Rest in Power, Grace Lee Boggs
Grace Lee Boggs passed away peacefully on Monday morning aged 100. We are so grateful for the vision of justice and human connection that she gave us and feel incredibly privileged to have been able to share her story with others [writes her namesake, film-maker Grace Lee]
JD adds: In her youth, Grace Lee Boggs was a member of the ‘Shachtmanite’ Workers’ Party and a key figure in the CLR James/Raya Dunayevskaya “Johnson-Forest Tendency”, playing a pioneering role in the development of ‘Third Camp’ revolutionary politics. She remained firmly and actively on the left for the rest of her life, though she moved away from Trotskyism, towards (as I understand it) a more “Third-Worldist’ political philosophy and community activism in Detriot, where she and her auto-worker husband lived from the 1950’s. Anyone who knows more about her is welcome to comment below.
New York Times obit, here
A more detailed appreciation from Comrade Coatesy, here
H/t Daniel R
Yevgeniy Zhuravel interviews Kirill Medvedev (above), a Moscow-based poet, translator, and activist. He is the founder of the Arkady Kots band.
YZ: Can you tell a bit about yourself and how did you became a leftist? It seems that in Russia till recently it was not a common political choice.
KM: I became a self-conscious leftist at the beginning of the 2000s. There is a rather typical scenario for that generation of the Russian left, which emerged mostly from the Soviet intelligentsia of different levels of prosperity. Many of us were still able to spend our childhood under still rather comfortable conditions, so we were able to absorb the humanistic code of the Soviet intelligentsia, and then suddenly found ourselves in the historical hole of the 90s, when this code turned out to be not only redundant, but simply made survival difficult. Some of our parents had believed that shock therapy and total privatisation are the necessary stages on the way to democracy, others voted for the failed Communist Party, and some became quickly disappointed and depoliticised. The new left emerged from this trauma, but not out of a desire for revanche, but with the feeling that both nostalgia for Soviet times and jolly anti-Sovietism, which brought most of the intelligentsia to support Putin, are dead ends; that if one wants to be a citizen and a political subject, some hard work is required in order to build a new political culture and environment. Sometime during 2003-2004, I started getting an idea that maybe this thankless job—being part of the left—is not the worst way to spend the next decade or two.
YZ: The band that you are a part of is called Arkadiy Kots, after the Russian translator of “The Internationale”. Who are the people in the band, why this particular name was chosen and what musical and political traditions do you follow?
KM: The name seemed to be appropriate because Kots was simultaneously a poet, a translator, an activist and a sociologist; he wrote a study on the Belgian unions from the beginning of the 20th century. Such synthesis is interesting to us. Oleg Zhuravlev, with whom we founded the group, is a well-known young sociologist, member of the “Public Sociology Lab” collective, which does research on the recent protests in Russia and Ukraine. They just published a book in Russia, which will be released in Holland soon. Nikolay Oleynikov is a member of the renowned art-group “What has to be done?”(Chto Delat?). His work is related to antifascism and gender problems. In fact, in the Free Marxist Press, we published his collection “Sex of the Oppressed”, the discussions of sex and politics. If Oleg brings to the group the spirit of research, Nikolaj the spirit of militant queer carnival. Anya Petrovich and Misha Griboedov are more professionally connected to music: they are practically the musical directors of the group, fighting, for example, with my horrible unprofessionalism. Gosha Komarov, an activist of the Worker’s Platforms, which unites the most workerist (proletarian) part of the left radicals, is a multi-instrumentalist. This is the backbone of the group, we are all convinced communists, but, as it happens, we occasionally end up playing with people who do not share our views, which gives us some openness and a chance not to turn into a sect.
We translate a lot to Russian – from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to old Italian anarchist songs. We write songs based on poems of Russian poets and write our own: “Be Involved in Political Struggle”, “It is not shameful to be a worker” etc., which hide uneasy reflections about our own political subjectivity.
Overall we try to juxtapose maximised aesthetic openness with a clear political message, to get out of the boundaries of the radical left, subcultural milieu. Right now we are working on an album devoted to the history of the worker’s movements, from Luddites to Zhanaozen, with a support of Confederation of Labour of Russia, whose congress we recently opened with our Russian versions of songs “Bread and Roses” and “Power in a Union”, and gave a concert after the end of it.
