Sanitising Mandela

"Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice." Nelson Mandela.

No doubt like many of you I've been thinking a lot about Nelson Mandela. I've also been thinking about how his life and death affects our political fortunes both at home and further afield.

As a young man, on the edge of political consciousness, the anti-apartheid movement and the political left became one and the same to me. It was overwhelmingly the left that allied itself to the ANC cause. Ultimately it was one of the defining factors that allowed me to work out where my politics lay.

Apartheid was the manifestation of a racist ideology that had its roots in slavery, empire and postcolonialism. For as long as Apartheid was tolerated and allowed to flourish by Thatcher, Regan and their like, there could be no real and lasting race equality in either Soweto or Solihull.

So it bothers me deeply when the political right seek to bask in the light of a man, who throughout his life opposed so much of what they stand for.

"Nelson Mandela was a hero of our time," intoned David Cameron, who went off on a junket to apartheid South Africa in 1989, with all expenses paid by a firm lobbying against sanctions.

"President Mandela was one of the great forces for freedom and equality of our time," declared George W Bush, neglecting to mention that ANC were still on a US terror-watch list until 2008 and Dick Cheney was voting against resolutions calling for his release.

"Death of a colossus," was the headline in a recent Daily Mail article, yet it marked his 1990 release with "The violent homecoming" -  "Violence and death disfigured the release of Nelson Mandela yesterday …".

But it's not just their hypocrisy that bothers me. More importantly it's their land grab for his political and historical legacy.

The worlds powerful understand that Mandela's legacy and message, as relating to the downfall of injustice, is a potential danger to their own hegemony. He was a freedom fighter. He challenged the established order and he won. At a time when our planet is burning, where vested interests seem untouchable and corporate greed and power makes a mockery of democracy, Mandela's appeal is a powerful one.

Mandela's life was a journey. The powerful, who do not want to see change, wish us to see him as a sanitised, saintly, establishment figure who through his kind and gentle way achieved the end of Apartheid. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Hard fought economic sanctions and for a time armed struggle and later the threat of it, as well as mass protest and unrest, played its part. It was this, in conjunction with his later peaceful approach, that brought Apartheid to its knees - and rightly so.

That wider struggle like his life has many facets, some of them darker than others. The powerful must not be allowed to sanitise the entirety of that struggle in the public's consciousness. Throughout his life Mandela took cause with injustice and wrong - from Iraq and Afghanistan through to Israel, Palestine and the immorality of poverty.

The worlds powerful will want to paper over these inconvenient truths. Therefore we ourselves should not get carried away with his ‘saintliness’ and in so doing let them rewrite history and reframe his life and very human struggle, to suit their own ends.