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The People's Politics of Nelson Mandela

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Across the world, people have rightly celebrated Nelson Mandela as a figure who "now belongs to the ages," as President Barack Obama put it in his tribute to the late South African leader. But recognition of his people's politics has been largely absent. We need to switch from the dominant "great man" view of Mandela as a singular savior of South Africa to an understanding of his citizen-empowering politics if we are to do justice to his legacy and its potential for contribution to a world in turmoil and crisis.

Nelson Mandela was a populist not in the sense in which the term is commonly used in the media, to mean a rabble-rousing demagogue. Mandela was a populist in the deepest meaning of term. He had a profound and also unromantic belief in the potential of everyday citizens to shape the world.

Today's public discussion of Nelson Mandela is decontextualized and depoliticized, as well as sanctified. Lost is his schooling in the ancient civic culture of the Eastern Cape.

Mandela was born in Mvezo, a tiny village in the Transkei, in the southeast of South Africa. When his father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyisa, was stripped of his chieftainship after defying British authority, he was taken into the home of the paramount chief of the Thembu people.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela described the meetings at "the Great Place," Mquhekezweni. "Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and laborer. ... All were free to voice their opinions and equal in their value as citizens."

These experiences became seasoned in the anti-apartheid movement of the 1950s called the Congress of the People (CoP). It produced the Freedom Charter of 1955, the anti-apartheid movement's manifesto, and aimed at a national awakening instilling freedom consciousness.

In the view of its organizers, the people, not the African National Congress or other political parties, were the driving force of change. As one leader, Rusty Bernstein put it, the ideas of the Charter needed to be "an exercise in getting the people to tell the leadership and self-regarding elites what THEY ought to work for in the name of the people."

The Congress of the People also challenged anti-apartheid whites to organize in their own communities. Estranged from the white mainstream, they were largely unable to do so.

This movement powerfully shaped Mandela. The Charter, he argued was "by no means a blueprint for a socialist state." Rather it was "a programme for unification" involving "a democratic struggle of various classes and political groupings."

Mandela's schooling generated a clear distinction in his thinking between ideological politics, or "party politics," and people's politics. The distinction is clear in an interview published last year in the Australian journal Thesis Eleven with Jakes Gerwel, aide to Mandela throughout his presidency.

Mandela, Gerwel argued, stressed psychological liberation akin to the emphasis of Black Consciousness Movement leader Steve Biko. "Not to be victim to your suffering [and] to be victim of those who perpetrated it against you ... He rose above that by the generosity of spirit...."

Gerwel traced such generosity to Mandela's politics. "People often talk about Mandela's values," Gerwel said. "The thing that I remember him teaching me was: 'Jakes, never let your enemy choose the terrain of combat by reacting in anger. If you act in anger to anybody, you are allowing that person to choose the terrain.' This was a combination of genuine principled morals with a great tactical sense."

Gerwel emphasized that "Mandela is a politician through and through. He understands party politics and politics to his finger tips. He is not a saint, and he often made that point. He is a hard politician [who] uses power and his political agency for the good."

In his prison years on Robben Island, Mandela further developed his commitment to nonracial people's politics. Afrikaner guards who smuggled in newspapers for him to read, provided extra rations, and taught him Afrikaans, the main language of the white population, tempered any desire for racial recrimination.

Meanwhile, exchanges with young hotheads brought home the dangers of a politics of posture. "When you say, 'What are you going to do?' they say, 'We will attack and destroy them!'" he recounted. "I say: 'All right, have you analyzed how strong they are? Have you compared their strength to your strength?'"

In 1986, Mandela, still in prison, began negotiations with moderates in the National Party government. Simultaneously, parallel efforts began to appear among whites on a large scale.

In 1986, Van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine, leaders of the white opposition party in the South African Parliament, resigned in frustration at the Parliament's inability to address the country's growing crisis. They founded the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (Idasa), with the aim of generating discussion and work across the deepening racial divide. Slabbert called this "the politics of negotiation." Their politics, in the same vein as Mandela's, took up the challenge to whites made by the Congress of the People and leaders like Mandela, more than thirty years before.

For most whites in South Africa in the 1980s, the everyday lives, concerns, talents, and oppressive conditions of blacks were invisible. Idasa's work closely paralleled Mandela's efforts.

In 1987 in Dakar, Senegal, the organization brought together white moderates among politicians, labor unionists, journalists, religious and business leaders with exile leaders of the African National Congress for the first time. The meeting reverberated around the world. Over the next seven years, Idasa followed up by organizing hundreds of meetings which brought whites together with blacks, colored and Indians.

After the 1994 election, Idasa became the leading force on the African continent emphasizing the idea that democracy is a society, not simply a state. Its grassroots popular education efforts taught organizing community methods and nonpartisan empowering citizen politics to thousands of people. Throughout its history, Mandela remained Idasa's friend.

Nelson Mandela believed that ordinary citizens can become bold, confident, responsible agents of change, able to rise to the occasion of even the most daunting challenges. He devoted his life to seeing the democratic potential of the people realized.

The wisdom of his people's politics has never been more needed.

Harry Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, lives several months a year in South Africa, where he is also a Visiting Professor at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.