YZ:You started the Free Marxist Press publishing house back in 2008. How did it evolve? What did you print recently and what are the plans?
KM: It all had started with samizdat (DIY?) books – “Why I am a Marxist?” by Ernest Mandel, Pasolini’s “Communist Party – to the Youth”, “Marxism and Feminism” by Marcuse etc. Later on we started making small press runs at print shops. Producing a book from A to Z—translation, formatting, cover design, printing, binding, distribution – for me personally was an important experience, though a little bit exotic, mixing the spirit of completely unalienated creative work a la William Morris, on the one hand, and the productionism of the 20s, on the other. Being engaged in the material production of a book one gets into a very special relationships with a text which it contains. Read the rest of this entry »
Above: female Kurdish fighters
From a BTL comment by Lamia at That Place:
Kurdish forces, having linked from east and west to take Tal Abyad and thus cut off the main ISIS supply route to Raqqa (from Turkey), are moving steadily towards the ISIS capital itself. Today they have taken a military base, Brigade 93, outside Ain Issa, which ISIS seized last summer. Reports are of ISIS forces and civilians fleeing to Raqqa itself (which is also the subject of ongoing allied air strikes). Kurdish forces are now only 30 miles from Raqqa. They also have US air support which is of course an advantage in case of ISIS attempts to counter attack on the growing Kurdish front.
The Kurdish campaign in the north of Syria has been the one clear ongoing success in recent months in the fight against ISIS. To think: the heroic Kurds at Kobani were almost written off last October by governments and media alike. Now they are pressing ISIS hard in its own heartland. It’s hard to tell what the outcome will be – even if Raqqa falls, there is still Mosul in Iraq, and ISIS have a habit of taking territory then moving out when under pressure and striking elsewhere. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that they might try setting up a capital in another country entirely. But in the long term that is not a recipe for maintaining a state, keeping up recruitment or scaring your enemies into giving up without a fight.
Kurdish progress in the past couple of weeks alone has been wonderfully fast. Let us hope it is not a false dawn, and keep our fingers crossed for them and their allies.
Over at That Place, Gene has noted the lack of coverage on leftist blogs and websites, of the wonderful news of the defeat of the ISIS (aka Daesh) occupiers of the Syrian border town of Kobane, at the hands of heroic Kurdish forces.
Gene mentions That Place’s own coverage (fair enough), and quite correctly gives credit to Tendance Coatesy‘s coverage, which has been exemplary. I found myself nodding along in agreement, hoping that the silence of much of the left is not symptomatic of any residual sympathy with Islamism, “blow-back” nonsense, or a lingering belief in that highly sophisticated Tariq Ali-ish political philosophy “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”
Then it dawned on me that over here at Shiraz we’ve so far said nothing. So, for the record:
Shiraz Socialist unreservedly apologises to the heroic fighters of the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, for our delay in celebrating your marvellous victory over the fascists and mass rapists of Daesh / ISIS in Kobane. We can only offer you our assurance that this delay is not the result of any political reservations about the justice of your struggle or the need for all principled leftists to give you unqualified support.
Your victory in Kobane is a huge physical and symbolic blow to Daesh’s ambitions.
We celebrate reports that Daesh have lost more than 1,000 fighters since it began its advance on Kobane in September 2014 in an attempt to control the border between Syria and Turkey. At one point the fascist-rapists had taken over most of the city.
Air raids by the US-led coalition undoubtedly helped the anti-fascist struggle, but the credit for this great victory must go the Kurdish forces. The role of women fighters is especially glorious and must be celebrated. As Gene notes:
“One way of countering Islamic State propaganda and recruitment in the West is the widest possible distribution of photos and videos of the female fighters who helped defeat IS– living proof that not only is IS losing, it is losing to women who will fight and die rather than submit to the forced marriage and sexual slavery which IS claims is its right.”
Death to fascism in all its forms! Victory to the Kurds! Victory to democratic, secular socialism!
