Mana for Mohandas Mandela


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THE twentieth century has been a strange century. It died before it was chronologically complete. All the great movements – from peace to nationalism, from socialism to third world solidarity – were moribund within a few decades. Leaders like Mao, Nehru, Ho, Nasser were forgotten or frozen as memories in stone before the century ended. Only two men survived the test of history, one electrifying the first half and the latter the second – Gandhi and Mandela.

Gandhi and Mandela haunt us as myths, as legends, as metaphors. They dwarf history to remind us that their political visions are still incomplete. In an odd way, only the anti-apartheid movement as an idea survived the twentieth century. Mandela was the gold standard for leadership in the latter half of the 20th century and no one managed to equal him. The Merkels, the Clintons, the Obamas, the Singhs seem pedestrian, pushed to galvanic jerks by PROs, but not one has a claim to greatness. Nelson Mandela, who died recently, survived the corrosive power of politics almost to the end.

Between Mandela and Gandhi one can create a political and ethical map of the century. The first embodies the power of the Guerrilla and the second, the legend of the Satyagrahi and the guerrilla and the satyagrahi, as figures, are the two great tuning forks of the century. The guerrilla evokes a violent response to oppression. Yet, he is not the standard Marxist revolutionary like Lenin and Trotsky. He is a soldier who battles standing armies by changing the rules of the game. The Vietnamese guerrilla was both exemplary and paradigmatic in defeating the high caloric, consumerist American army which could not imagine how an opponent could survive on so little and yet out-think and outfight it. Mao and Nguyen Giap were paradigmatic heroes in using the body, mimicking nature, transforming the cycle and the bamboo to magical tools to win victories the West could not dream of. Yet, Vietnam seems moribund today as Ho sits embalmed and Mao has shrunk to a tyrant after the excesses of the Cultural Revolution stand exposed. Mao and Pol Pot demonstrate how easily a guerrilla can mutate into a tyrant. Mandela and ANC (African National Congress) belong to the tradition of the guerrilla heroes who use war to win freedom.


The satyagrahi offers a different paradigm, of courage and ethics to fight tyranny. His body becomes the site of struggle, a paradigm for non-violence. Both the guerrilla and satyagrahi use the ways of the weak to challenge the strong. Giap’s strategy against the French at the battle of Dien Bein Phu is as legendary as Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March. Both emasculated empires. If Che and Castro followed Giap, the satyagrahi gave birth to a string of successions in the Velvet Revolution of Havel in Czechoslovakia, in the Arab Spring, in the battle of the Mothers of Argentina.

The guerrilla and the satyagrahi stand as paradigmatic but dualistic figures of the 20th century. Only one man combined them to create a new upsurge of freedom – Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Mandela and Gandhi form an entrancing complementarity in the choreography of politics. Mandela was the guerrilla who almost transformed into a satyagrahi. The battle against apartheid was brutal. ANC’s excesses were almost as violent as those of the official apartheid forces. Mandela realized that victory in war could not be the solution. There was a crass strength to apartheid that would not yield. Mandela decided to absorb the oppressor in his new vision of the regime and the Truth Commission of Desmond Tutu became the moral vehicle for this metanoctic act.


The Truth Commission is an African indigenization or reinvention of the satyagrahi. Two elements mark the Truth Commission. First, the therapeutic role of storytelling so critical to African folklore. Second, the Christian idea of confession became a particular form of truth telling, where the sinner, whether weak or powerful, confesses to his errors. Confession is a private act of talking to God through the priest. The idea of the Truth Commission combines the confessional and storytelling to create a socio-drama of rapprochement where the apartheid torturer or the ANC warrior tells all in public as a way of enshrining memory and exorcizing guilt. The Truth Commission was Mandela’s version of Gandhi’s Experiments in Truth. Both knew they were vehicles which had to be constantly sustained and worked upon. Mere prefaces to truth could be misleading because truth needs the candidness of detail.

The normative framework of the Truth Commission did, in a way, end the battle against apartheid. Between Ubuntu and a certain style of Tutu Christianity, both oppressor and the oppressed were prepared for rituals of reconciliation. Today, the TRC may look more like a social science juggernaut than a moral experiment. Yet, it is this idea of the experiment as a vehicle to transcend politics and create new imaginaries that marked Mandela and Gandhi.

For Gandhi, the ashram was the site for experimentation. Whether it was prayer, diet, walking, weaving or sexuality, the ashram became a theatre for experiments. Gandhi’s periods in jail were merely extension counters to his laboratory experiments. For Mandela, the prison at Robin Island became a site for his transformatory genius. Stories of Mandela at Robin Island are legion. He learnt to forgive, heal himself, so that he could be ready to heal a nation. The warrior became the healer who realized that eradicating apartheid was not enough; one had to provide a therapy for years of violence. If his prison warden could feel he is a friend, maybe Botha and Clerk could also be bigger than themselves. Mandela refused to walk free till all the prisoners were released first. Mandela entered Robin Island as a warrior hero and left incarceration twenty seven years later as a larger than life legend. By the time he was released, he had become the greatest living leader of the Globe. Like Gandhi, Mandela’s greatness, his selflessness, could seduce an opposition.


