17 July 2020

When Nelson Mandela was on trial in 1962 for leaving the country illegally and for inciting a workers’ strike, he donned the traditional dress of Thembu polities, declined legal representation and argued that he was a black man in a white man’s court. Insisting on the illegitimacy of the process, he used the platform to amplify the voice of a movement rather than to defend himself. He was clear that white supremacy was a system and that his struggle was all about dismantling it. Fifteen years later, Mandela wrote from prison a long reflection on the Black Consciousness Movement, in the course of which he said,

"Those who help to perpetuate white supremacy are the enemies of the people, even if they are black, while those who oppose all forms of racism form part of the people irrespective of their colour."1

In 1997, while serving as President of a newly democratic South Africa and confronting the resilience of apartheid and colonial patterning, Mandela said, "We have not fallen from heaven into this new South Africa; we all come crawling from the mud of a deeply racially divided past. And as we go towards that brighter future and stumble on the way, it is incumbent upon each of us to pick the other up and mutually cleanse ourselves."2 

He was signalling that oppressive systems are not manifested excusively in the formal instruments of power, and warning that oppressive pasts will live on unless they are reckoned with tirelessly and consciously.

Slavery lives on in the United States in the form of racialized predictive policing, the mass incarceration of African American men, the killing of George Floyd and many others by law enforcement officers over the years, the disproportionate vulnerability of African American communities to COVID-19, and so on. White supremacy is alive and well in the United States. It is also alive and well in South Africa. Apartheid lives on in the form of black lives not mattering to representatives and structures of the State, deepening inequality, the killing of Collins Khoza and others by law enforcement officers, the tolerance of a reality in which one in four black six-year-olds suffer from malnutrition and stunting, and so on. Racism is that apparatus of power which excludes and in other ways oppresses black people and people of colour. It is an apparatus that takes many forms; it is fluid and adaptive; it is everywhere and nowhere; it can be wielded consciously or unconsciously; and, as Mandela argued, it can also be perpetuated by black people.

Nelson Mandela, President of the Republic of South Africa, addressing the fifty-third session of the General Assembly. 21 September 1998. United Nations, New York. UN Photo/Greg Kinch

In so many ways, South African society is still crawling in the mud. The fact that the Black Lives Matter movement has found powerful resonances in many parts of the world in the wake of George Floyd’s killing indicates that we are not alone. The mud is ubiquitous. White supremacy is a global phenomenon and is to be found at work in every human society. The task at hand is to recognize it and find more effective ways of dismantling it, all the while, to paraphrase Mandela, picking each other up and cleansing one another.

It is no accident that five years ago, the Nelson Mandela Foundation identified three critical and interlinked issues it needed to focus on in striving to implement the social justice mandate Mandela gave it as he was stepping away from public life: poverty and inequality, racism, and reckoning with the past. If anything, the imperative has intensified over the last five years. We have developed substantial institutional programmes to support work in each of these areas.

The Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity, a transnational programme launched in 2018 in partnership with Columbia University in New York, is a flagship enabler of the Foundation’s antiracism project. Its overarching objective is to identify more effective strategies for dismantling racism, wherever it is to be found and in whatever form it manifests itself. Two key lessons that have already emerged from this nascent programme are the need for leadership development, and the extent to which those fighting racism carry deep wounds themselves and continue to be wounded in the fray.

Members of the Board of the Nelson Mandela Foundation with Madiba. ©Nelson Mandela Foundation-Debbie Yazbek

In 1995, Mandela reached out to white South Africans in a grand gesture of reconciliation when he appeared at the Rugby World Cup final wearing that quintessential symbol of white supremacy, the Springbok emblem. It is a moment still celebrated as a risk-taking gesture of reconciliation when Mandela, against opposition in his party, chose to promote rugby, "the game of the enemy", in the manner that he did. South Africa won the World Cup that year, and Mandela went on to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate racism and corruption in South African rugby. It was necessary for him to go beyond symbolism towards systemic transformation.

Two years later, instead of receiving high-minded strategic reciprocity from the white leadership of South African rugby, Mandela appeared in court to be cross-examined by the lawyers of that system, which was challenging his decision to establish the commission of inquiry. That moment was wounding for Mandela. It required him to dig deep as a leader when, against advice, he chose to appear personally in court to give evidence. Mandela went into the fray instead of sending his representatives. His example should inspire us today to keep entering the struggle and the mud of 2020. It is a long road, and we dare not linger.



1 Nelson R. Mandela, "Whither the Black Consciousness Movement? An Assessment", in Reflections in Prison:Voices from the South African Liberation Struggle, Mac Maharaj, ed. (Amherst and Boston, University of Massachusetts Press, 2002), p. 40. Also available at: https://omalley.nelsonmandela.org/omalley/index.php/site/q/03lv01538/04lv02009/05lv02010/06lv02013/07lv02015.htm.

2 Nelson R. Mandela, President of South Africa, "Address by President Nelson Mandela on receiving honorary degree from University of Pretoria", Pretoria, 4 December 1997. Available at: http://www.mandela.gov.za/mandela_speeches/1997/971204_up.htm

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