This article is republished from the website of the American International Socialist Organisation, a group once associated with the British SWP, but who broke their links with them some years ago. I think it’s an important contribution to the debate around identity politics, ‘intersectionality’ postmodernism and the relationship between class and oppression. It’s a longish piece, but quite accessible and well worth taking the trouble to read – JD:
Sharon Smith is author of the forthcoming Women and Socialism: Marxism, Feminism and Women’s Liberation  and Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States . At the Socialism 2014 conference last June, she spoke at a session that took up the discussion about the politics of privilege theory and the practice of privilege-checking.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
I THINK it’s important to make clear at the outset of this presentation that recognizing and appreciating the degree of gross inequality in capitalist society–which is a necessary feature not only of exploitation, but also of oppression–is much more important than the term you use to describe it. That is, whether you call it “privilege,” or “benefits” or “advantages” is not the main issue.
The only way we can hope to build a movement that fights oppression in all its forms, and also includes all oppressed people within it, is not by minimizing the degree of oppression that exists, but by recognizing its many manifestations–no matter which oppressed group you are discussing.
It is also the case that a solid proportion of people, especially young people, who have become radicalized in recent years have done so precisely because of their recognition of and opposition to oppression–be it racism, sexism, LGBTQ oppression, disability oppression or any number of other forms of oppression that exist today.
This makes sense. On the one hand, the dramatic growth in class inequality since 2008 has led to a sharp rise in class-consciousness–most recently demonstrated by the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. But this class-consciousness is mostly limited to anger at class and social inequality–without an obvious connection to a working-class strategy to transform society.
This is completely understandable, since anyone in the U.S. who became politically aware after the mid-1970s will have had little to no opportunity to experience firsthand the solidarity that is palpable among workers who are fighting shoulder to shoulder in an open-ended mass strike. So while the misery caused by the system is obvious to all those who are radicalizing today, the potential power of the working class is not.
Recent generations of young radicals have often gotten their first introduction to the issue of combatting oppression through reading the very influential Peggy McIntosh essay of 1989, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”
The best thing about this essay is that it forces its white readers to appreciate the many manifestations of racism in everyday life. But the essay itself primarily focuses on individual awareness, rather than putting forward a particular strategy for ending racism. I also find that it tends to conflate the meaning of “white” people with white middle-class people, without actually integrating a class analysis.
For its intended purposes, though, this essay raises awareness and does some good–mainly arguing that white people looking at themselves in the mirror should realize the many ways that people of color are victimized in ways that white people do not experience. And McIntosh certainly doesn’t call for privilege-checking as a strategy for social change. This strategy arrived to the radical left much later on. Read the rest of this entry »
The Berlin Wall, erected in 1961 by the East German state, was a symbol of the totalitarian Stalinist systems. The wall was a monstrosity and we are glad it was torn down by Berliners on the night of 9 November 1989. The collapse of Stalinism was a victory for freedom. Despite a wave of capitalist triumphalism that followed, the workers of the former Stalinist states are now able to meet, discuss and form their own organisations. Here, an editorial in Workers’ Liberty magazine of July 1990 examines the reasons behind Stalinism’s collapse in Eastern Europe.
For over 60 years the typical totalitarian Stalinist society — in the USSR, in the USSR’s East European satellites, in Mao’s China, or in Vietnam — has presented itself to the world as a durable, congealed, frozen system, made of a hitherto unknown substance.
Now the Stalinist societies look like so many ice floes in a rapidly warming sea — melting, dissolving, thawing, sinking and blending into the world capitalist environment around them.
To many calling themselves Marxists or even Trotskyists, Stalinism seemed for decades to be “the wave of the future”. They thought they saw the future and — less explicably — they thought it worked.
The world was mysteriously out of kilter. Somehow parts of it had slipped into the condition of being “post-capitalist”, and, strangely, they were among the relatively backward parts, those which to any halfway literate Marxist were least ripe for it. Now Stalin’s terror turns out to have been, not the birth pangs of a new civilisation, but a bloodletting to fertilise the soil for capitalism.
Nobody foresaw the way that East European Stalinism would collapse. But the decay that led to that collapse was, or should have been, visible long ago.
According to every criterion from productivity and technological dynamism through military might to social development, the world was still incontestably dominated by international capitalism, and by a capitalism which has for decades experienced consistent, though not uninterrupted, growth.
By contrast, the Stalinist states, almost all of which had begun a long way down the world scale of development, have for decades now lurched through successive unavailing efforts to shake off creeping stagnation.
The Stalinist systems have become sicker and sicker. The bureaucracies tried to run their economies by command, and in practice a vast area of the economic life of their societies was rendered subterranean, even more anarchic than a regular, legal, recognised market-capitalist system.
