Mandela, Media, and Moral Hypocrisy

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In honor of the passing of legendary Statesman and freedom-fighter Nelson Mandela, President Obama ordered that government officials lower all U.S. flags to half-staff. It is a posthumous honor bestowed on several  international  luminaries in the past– Pope John Paul II, assassinated Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin, Princess Diana of Wales, King Hussein of Jordan, and in 1965, Winston Churchill.

Hence, it only seems fitting that Nelson Mandela, one of the 20th century’s greatest champions for human rights,  would also receive this national honor. Mandela’s triumph over apartheid resonates far beyond the borders of South Africa. He has  become a symbol of graciousness and human resilience to people all over the world, particularly the oppressed.

But there are certain corners of America, a country that still grapples with its own apartheid legacy, where Mandela’s powerful message falls on deaf ears.

In Pickens County, South Carolina, a place where in 2008 and 2012 the Republican presidential ticket garnered the highest totals in all of the state with over 73 percent of the vote, Sheriff Rick Clark refused to lower flags in the wake of Mandela’s passing.  Using social media as his stump, Clark insisted the honor be reserved for fallen Americans.

I watched CNN and several other media outlets frame the debate, making this news story a question of for whom the flag should be lowered. I watched as journalists eluded the obvious, opting to portray Clark’s defiance as a controversial display of patriotism, rather than as racism cloaked in thinly-veiled code. Flags have been lowered for international dignitaries many times before, but never a Black dignitary. No news agency, not one, mentioned race.

Clark’s refusal to honor Mandela has little to do with birthright, and more to do with civil rights.  The South Carolina town is loath to pay homage to a man that fought tirelessly against apartheid,  a South African caste system that is in fact based on the American  Jim Crow and  Black Code laws. He is loath to honor a man who went from being political prisoner to the first Black president of South Africa, especially when the mandate comes from the first Black president of America.

Sheriff Clark is not simply defying the president, he’s defending the very racist ideology against which  Mandela famously rebelled.

And how can we be surprised given South Carolina’s dismal history when it comes to race relations? South Carolina was the first state to institute the Slave Codes, the last state to repeal anti-miscegenation laws, and the Confederate Flag, a symbol of America’s grisly apartheid past, still proudly waves over the State Capital.

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But this is not about South Carolina, or a recalcitrant sheriff. The greater issue here is the media’s practice of  glossing over uncomfortable matters of race, as if these tensions aren’t ubiquitous, coloring even the most mundane of our day to day interactions.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the handling of Mandela’s passing, a moment news rooms have been preparing for since the summer when Mandela fell ill. Dressed in kid gloves,American journalists have spun Mandela’s biography into a triumphant Cinderella story beginning with his prison sentence and ending the collapse of South African apartheid.

Mandela is being canonized as a noble pacifist, a man who collaborated with the same government officials that had him thrown in jail for nearly decades. A man who once elected President, vowed there would be no retribution against the Whites, as there had been against the Nazi’s following World War II. A man who vested people of color with political access, but tragically failed to open up their gateways to economic empowerment.

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Missing from their 24 hour coverage is Mandela’s subversive beginnings. Following  the Sharpeville massacre of 69 unarmed  demonstrators during a 1960 protest against the apartheid laws and the subsequent arrest of some 18,000 people, a young Mandela came to understand that peaceful resistance was not enough.

In 1961 Mandela lead the armed resistance, helping to  create the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe or Spear of the Nation. It was at this point, when he chose freedom from oppression by any means necessary,  that Mandela joined the ranks other ‘radical’ activists;  the likes of Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Touissant L’Ouverture, and Nat Turner, those charismatic figures we didn’t read about in grade school.

But to admit the Mandela was once like Malcolm X, to admit that he was once angry, to admit that he didn’t magically fall from the heavens and render apartheid asunder with a humble nod, is to admit America’s own shortcomings because at the same time that Mandela mobilized his guerrilla troops, Black militants in America were doing the same.

In their revised history, Mandela is not unlike the eponymous character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a Black man who can only gain virtue through humility. As James Baldwin wrote in Everybody’s Protest Novel, ” His triumph is metaphysical, unearthly. Since he is Black, born without the light, it is only through humility, the incessant mortification of the flesh, that he can enter into communion with God or man.”

Of course Madiba was no one’s Uncle Tom, but  American  will selfishly white-wash his image, re-imaging him as a one-dimensional stock character in America’s vivid imagination,  in order to  protect their own sordid past, particularly as it relates to the aiding and abetting of South African Apartheid.

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The American government sponsored and avidly defended South African apartheid until it was on the verge of collapse because the only thing that mattered was the country’s immense natural resources and  Pretoria’s position as a bridgehead in the Cold War.  Ronald Reagan fiercely opposed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act and named the African National Congress a “terrorist organization”. Mandela remained on the terrorist watch list until 2008.

It’s easy to forget that in  1985, then-Congressman Dick Cheney voted against a resolution urging that he be released from Jail, and in 2004, after Mandela criticized the Iraq War, an article in the National Review said his “vicious anti-Americanism and support for Saddam Hussein should came as no surprise, given his longstanding dedication to communism and praise for terrorists”. Perhaps that article was alluding to Mandela’s life long gratitude to Fidel Castro, who always supported the people of Angola, Namibia, and South Africa fighting apartheid.

In fact, the IMF, with American assistance,  helped the apartheid regime secure control of of South Africa’s Central Bank and precious resources before Mandela secured his political victory, thus excluding generations of indigenous people access to South African wealth. The West hi-jacked South Africa’s economy,  and because Mandela served as the moral figurehead during this tumultuous time, opting to forgive  rather than persecute his oppressors, the West vested him with sainthood.

In Pickens County a sheriff refuses to lower the American flag in honor of Mandela and reporters refuse to name race as his motivation because that would mean that we, here in America, have a ‘racism’ problem and in the frantic canonization of Mandela’s life, that must go unsaid.

The ultimate goal of immortalizing Mandela has been to avoid stating the obvious, thus confronting America’s own moral hypocrisy. Americans have the uncanny ability of transforming their bitter truths and moral contradictions into heroic decorations. In the annals of history, America must be the victor and the voice of righteousness, even if reality suggests otherwise.

What makes Mandela remarkable was not his willingness to forgive, a mere page torn from his life story,  but his conviction and life-long commitment to justice.

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In 1985, then South African president P.W. Botha offered to free Mandela  if he renounced violence. It was the sixth time an apartheid leader had offered Mandela a conditional release from jail. And for the sixth time, Mandela refused, insisting that black South Africans would not lay down their arms until the country’s white government did the same. “Let him renounce violence!” Mandela declared.

Mandela– the lawyer, the leftist, the boxer and stick fighter, the guerrilla leader, the family man and father of a nation, adjusted his moral compass for no one. He stood for truth, and in death, that’s the one thing he’s been denied.

 

 After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.

 

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