transnational elite, in view of the mounting global inequality and the grave social tensions that surely lie ahead, to honor Mandela’s historical example and provide convincing a posteriori proof of his success and effectiveness as a political leader. By implication, the moral merit of Mandela’s strategy of pacifism is extolled and the ultimate practical benefits of passive submission to authority are thereby demonstrated.
Let no one believe that I am accusing Mandela of being a turncoat of the establishment. I dare not suggest that for a man who spent a good part of his life behind bars for the reason that he was not afraid to stand up for what he believed. Yet, it is precisely due to this fact that I would expect Mandela to keep his distance from his former captors and not exhibit himself as a symbolic figure in the service of official propaganda next to the likes of Bono, the arm-chair activist, and Clinton, the mass-murderer of the Serbian people. Either he is conscious of this or not, Mandela’s presence aside such an unflattering escort serves only to legitimize the actions and beliefs of his purported fun-club, and undermine his own credibility as a progressive political leader. In a way, I can’t help but feeling sympathetic towards Mandela. From a psychological point of view, his highly-publicized performances in the role of guest of honor in such illustrious festivities offer to the old man a false sense of victory. To refuse to attend would amount to an implicit admittance on his part that the struggle is not yet over and that all his years in jail have been, in the end, to no avail. However, there is one thing of which we can rest assured. His frequent appearances by the side of Clinton and company will have the opposite effect from that intended by the elites. People shall not automatically presume that Clinton is a fervent liberal simply because he had his picture taken consorting with Mandela. It is more likely they’ll infer that Mandela, as emblematic figure of the struggle against exploitation and racism, has outlived his usefulness. And insofar as the overriding aspiration of every Third World activist out there does not necessarily consist in sitting at posh dinner parties in the distinguished company of eminent guests, but is more likely to be associated with the aim of the complete eradication of poverty and disease from African societies, we can rest assured that modern-day activists will eventually be spurred to reject Mandela’s political legacy and adopt more aggressive and confrontational methods of action. For as we have already pointed out, it may be the case that Mandela’s journey to freedom has finally reached its destination, but that of Africa, and for that matter the world, has n
[i] As Bichara Khader writes, “the [contemporary] hegemonic plan of international industrial capitalism incorporates an array of means that it did not possess in the past: it can determine the orientation of dependent societies in an even more radical manner, insofar as this power is exercised through various forms of cooperation and exchange”. In The Greek Association for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples, Cultural Imperialism (Gordios; Athens, 1997), p.131.

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