The ruling class of the model Stalinist state, the USSR, emerged out of the workers’ state set up by the October 1917 revolution by way of a struggle to suppress and control the working class and to eliminate the weak Russian bourgeoisie that had come back to life in the 1920s. It made itself master of society in a series of murderous if muffled class struggles. Its state aspired to control everything to a degree and for purposes alien to the Marxism whose authority it invoked. And it did that in a backward country.
In the days of Stalin’s forced collectivisation and crash industrialisation, the whole of society could be turned upside down by a central government intent on crude quantitative goals and using an immense machinery of terror as its instrument of control, motivation, and organisation.
When the terror slackened off — and that is what Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin essentially meant: he told the members of his bureaucratic class that life would be easier from then on — much of the dynamism of the system slackened off too.
To survive, the bureaucracy had to maintain its political monopoly. It could not have democracy because it was in a sharp antagonism with most of the people, and in the first place with the working class.
So there was a “compromise formation”, neither a self-regulating market system nor properly planned, dominated by a huge clogging bureaucratic state which could take crude decisions and make them good, but do little else. State repression was now conservative, not what it was in the “heroic” days either in intensity or in social function.
The USSR slowed down and began to stagnate. And then the rulers of the USSR seemed to suffer a collapse of the will to continue. They collapsed as spectacularly as the old German empire collapsed on 11 November 1918.
Initiatives from the rulers in the Kremlin, acting like 18th century enlightened despots, triggered the collapse of the Russian empire in Eastern Europe. But it was a collapse in preparation for at least quarter of a century.
The Stalinists had tried nearly 30 years before to make their rule more rational, flexible and productive by giving more scope to market mechanisms. Now, it seems, the dominant faction in the USSR’s bureaucracy has bit the bullet: they want full-scale restoration of market capitalism. Some of the bureaucrats hope to become capitalists themselves. But with its central prop — its political monopoly — gone, the bureaucracy is falling apart.
The fundamental determinant of what happened in Eastern Europe in the second half of 1989 was that the Kremlin signalled to its satraps that it would not back them by force: then the people took to the streets, and no-one could stop them.
It is an immense triumph for the world bourgeoisie — public self-disavowal by the rulers of the Stalinist system, and their decision to embrace market capitalism and open up their states to asset-stripping.
We deny that the Stalinist system had anything to do with socialism or working-class power. Neither a workers’ state, nor the Stalinist states in underdeveloped countries, could ever hope to win in economic competition with capitalism expanding as it has done in recent decades The socialist answer was the spreading of the workers’ revolution to the advanced countries; the Stalinists had no answer.
The Stalinist system was never “post capitalist”. It paralleled capitalism as an underdeveloped alter ego. Socialists have no reason to be surprised or dismayed about Stalinism losing its competition with capitalism.
The bourgeoisie has triumphed over the Stalinists, but it has not triumphed over socialism. And genuine socialism receives the possibility of rebirth as a mass movement from the events in Eastern Europe.
The picture below should shame anyone and everyone in Britain (and the rest of the West) who doesn’t bother to vote …
Men show their fingers after the ink-stained part of their fingers were cut off by the Taliban after they took part in the presidential election, in Herat province June 14, 2014.
…but even more, it should shame those on the so-called “left” who have ever expressed (publicly or privately) any degree of sympathy for the rural fascists of the Taliban. You know who you are (and so do we), you scum.
Ernest Mandel once proposed that World War Two should be seen as, simultaneously, an inter-imperialist dispute and an anti-fascist struggle. The two elements are difficult to disentangle, even in retrospect, but both should be recognised and, insofar as we can, distinguished between. D-Day was, I’d contend, indubitably part of the anti-fascist struggle. The young workers who fought and died then, and the dwindling band of elderly survivors, deserve our profound respect and gratitude.
