The Big Man & the Crowds, Colltalers
We write this as Nelson Mandela agonizes in a Pretoria hospital. We hope for the best but fear the worst. All the while, it’s hard to miss what he represented in the struggle against the apartheid and the white minority rule in South Africa, and what’s next for the recent global mass movements.
As he reluctantly personalized his people’s struggle, from the agony of 27 years in prison, to the ultimate ecstasy of gaining freedom and going on to lead them towards democratic rule, millions of citizens in the streets of Brazil and Turkey ponder how to keep the pressure of airing their political and social grievances on, without a galvanizing figure such as his to lead the fight.
Two important caveats before going any further, though: what happened in South Africa isn’t in any way what set the tone for the upheavals that followed it around the world. And having a central personality helping usher a new era is not always the best case scenario for those who long for it.
More likely, Mandela was just a beautiful exception, hardly ever repeated (perhaps, there’s a parallel with Václav Havel and the events that led to the peaceful transition of former Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic).
Recent history has also shown that the assassination, for instance, of a charismatic leader, all but decapitates the momentum for change. And it may even set back the time (Dr. Martin Luther King, or Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin come to mind, as but two sad examples) by several decades, if not ever.
We should actually thank our lucky starts for having witnessed Mandela reach his old age as a still inspiring, still dignified symbol of good. In so many instances, the rule has been carnage, and the emergence of yet another authoritarian regime (Arab Spring, anyone?) following an idealistic turnaround.
Still, as the Occupy Movement has experienced in the U.S. (following a similar pattern of its Spanish precursor), the lack of such focus, however flawed it may be, has presented a whole set of issues, in need to be dealt with before they become distracting factors, conspiring against any palpable achievement.
Even that the Occupy’s decentralized strategy has led to positive ways for channeling popular mobilization, in the form of raising awareness about society’s indebtedness, for example, or hurricane relief efforts, the momentum it once had in the national debate about Wall Street malfeasance has been all but lost.
We wouldn’t insult those still in the thick of it, finding meaning in less glamorized tasks as local community organization, or ongoing housing or citizenry projects, by saying that they are not as ‘sexy’ as being beaten, pepper-sprayed, or arrested by cops, as Brazilians and Turkish protesters have been lately.
But those crowds are bound to slim down, as it’s hard to keep thousands in the streets for too long. At the end of the day, people have to carry on with their lives. Thus the race to identify demands that can be successfully translated in some sort of social adjustment and, hopefully, improvements, is already on.
We don’t mean to sound pessimistic here, but there are other conspiring factors too. In Brazil, one of the groups that sparked the mass movements of protest against a bus fares hike, has decided to call off any new rallies, namely because most state governments have rolled back the hikes.
The real reason behind the decision, however, may be the fear of widespread, escalating violence and, in yet another polarizing discussion going on in Brazil right now, a possible manipulation of citizens’ anger towards the country’s social inequalities by the its very much active extreme right.
For the record, the violence has been ignited by a brutal and unprepared police force, and the undeniable tacit support of the Rousseff’s supposedly left-leaning administration. Many have also argued against such characterization of the president’s government, despite her own past as a leftist activist.
The call for a reprieve in street rallies, whether heeded or not, may have sounded like a retreat. But to anyone familiar with Brazil’s relatively recent political past, the spectrum of the dark years of military dictatorship is still present, despite the patina of economic growth and dreams of becoming a world-class democracy. In fact, there have been worrying signs last week, calling for a return of the armed forces, supposedly, to ‘restore order.’
As for Turkey, there’s already been a positive result of the mass mobilization of the past month: Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s coalition, once deemed unbeatable, is no longer widely supported, as he may have missed a rare opportunity to show leadership when he sent the cops to crush dissenters.
Leadership, in the form of extreme lucidity, self sacrifice and forward thinking is Nelson Mandela’s greatest legacy, a word that we fear will be overused to complete oblivion, once the great man is gone. But in his case, there’s no other way to put it.
He went from prison to the presidency, which he gracefully agreed to share with a throwback puppet of the old regime, just so to get the ball rolling. His only term in office was another example of restrain, although age also played a role in his decision to step aside and let South Africa grow on its own.
His physical departure may also be a relief for a man who saw his dreams of democracy for his country all but evaporate in face of the harsh realities of extreme poverty, hunger, and corruption by those he once supported. Even more embarrassing was the public display of avarice from his enlarged clan, who simply couldn’t wait before litigating to get a hold of his modest savings, which he’d diligently planned to serve for many of their generations ahead.
No man could have lived up to the hype that bred the label ‘Mandela,’ appropriated by as many commercial interests as idealistic dreams. Not even Madiba himself. He did a pretty good job, though, even without trying and as unimpressed with the accolades as any hardened long-time inmate would.
Crowds in Brazil and Turkey, and in Syria, Gaza, Cairo, Africa, of course, perhaps even Pakistan and China, and in the many corners of the world where his life and times resonate, may take a moment of pause to pay respects to Nelson Mandela today.
If we’re to learn a thing or two about how change can be achieved, however imperfect and flawed it may be, and how violence can and should be stopped, so we may sit down with our enemies to search for a common ground, then somehow we must give credit to Nelson Mandela.
Here at Colltales, we can think of only a handful of people whose lives have helped sustain our own, very precarious faith in our fellow humans. Once this warrior is gone, this world will simply be a lesser place, despite his lasting legacy and example. Have a great week, everyone. WC
An excellent piece, Wesley. I know Mandela is a famous name but I never fully understood all he had done. 27 years in prison? INCREDIBLE – and then to continue where you left off. Astonishing.