The Symbolism of Obama and Mandela

Last New Years Eve, much to my girlfriend’s chagrin, I fell into a heated debate with a mutual friend, where I took the position of criticizing Nelson Mandela (I know), by apportioning him some blame for the current economic travails facing South Africa i.e 40% unemployment and a greater chasm between wealthy and poor than before apartheid.

Now, as I understand the general rule of thumb for criticizing figures like Mandela, one should be sensitive to the audience’s reverence for such persons before launching into a critique. Well, I wasn’t and as a result I was solely responsible for creating an atmosphere that was decidedly uncomfortable and certainly not in keeping with New Year’s Eve jollities.

I have since learned my lesson and acknowledged that in order to have a good time (and friends), I need to be sensitive to their, well, sensitivities. At 27, I should have known better. However, despite starting 2008 breaking down friends’ heroes I walked away feeling justified that overall my position proved correct.

Simply put, my position was that it is very dangerous to deify people like Nelson Mandela. Instead, Mandela (like all other leaders and elected officials), should be judged on their policies and actions and not their symbolic capacity to engender hope, especially when those policies directly conflict with their version of hope. I have held this position for a long time and is often my recourse when defending my criticism of hero-praising people like Benazir Bhutto, Tony Blair, and to my more militant-leaning friends Che Guevara. So in response to my friend’s assertion that “Hope is so important, his Presidency symbolized the end of Apartheid”, I countered “But his policies have been detrimental to the very people the ANC has claimed to represent.” By the way I must insist here that I am no apartheid apologist.

Then, last week, after the whole episode had faded into the ether, my criticism for Mandela suddenly came to the fore again when I found myself applying it to my strong support for Barack Obama. The argument looked awfully applicable to Obama, and I needed to take a look at why I felt differently about the two men.

Obama supporters, like the candidate himself for the most part, have routinely stressed his agenda as rooted in a reconciliation style politics. Although not as grand, urgent or transformative as the abolition of apartheid, the kind of change that Obama aspires to is not unlike the trajectory set by Mandela and is comparable in that it attempts to usher in a new era of politics by flushing out the old, typically characterized as adversarial or dominated by special interests.

The problem for Mandela though, was that he was a symbol and not a politician. Unfortunately, the symbol of a black African leading the country alone was not enough to pull poor black South Africans from the townships up from the lower strata of society. Moreover, it was not enough to counter strong business interests from pushing Mandela, with Mozambique’s white flight well in mind, to liberalize the economy and thus send more blacks further down the echelons. It is also worth mentioning only four years ago that the ANC passed substantial affirmative action legislation under the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment Act, ten years after the birth of the Rainbow Nation. Let us not forget that Mandela’s credentials as a leader were gained as commander of the ANC when it was still a military organization. He lacked the necessary politicking skills of a statesman and appears to have to deferred to his European educated deputy Thabo Mbeki.

Obama conversely, is a politician, and judging by his reputation in Illinois, a pretty good one at that. This difference in itself could have been enough to leave the Mandela argument alone but I found myself wanting in needing to articulate my position on Obama. Many politicians in the past have promised abstract ideas like ‘change’ and ‘hope’ only to renege. What makes Obama so special?

The question then that provides us with the acid test for Obama is ‘Do his policies, and his record suggest that his mantra of change can be at once symbolic and pragmatic? And moreover can they be accomplished?’ The answer I came to was yes, and it is best looked at in the context of the Democratic Presidential Race.

There are two related fundamental differences between Clinton and Obama and they are consistency and vision.

Obama in stark contrast to Clinton, and most of the Democratic field for that matter, has been consistent in his beliefs from from his days in the Illinois State Senate and has proven to be true to his word especially on the war and on government transparency. This issue of transparency in particular has been a pet cause of Obama’s; along with Russ Feingold Obama was one of the main architects of the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007.

Throughout this primary season it is often mentioned that the two Democratic front runners differ very little (although David Leonhardt differentiates the very real nuances between their economic positions in this article from the New York Times a month ago). But the major policy difference is that Obama’s policies are congruent with a vision, Clinton’s are not, and cannot be.