Max Hastings (yes, I know he’s a Tory, but he’s also a damned good military historian), wrote in his superb book on WW2, All Hell Let Loose (Harper Press 2011):
Meticulous planning and immense armaments promised Overlord‘s success, but the hazards of weather and the skill of the German army fed apprehension in many British and American breasts. The consequences of failure must be appalling: civilian morale would plummet on both sides of the Atlantic; senior commanders would have to be sacked and replaced; the presige of the Western Allies, so long derided by Stalin for feebleness, would be grievously injured, likewise the authority of Roosevelt and Churchill. Even after three year’s attrition in the east, the German army remained a formidable fighting force. It was vital that Eisenhower should confront von Rundstedt’s sixty divisions in the west with superior combat power. Yet the invaders were supported by such a vast logistical and support ‘tail’ that, even when they reached their maximum strength in 1945, they would deploy only sixty American and twenty British and Canadian combat divisions. Air power, together with massive armoured and artillery strength, was called upon to compensate for inadequate infantry numbers.
For the young men who made the assault on 6 June 1944, however, such grand truths meant nothing: they recognised only the mortal peril each one must face, to breach Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. The invasion began with drops by one British and two American airborne divisions on the night of5 June. The landings were chaotic but achieved their objectives, confusing the Germans and securing the flanks of the assault zone; paratroopers engaged enemy forces wherever they encountered them with an energy worthy of such elite formations.
Sgt. Mickey McCallum never forgot his first firefight, a few hours after landing. A German machine-gunner mortally wounded the man next to him, Private Bill Atlee. McCullum asked Attlee ‘if he was hit bad’. The soldier replied, ‘I’m dying Sergeant Mickey, but we’re going to win this damn war, aren’t we? You damn well A we are.’ McCallum did not know where Atlee hailed from, but thought his choice of words suggested an east coast man. He was passionately moved that this soldier, in his last moments, thought of the cause rather than himself. In the hours and days that followed, many other such young men displayed similar spirit and were obliged to make a matching sacrifice. At dawn on 6 June, six infantry divisions with supporting armour struck the beaches of Normandy across a thirty-mile front; one Canadian and two British formations landed on the left, three American divisions on the right.
Operation Overlord was the greatest combined operation in history. Some 5,300 ships carried 150,000 men and 1,500 tanks, scheduled to land in the first wave, supported by 12,000 aircraft. On the French coast that morning, a drama unfolded in three dimensions such as the world would never behold again, British and Canadian troops poured ashore at Sword, Juno and Gold beaches, exploiting innovative armoured technology to overwhelm the defences, many of them manned by Osttruppen of Hitler’s empire. ‘I was the first tank coming ashore and the Germans started opening up with machine-gun bullets,’ said Canadian Sgt. Leo Gariepy. ‘But when we came to a halt on the beach, it was only then that they realized we were a tank when we pulled down our canvas skirt, the flotation gear. Then they saw we were Shermans.’ Private Jim Cartwright of the South Lancashires said, ‘As soon as I hit the beach I wanted to get away from the water. I think I went across the beach like a hare.’
The Americans seized Utah, the elbow of the Cherbourg peninsula, with only a small loss. ‘You know, it sounds kind of dumb, but it was just like an exercise,’ said a private soldier wonderingly. ‘We waded ashore like kids in a crocodile and up the beach. A couple of shells came over but nowhere near us. I think I even felt somehow disappointed, a little let down.’ Further east at Omaha beach, however, Americans suffered the heaviest casualties of the day — more than eight hundred killed. The German defending unit , while no elite, was composed of better troops than those manning most of the Channel front, and kept up vigorous fire against the invaders. ‘No one was moving forward,’ wrote AP correspondent Don Whitehead. ‘Wounded men, drenched by cold water, lay in the gravel … “Oh God, lemme aboard the boat,” whimpered a youth in semi-delirium. Near him a shivering boy dug with bare fingers into the sand. Shells were bursting on all sides of us, some so close that they threw black water and dirt over us in showers.’
A private soldier wrote: ‘ There were men crying with fear, men defecating themselves. I lay there with some others, too petrified to move. No one was doing anything except lay there. It was like mass paralysis. I couldn’t see an officer. At one point something hit me on the arm. I thought I’d taken a bullet. It was somebody’s hand, taken clean off by something. It was too much.’ For half the morning, the Omaha assault hung on the edge of failure; only after several hours of apparent stalemate on the sands did small groups of determined men, Rangers notable among them, work their way up the bluffs above the sea, gradually overwhelming the defenders.
