It’s easy to forget that apartheid was once a contentious issue in global politics. The anti-apartheid movement’s first big victory, a 1962 U.N. General Assembly resolution establishing a Special Committee Against Apartheid, was not followed by any action in the vastly more powerful Security Council. The State Department is admirably frank about the reasoning: “Defenders of the Apartheid regime” in the West “had promoted it as a bulwark against communism.” The United States, Britain, and other capitalist states saw South Africa as a useful ally, apartheid be damned.
By 1986, the international scene had changed entirely. Every one of South Africa’s most significant trading partners had placed onerous sanctions on the South African government, and the pressure was immense.
The global anti-apartheid movement, which took “Free Mandela!” as one of its most famous slogans, is of course responsible for this sea change. This loose network of Third World governments, activists, artists, and ordinary citizens, organized boycotts, pushed sanctions, and lobbied legislators to turn the Afrikaner government into a global pariah.
These activists succeeded, political scientist Audie Klotz writes, despite the fact that “the interests of great powers did not substantially change.” The world began moving against apartheid well before the end of the Cold War. Rather, Klotz’s research suggests, it was a “consensus around racial equality” as a defining moral norm of global politics, which began taking hold in the late 60s, that eventually turned the West against South Africa. The victory Mandela and the activists he inspired fought for was won by changing people’s beliefs about what was right.
And what was wrong, of course.
When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he told the world that “the sanctions that have been imposed by the United Nations and by individual governments should remain in place.” The reason, he suggested, was to avoid ”any situation in which those who are opposed to change in our country find encouragement to resist change.” The sanctions, for Mandela, were power he could wield: they demonstrated that, when he spoke to Afrikaner leaders, he spoke with the weight of the world behind him.
That the global community could, by deciding that racism was no longer acceptable in its ranks, provide freedom fighters like Mandela with such a weapon demonstrates the power of people to organize in the face of grave injustice, even to help people very much unlike themselves. It shows that it’s not hopeless naiveté to believe that people of great moral vision like Mandela can inspire the rest of us to practical action that to improve people’s lives.
The world could not fight black South Africans’ battles for them, and the “white savior” narrative in which the world, rather than Mandela and the ANC, principally ended apartheid is both false and terribly narcissistic. But recognizing the power of the world to develop a moral expansive consciousness, and the ability of that consciousness to allow people to help each other, is not the same thing. “We’re all moved,” Mandela said in that post-prison address, “by the fact that freedom is indivisible, convinced that the denial of the rights of one diminish the freedom of others.” His life, and the great global good it inspired, is proof that these words are not empty.
Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years in a prison cell because he refused to accept that a government could be allowed to perpetuate injustices among its people. He probably didn't expect that his life would serve as a model for all lives on the planet. But once he realized that, he set about living up to the tremendous obligations the very premise represents.
So when slave laborers stand on a cold street corner asking for a raise, when women gather in the halls of power demanding the right to self-determine their reproductive options, when people climb into trees to stop the construction of a pipeline, or get arrested because they want a corporation to stop transmogrifying the food they eat...
... because of the life that Nelson Mandela lived, everyone will better understand their motivations. What they are doing is a much bigger deal than their cause or even themselves.
In my lifetime, there have been but two people -- Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela -- that objected to the status quo and ultimately changed a nation and a world with the sheer force of their will. America's conservatives, on the other hand, will always have Dick Cheney to look up to.
Only a few years will pass before they stop calling Mandela a "communist" and start saying "if he was alive today, he'd be a Republican". Because that's how they roll.
Update: For the record... it's not just Cheney.
It's a constant theme of conservatism to falsely take credit for the progressive causes of yesteryear while attempting to destroy contemporary ones. It bears repeating: in 1776, a conservative was a Tory. In 1860, a centrist advocated more compromises and a conservative was a Confederate or Confederate sympathizer. In 1880, a conservative was a friend of the robber barons. In 1930, conservatives advocated that the elderly die in the streets rather than receive Social Security. In 1955, a conservative was a McCarthyite red-baiter. In 1965, a conservative was a Beatles-hating, MLK-hating opponent of Medicare, civil rights and birth control. In 1986 conservatives were calling Mandela a terrorist while clandestinely selling arms to Iran to funding fascist Central American death squads. In 1996 conservatives were led by Newt Gingrich and impeached Bill Clinton over sex acts. In 2006 they were committing war crimes in Iraq while trying to privatize Social Security and subvert the Justice Department.
It's not any different in 2013. The issues change, but the heart and soul of conservatism remains the same.