When analyzing Obama’s policy proposals, one can begin to identify a connected thread of reasoning, from economic to foreign policy, from health to the environment. Obama seeks to provide a united America through fairness and by engaging everyone in the democratic process. Clinton on the other hand, whose positions vary often in accordance with the Clintonism doctrine, approaches each policy as exclusive unto itself and its time e.g her anti-war statements and her support for Kyl-Lieberman. It would be, for her, impossible to knit a patchwork tapestry resembling a vision. Whereas she has shown she intends to make life better for defined groups by breaking down the population into voting blocks, he intends to make American’s better off as a community.

Obama has shown that he works toward defining his Presidency with policy congruent to a vision of conciliation and unification with politicking to achieve that, and in this sense Obama was right to indirectly compare himself to Reagan recently rather than someone like Mandela . For all the foreign atrocities sanctioned by Reagan and the disastrous domestic legacy of his so-called voodoo economics, Reagan proved that through charismatic leadership with a vision defined by policy the country was able to gather round right wing economic values dressed as American values. Just imagine what Obama could do with progressive values as American values.

Symbolism, obviously, is not some panacea, it is merely a supplement. Obama appears to understand this and in order for his symbolism to succeed as a tool to improve people’s lives it must be undergirded with consistent policy initiatives. Competent governance doesn’t require symbolism to work but it is essential that symbolism have competent governance to survive as a motivator. South Africa is now realizing this.


~ by oddlyamerican on January 26, 2008.

4 Responses to “The Symbolism of Obama and Mandela”

  1. It’s just like you to destoy someone’s hero on an international holiday. I do hope you’re not becoming an indignant, humourless old bugger. :) As I have been feeling the lack of interesting conversation recently (and am presently rather – actually incredibly- bored), I will respond and attempt to get a fix via electronic means.

    I agree with your criticisms of Mandela’s policies. Many were disastrous, poorly designed and executed – particularly those on public health. I do think, however, that Mandela’s symbolic popular ‘hero’ status was (perhaps) a necessary evil at that point in South Africa’s history. Every newly democratic or independent nation with a history of violence and opression, like South Africa, faces a rocky period of transition. Many democracies have been born, only to fall back into dictatorship/theocracy etc. in their first years due to corruption, religious/ethnic violence and/or political infighting. While Mandela may have been a poor governor, I would argue that he was quite a good statesman. He (and the rest of the government) was able to unite the country and keep it functioning at a time when it had a real potential to explode into widespread racial violence. Measures such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission allowed the population to air its greivances without retaliation against the white population, which in my mind, is nothing short of a miracle. Such a measure shows a level of economic awareness. Had it become impossible for white business to operate in South Africa, the economy would have become a basketcase very quickly. You only need to take a look at Mugabe for an example. Anyway, when one considers the difficulties associated with governing South Africa at the time, and all the things that could have gone wrong, I think Mr Mandela did rather a good job really. It is almost unheard of for an uneducated, former revolutionary war leader (which is really what he was)to take power, govern, and then leave office with democracy and his country more or less in tact.

    While I have not been following the candidates as closely as you obviously have, I have decided that I support Hillary. My reasons are a little cloudy, but I think she is much more careful than perhaps you give her credit for, and I think she has a greater chance of actually achieving her policies. Mr Obama seems rather smooth to me and perhaps lacks the experience and political clout to get things done. Nor has he impressed me as a great visionary. From an outsiders perspective, the US hardly seems a democracy any more, especially with all those bloody lobbyists swarming around everywhere. Given that environment, I find it hard to believe that it is even possible for an honest person to suceed. Hillary may not be popular, or entirely honest, but I think she knows what’s right, I think she is incredibly tenacious, and will fight to get things done. You can see it just by looking at her face. All the years of bullshit she has had to put up with, and all the things she has to do(as she sees it) to try to achieve anything, has bred a level of determination that has the potential to produce results. But what do I know. Nothing really.

    On the other hand, I am interested to know your opinion of Ron Paul. He interests me.

  2. Hi Liam, Romaldo told me to tell you that you’re in his thoughts and he thinks highly and warmly of you and Zoey. Something like that, I didn’t write down the wording. Also, his sister who’s very ill is *not* Gloria, it’s someone else. If you wanna email me a message for him I can deliver it.

    Well you’ve made good arguments on two subjects I’m interested in, and disagree with you both times, but I’m only gonna comment about Mandela. On Obama I’d just say look at his foreign policy advisers, look at his corporate funders, and if afterwards you can still say he’ll unite America around progressive values then congratulations, you’re less cynical than I am.