Guest post by George Mellor
Events in Ukraine are shaping up to be a re-run of what happened to Eastern Europe at the end of WW11 – one hopes with a very different conclusion. Then, a struggle took place over whether these countries would be assimilated into the orbit of either Western or Soviet Imperialism. The tragedy was that betrayal by the West (at Teheran, Yalta and the ‘percentages agreement’ between Stalin and Churchill in Moscow in October 1944) allowed the GPU and the `red army’ to place their jackboot on the necks of the workers, and these countries became vassals of Stalinism for nearly 50 years.
Then (as now) the question was (and is) how to build independent working class activity, and here we can see a difference between the imperialisms of East and West: the former crushed and atomised civil society. The norms of bourgeois democracy, the rule of law, pluralism – all the building blocks on which a free and independent labour movement could exist, were extinguished. This repression was met with sporadic revolts, all branded ‘counter-revolutionary acts’ put down by the Russians providing ‘fraternal assistance’ to the local Stalinist ruling classes.
While the Eastern European states, as well as the Ukraine, obtained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union, all had been shaped by their experience of subjugation by Russia. For over 50 years the national question (once banished as a political question in Europe and raised by Trotsky specifically around the Ukraine in 1939) has shaped the body politic of these countries. Recovering from this subjugation some of these countries have fared well in nation building, others – mainly those infected by the gangster capitalism of Russia (look at the pictures of Yanukovych’s palace – the amassing by an individual of state sanctioned plunder) have not.
Russia is of course still a major power and is intent on rebuilding its empire through the mechanism of the Eurasian Union. For sure outside of a successful workers’ revolution nations will either be drawn into the orbit of either the West or Russia . For the Ukraine – which has the potential of being an important economic power- a precondition for embracing the Eurasian Union was to the need for an autocratic state seen in the centralising of power in the President.
Yanukovych’s support for Ukraine’s integration back into Russia’s orbit triggered the Euromaidan, a response which would not have been out of place in 1848. A movement of over 1m who have shown great fortitude and discipline in the face of continual attacks by the riot police. Far from acting like a mob ‘the people’ have organised the control of public buildings, and refused to be bowed by their so-called leaders or their ‘saviours’ the EU. This incoherent mass from the far right through to the far left linked by the single ill-defined idea of national sovereignty and independence. The idea that this civic protest could have been shaped by anything other than nationalism would be naïve.
Russia is then faced with a mass movement of dissent from the path it has chosen for the Ukraine. So behind the scenes they will be sowing the seeds of dissention playing on the fears of the Russian speaking regions.
In the West most of this propaganda war is being run by the successors to Stalinism, the neo-Stalinists, echoing their predecessors’ propaganda which accompanied the assimilation of Eastern Europe into the Stalinist Empire. Then the Stalinist lie was based on a false premise that Russia was exporting socialism. Today our neo-Stalinists continue to play the role of the border guards to a capitalist Russia.
However the propaganda is the same: all living movements such as we see in Ukriane are branded fascist or reactionary. Unless one wishes to be a functionary in such a Russian dominated regime the socialist who argues such a view will only succeed in cutting themselves off from any influence on the Euromaidan.
I am sure sections – I do not know what proportion – of the Euromaidan are fascists or semi-fascists: how could this be otherwise? The job of socialists is to organise against them at the same time supporting Ukrainian right to self determination including independence from Russia, arguing for maximum democracy including the right of the CP to organise and most importantly organising independent working class action.
Between now and the election in May we can only watch how events unfold; how far Putin will be able to destabilise the situation, how far the Ukrainians are going to find real leaders and weed out the false messiahs (as the election approaches workers will be faced with more false messiahs than the Catholic Church has saints.) will in part be down to how socialists intervene. However I wonder how far workers will be open to socialist ideas when their lived experience has been that of actually existing socialism i.e. Stalinism.
From the Daily Maverick: ends with ‘prayers’ that we all can share.
“It’s still nice to dance, crack jokes and wear a loud shirt”
Slightly adapted from a piece by Marelise Van Der Merwe
Our heroes are falling one by one, our police don’t protect us, and our politicians are weak and vicious. And we’ve been hanging onto Mandela as though our lives depend on it, not his; when what we should be doing is using the great gift of introspection that he gave us to pull ourselves from the wreckage.
Newspapers have been on standby in case the news breaks – so much so, in fact, that a DStv channel aired an obituary in error earlier this year, much to the righteous rage of the ANC. The country doesn’t want to look away, in a mixture of mercenary alertness (God forbid we be the newspaper that misses it) and heart-wrenching sadness (he is our everything).
