Lots of people seem genuinely moved by the passing of Nelson Mandela yesterday at the age of 95. History smooths the edges of time, of course, and the latter day role of the statesman campaigning against poverty and racism is relatively sanitary and palatable if we focus on solutions rather than causes. There’s plenty to be taken from the Mandela story regardless of political conviction if you focus on human spirit: above and beyond anything, hope and potential for change in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
It is both great and terrible that people can move from a position of calling for the hanging of a terrorist to the position of calling for flags to be hung at half mast in the honour of the same man’s passing (assuming you don’t take the point of view that it is entirely political maneuvering and reflects no real change or progress). Great, in that like Mandela’s story it shows that there can be progress, that social norms can change over time, so that even if a leader still holds on to covert racist values he cannot publicly express anything but the opposite if he wants to keep his role.
Terrible, in that it shows the extent to which hierarchical relationships evolve and develop resistance to the changing world around them. The tasteful classes feel disgust at overt racism where it appears, but view racism itself as something which can somehow be separated out from other forms of inequality. The biggest form of global racism remains unchallenged.
It’s the form of racism that divides up the world’s resources into vastly uneven piles dependent on blood and soil. It’s the form of racism that has us celebrating love, family and hope unthinkingly with an endless supply of sweated tat. It’s the form of racism that carves up landmass in a way that we somehow accept as just and natural, raging against anyone who dares to try and move around the world to a place where they might have more access to resources.
You can’t have international capitalism without racism – other than by creating some other sub-human class of worker to fuel it. As Mandela stated, poverty is not natural but culturally created – and created not just by greed but by our ability to adapt our thinking to encompass new values without fundamentally destroying the foundations of older prejudices.
Mandela’s life is a message of hope for human progress. It is also a message reminding us of the need for continued struggle.