Mandela and Gandhi invite comparison in more than a historical sense. As men, both had stormy relations with their wives, yet both acknowledged their wives as central to the struggle. The estranged Winnie was the woman warrior ready to take the battle to any extremes. Kasturba’s was a gentle story, of a woman shocked into cleaning her own toilet. Two inflexible husbands confronting two immovable wives. One realizes that neither could have been the man he was without the character of the woman they lived with. An estranged Winnie would still get her ovation from history. Both Winnie and Kasturba suffered, not just for freedom but for letting each man become the larger than life creature they became. One has to see each pain as a hyphen of history creating the courageous and the singular. Hyphens as markers connect and leave each to be singularly individual. The French playwright Helene Cixous wrote the novel, Manna: For the Mandelstams For the Mandelas. One wishes she had hyphenated Gandhi and Mandela, creating a more tantalizing dance of history.


Sadly both men became fetishes for goodness, empty totems of the world they represented. Mandela would sign baseballs and market branded shirts. He became a floating signifier for freedom, moving from the profound to the ridiculous as he levitated to another level. His legend remained intact but South Africa lost its sheen. With Chris Hani and Steve Biko dying during the struggle, Mandela was mimicked to mediocrity by Mbeki and Zuma, each more pedestrian than the other. Gandhi too has been museumized with later day Gandhians echoing Old Testament intolerance or an empty ritualism.

I think Mandela outlived the legend he created, but he deteriorated from legend to a brand as South Africa discovered a new wave of BMW politicians. Both Gandhi and he became empty reflections of their own era. The young Africans felt Mandela had retired to sainthood too early. His own followers had betrayed the ideal of unity and the ANC became a living symbol of disappointment by mangling the dreams of many who suffered for it. A dream had become nightmare for those who created it.

Zuma’s speech at Mandela’s funeral captured not just the pedestrian nature of the man but the current era. A tarnished greatness became the cancer of great leadership as the political and ethical separated in Mandela. He remained a political mnemonic untouched by South African realities. It is almost as if volume three of the Mandela epic is empty or full of light entertainment as he became currency for the frolic of lesser politics. One misses Biko and Chris Hani in a world without Mandelas.

Yet there is a strange historical power to the Mandela ending. I remember a critic commenting that the genius of Tolstoy lay in the fact that he did not end War and Peace with the end of the battle of Sebastipool but went on to see the hero banalize into domesticity. The critic showed that this revealed that Tolstoy understood the rhythms of life and politics better. In this sense, History was kinder to Gandhi. When Gandhi died defeated by Partition, people sent money orders to the assassins’ family. Gandhi died without his vision being banalized by a nationalist India into cottage industry fetishes, at least during the early years.


There is something tragic about both men even as we celebrate them. They stand at the cusp between liberty and emancipation. Liberty as a project seeks the overthrow of the oppressor. Yet, the irony of overthrowing White with Black is that Black becomes oppressive in turn. The tragedy of India and South Africa is precisely that movements of liberation refused to become movements of emancipation. During emancipation, a liberated people realize liberty is but an overture to true freedom. Freedom needs emancipation where one not only overthrows an oppressor but challenges the seductiveness of oppression. Gandhi and Mandela became legends because they moved beyond liberation. They were the great figures of the beginning of emancipation. The Truth Commission embodies the transition from Swadeshi to Swaraj. Both lives contained the emancipatory turn of politics. Yet, both Gandhi and Mandela died before their nations could begin the emancipatory project.

This today is the challenge of the Gandhi-Mandela project. They are not mnemonics to a world that has ended but invitations to a country of the future. They are exemplars of a still imaginary world beyond current frameworks and categories. One has to begin with an exorcism of current words, the inflated currency of development, security, nation state, market, modern science and bracket each word as a network of meanings and as a way of life. Emancipation calls for new bhakti cults of the mind, where liberty and oppression do not become imitative cycles of each other.


The death of Mandela marks the beginning of the 21st century. The last 30 years have been a lull, a history of freedom in suspended animation. We need new metaphors for bolder experiments, for new epistemologies, new theories of the body. As a sad cynic once remarked, the only globalization of the last thirty years has been the globalization of evil. It is as if goodness has been localized so that evil as war, violence, genocide, indifference can spread across the world. It is a period where we realized the limits of modern science and blandness of modern theology or ethics confronting the new technological innovations.

Mandela and Gandhi sensed that the long walk to freedom had to become a leap of faith into the categories of the future. This is what the new villages and neighbourhoods of the mind must pursue – new beginnings, new inventions, new experiments with an ethics of memory moving courageously to the future. Gandhi and Mandela are not just icons of an old history but ancestors of a future yet to come. They provide us with genealogies so that we can steer courageously into the loneliness of a yet undefined future.