After the DStv obituary aired, ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu flew off the handle somewhat, and I can’t say I blame him. To me, the incident symbolised everything that is wrong with this compulsive Madiba-watching. “This was uncalled for and totally insensitive,” Mthembu fumed. “President Mandela is alive and receiving treatment for a recurring lung infection, as reported by the Presidency.
“We join millions of South Africans and people all over the world in wishing Madiba a speedy recovery and discharge from the hospital. We also join all those who are offering their prayers for the old statesman to get better.”
I must say, though, that Mthembu was wrong on one count. My prayers were not for Madiba’s speedy recovery. My prayers and good wishes were that he would not have a long, drawn-out death; that he would be peaceful; that he would be surrounded by loved ones and look back with satisfaction on the life he lived. He was an old, old man – one who crammed more into his active years outside of jail than most people would do in two lifetimes. He used his jail time, too, to good effect, educating himself and others, spreading messages of peace, and most importantly, working on his inner world – coming to terms with the abuse he had suffered, so that when he came out of jail, he was able to lead us all to genuine reconciliation.
What I didn’t want for him was speculation, the endless watching for whether he made it through the night, the long process of going into hospital, coming back out, labouring for air. There is a reason pneumonia is known as the old man’s friend: it is quick and usually not painful.
If there is anything Madiba taught us, it was gentleness and humanity, not to mention the stupendous power of forgiveness. In my own life, this struggle for forgiveness has been massive, for reasons unrelated to the political climate. But every time the anger comes, I look towards Madiba and remember what the human soul can overcome. He had a profound influence on my life, and I am sure I am not the only one. Part of what made him such a remarkable human being is that you would be hard-pressed to find a person who had not been influenced by him in some way. He was the person who looked through the vicious shells of Apartheid leaders, prison warders; the insensitive crusts of self-righteous whites who did not want to change. He looked through them all, saw the human beings inside, and reached out to them. He gave us all the mercy we so desperately want, and he led others to it, too.
Madiba earned his rest. He earned the right to sit quietly with the people he loved most in this world, and drift gently into the next one. He gave us his life in service – but we didn’t even want to grant him his death. Why did we keep on wanting him to get better, just so that he could go back into hospital? Selfishly, we didn’t want to let go of all he symbolised, so we wanted him to cling to a life that he had, in all honesty, lived out.
Madiba withdrew himself many years ago, as we all know. He did not want public life anymore; what he wanted was a life, a good life, with his family. He was done fighting and wanted happiness. And that, ironically, seems to be the one thing that – for all our claimed love – we didn’t want to grant him.
If you have ever read fairy tales or epics, you will know that a typical plot manoeuvre is for the main character, at the critical stage, to lose his mentor. South Africa is at that critical stage now: we are staring into the abyss, the crisis times have come, and we have lost our father figure. But what happens in these stories? The fighter gets up and carries on; he moves forward with the tools the mentor has given him already. And if it is a good story, he emerges victorious.
Madiba gave us many tools. He is done giving now, and we should accept that. What we can do if we want to honour and respect him is use those tools and remember those lessons. The way I see it, if we really want to show love for Madiba, we should be praying for ourselves.
We should pray that we can learn to forgive like Madiba.
We should pray that we learn to sacrifice, without complaint, for the common good.
We should pray we learn that even time we believe is wasted can be used to achieve so much good: in learning, in thought leadership, in becoming greater within ourselves, while we wait for circumstances beyond our control to change.
We should pray that we learn his great gift of introspection, so that we never let the bitterness grow inside us, even when it seems nothing is changing.
We should pray that we have the courage to speak up and be honest, even if there are grim punishments in store for us when we do.
We should pray to be gentle, but not meek – to fight for what we believe in.
We should pray that even when we are good, good people, we remember that nobody likes a goody-goody: that it’s still nice to dance, crack jokes and wear a loud shirt.
And most of all, we should pray to remember that all great changes begin with the person in the mirror: our own transformation leads it all.
If all South Africans strive for this, maybe, just maybe, we will be able to give Madiba the same gift back that he tried to give to us: a country that works.
He has paid his debt to South Africa, and more. He has led each one of us to strive to be a better person, in a better South Africa. It is time for us to lovingly let him go, and to move forward with the lessons he sacrificed so much to teach us.