01/12/2014 03:03 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2014

Beyond Mandela -- South Africa's Lesson for the World

I saw the movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom in East London over the holidays with my daughter Jae. We were vacationing nearby with my South African in-laws, in the Eastern Cape village of Kei Mouth. A few weeks before, dignitaries from around the world - Joyce Banda, president of Malawi, Prince Charles of Great Britain, Alain Juppė, former Prime Minister of France and many others -- had come into the Eastern Cape for Nelson Mandela's funeral in the village of Qunu.

Seeing the movie was another occasion, beyond the funeral, to reflect on what South African experiences have to teach the world. The lesson involves much more than the example of an iconic leader "for the ages," or the message of "forgiveness" embodied in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The real lesson is that it takes a great array of talents and capacities, not a superhero or a saint, to make large scale democratic change.

The movie powerfully conveyed the message of forgiveness. The treatment of Mandela himself, moreover, was much better than I had feared. It didn't remove Mandela from politics or the culture of his origins, nor turn him into a saint, in the fashion of many of the commemorations.

It shows that Mandela's capacities for forgiveness and generosity were rooted in his remarkable political savvy and long range political vision. In contrast, both Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the young militants Mandela encountered on Robbin Island substituted moral outrage for sober, disciplined politics.

Mandela, the movie, includes Mandela's televised speech to the nation in 1992, during a period of growing violence. He seeks to educate the people about constructive politics. For instance, he tells black South Africans that anger, legitimate as it is, cannot turn to violence if the nation is have a viable future. They need to win through ballots, not bullets (especially since the government has the military power).

But what is lost in the movie is the basic truth that the transition in South Africa was the work of millions of people, not a single man. When one man is at the center, others have no ownership in change.

In Mandela, aside from a few who take part in the anti-apartheid protests, whites are portrayed simply as oppressors driven by fear to acts of brutal suppression. Missing entirely are the discussions, debates, cultural transformations and constructive public work in a myriad of families, religious institutions, businesses, professions, media outlets, schools and universities and government itself, as millions of whites came to the understanding that apartheid was untenable and unjust.

These are embodied in the large scale work of the Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa which I described in my recent Huffington Post blog on "The people's politics of Nelson Mandela." Idasa alone involved tens of thousands of whites in a "politics of engagement" that educated them about the reality of black people's lives and built bridges across the widening racial chasm. The arduous political work of "going home" to make change in communities full of racial (or other kinds of) bigotry is a lesson needed everywhere.

An even larger omission may be the vast process of civic learning which took place among South African blacks as they developed new capacities for collective problem-solving and a new pride in black culture. Aside from Mandela and a few of his comrades in the ANC, blacks appear in Mandela only as victims or as defiant protestors.

Here, it is useful to recall a distinction from the American civil rights movement used by leaders like Bob Moses, Ella Baker, and Thelma Craig between "organizing" and "mobilizing".

Mobilizing, which uses a prophetic good versus evil language, is best known. It involves protests, civil disobedience, defiance campaigns and the like. These play a role in any successful struggle against injustice. But organizing -- the patient, community-level, molecular work of developing new skills, resiliency, pride, and confidence -- creates the foundations for lasting change.

Xolela Mangcu, the Black Consciousness public intellectual at the University of Cape Town, describes the scale and significance of organizing in the Black Consciousness Movement in "African Modernity and the Struggle for People's Power," a recent article in the journal The Good Society. Biko and other BCM leaders built on a rich, if largely invisible tradition of "radical modernizers" such as W.B. Rubusana, Sol Plaatje, SEK Mqhayi and others, who affirmed African traditions and culture.

Biko differed from racialistic appeals about "driving whites to the sea." "He drew Africans, Coloureds and Indians together in a collective movement for liberation," describes Mangcu. "[But] he always made the point that the struggle was for a non-racial democracy based on what he called the 'joint culture' of black and white people, constructed out of the hybridity of their respective cultures."

In the BCM perspective, blacks also must assume the leadership of their own liberation struggle. To this end, BCM linked community organizing about people's practical issues -- health, working conditions, housing, schools, home industries and others -- with a philosophy that "infused the black community with a new-found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion, their outlook to life." The BCM philosophy educated a generation of leaders in what were called "formation schools," as well as through publications like Creativity and Development, Essays on Black Theology, Black Viewpoint, and Black Perspectives.

These included community leaders and also national leaders in the United Democratic Front of the 1980s, the primary force in bringing an end to apartheid. Today, this legacy can constitute a philosophical challenge of relevance in our time, showing the insufficiency of a triumphalist view of science and technology descending from the European Enlightenment.

Scientific triumphalism, a major rationale for colonialism, now fuels what Mangcu calls "technocratic creep," the refashioning of social and economic life by rational, abstract modes of thought, by growing patterns of bureaucracy, and by instrumental rationality holding ends as a given, focusing on efficiency of means. Increasingly today, we have lost the "Why?" and "What's the point?" questions in policy and politics.

South African need to find ways to inform the world about the BCM and other African intellectual traditions and approaches, which provide resources for overcoming technocratic creep. In a time of bitter divides and deepening polarizations, people everywhere also need to know the elemental fact about the peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa: it takes a society to make change on this scale.

Boyte, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, lives several months a year in South Africa, where he is also a visiting professor at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.