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Photo of Nelson Mandela.
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The Meaning of Mandela

A South African reflects on the life and legacy of a human rights champion

Nelson Mandela, one of the world’s most famous human rights campaigners and political prisoners – as well as the first democratically elected president of South Africa – passed away on Dec. 5. Earlier this year, U of T News writer Brianna Goldberg asked Antoinette Handley, a professor of political science, about Mandela’s legacy.

What did Nelson Mandela mean to you, coming of age in South Africa?
Mandela for me, as a student activist, was almost a mythical figure. People circulated pictures of him, but it was a very risky thing to do. These pictures were of a young Mandela because that was the last photo that anybody had of him. He’d been in jail for 20-odd years on a charge of conspiracy to overthrow the government, and nobody had any idea what he looked like anymore. While the student activist circles were allied to the African National Congress (ANC), we in fact knew very little about the organization and even less about the man.

What does he mean to you now, as a political scientist aware of the historical context of his actions?
I think Mandela was enormously complex. But what made him such a powerful figure was that in at least two key moments in South African history he perceived what was needed to take the country forward. They’re two very different moments, and I think they both speak to his incredible strength and understanding.

The first moment came in the early 1950s, when the ANC was a sleepy, middle-class movement. Mandela, a young firebrand, understood that the anti-apartheid struggle needed something to galvanize the energies of young black South Africans. In his leadership role in the ANC youth league, and in launching armed struggle against the government, he took the ANC in a much more radical direction. This turned it into a much more powerful mass movement. Before, it had been a very polite organization that would, for example, prosecute the Struggle by sending a petition to the Queen.

The second moment came in 1994. Democratic South Africa had come into being and Mandela made a series of remarkable gestures of reconciliation toward the white community, such as donning the jersey of the Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team. This mattered because rugby had long been seen as a whites-only sport, and Mandela’s gesture symbolized his reaching out, not only to the white community, but particularly to conservative white South Africans, many of whom were terrified about what the new South Africa was going to mean for them. It was his way of saying that South Africa belongs to all who live in her, black and white. In each of these moments, I think he made exactly the right judgment.

Why has Mandela remained such an important figure globally?
Apartheid represented a very graphic and hard-to-ignore depiction of inequality, since the inequality was racialized. What Mandela came to represent was a clear way for people to identify with the struggle between an oppressive, racist system and values that many of us hold dear. We like to be on the right side of history and, in South Africa, it looks like the right side of history won.

What will the post-Mandela political era bring to South Africa?
I think we are going to continue to see attempts to either redefine the ANC or to form entirely new parties. And I think we should look closely at the interaction between the trade unions, the political parties and the broader economy. There are very large numbers of South Africans who continue to struggle to access even basic goods, mostly as a result of extraordinarily high levels of unemployment.

The political system eventually responded to Mandela’s message about the inequalities of racism. The next crucial question will become, can the political system hear what unemployed and low-income South Africans are saying, be accountable and responsive to them and begin to deliver the services they need?

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