    I take your point about deifying people, that blinds us to the real actions the venerated. However regarding Nelson Mandela in particular I’d caution you that the man is not only an ex-president, he’s the greatest symbol of the liberation struggle, sort of a South African flag with legs. (Madiba is his tribal name, and when I studied abroad there I saw a butchery called Madiba Meats, which advertises themselves with the slogan “Freeing the Nation.”) The apartheid state shot kids of the Soweto generation for coming and saying fuck these bantustan uncle toms (or coconuts) you’re pushing on us, our real leaders are in your jails and the most important of them is Nelson Mandela.

    But then when Mandela came out and he and the rest of the ANC leadership cut a deal with the Nationalist Party that blacks would get the vote if whites could keep their money, which let the country avoid the civil war they were partway into. The World Bank, who in general are a bunch of neoliberals who are against expropriating large estates to give them to peasants, recommended that the new government redistribute 30% of arable land to blacks within five years, but after 10 years of ANC rule land reform totaled less than 3%. When, hmm, somebody, I believe the IMF, told Mandela that loans taken out by the apartheid state to finance military spending to repress the black population somehow did not qualify as odious debts, he acquiesced and made payments on loans borrowed to fund, among many other horrible things, his own imprisonment. I had a couple former MK fighters tell me argh, this wasn’t what we were fighting for, Mandela stopped the revolution, but in so doing they were conscious of all the innocent people who didn’t die in the civil war the country didn’t have (except in KwaZulu-Natal, with Inkatha) and that they were, after all, talking about the supreme hero of the national liberation struggle. I’m assuming you never went to jail or hospital a funeral in the struggle, so it’s a subject where you should tread really fucking lightly and choose your words with immense care, that’s all I’m saying.

    That’s a difference of opinion between you and me, but one thing you said struck me as wrong, the bit about Mandela not being a statesman because he led the MK, the armed wing of the ANC. First, Mandela barely led it before he was captured. He founded it in 1961 and was captured in 1962. Mostly his role was to found the MK after the long, difficult process of convincing ANC President Chief Albert Lutuli, who was very Christian and greatly preferred nonviolent struggle, that the ANC should take up arms.

    Second, when Mandela came out of prison he *was* a statesman. I remember thinking exactly that at that part of his autobiography, “Huh, he’s not a firebrand anymore, he’s a statesman now.” He made nice with de Klerk, consistently declined to insult anybody no matter how evil they were, he even went and visited Verwoerd’s widow for chrissakes, all for national unity.

    Oh oh, here’s the clearest example. In the early ’90s the Inkata thugs of Chief Butelezi were killing ANC members and their families in KwaZulu-Natal province, often with grotesque brutality, as a proxy of the apartheid state with tolerance by the local police and secret trainings by South African special forces. Mandela came to address a stadium full of angry ANC members hoping their great leader would show up and start handing out AK-47s so they could defend themselves, but nope, he only brought words of reconciliation, I’m guessing because he didn’t want to do anything that might cause the civil in KZN to spread nationwide. So yeah, Mandela governed as a neoliberal but he’s also a human flag and a statesman.

  3. Whoa sorry, that ended up being really long. Guess I miss discussing South African history.

  4. Andrew and Miranda,

    I agree with you both that Mandela should be lauded for what he achieved as the leader of, what was then, a brand new nation. His super-human ability to reconcile with former enemies also should be acknowledged. This however, is a given – Mandela is lauded and lauded for being, as you put it Andrew, the ‘supreme’ hero of the liberation movement. But it is the very use of words such as supreme that provoke reluctance to apportion blame to such people.

    Now, in Mandela’s case the blame he must accept is not merely for poor governance or that he was a little wet behind the ears but that by adopting a neo-liberal agenda pushed aggressively by the IMF, he at once disavowed the ANC’s long-held stance as socialists, contributed to the expanding gulf between rich and poor and helped guide South Africa to the bewildered state it now finds itself in.

    In addition to celebrating the the very real achievements of leaders we should not feel it taboo to criticize them. It behooves us to do so as informed citizens. If we ignore our responsibility because of the high reverence awarded to certain leaders then we tread a very dangerous path.

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