In response to the death of Nelson Mandela, David Cameron, remembering the ANC leader’s long imprisonment, said “the abiding memory I have is […] his complete forgiveness, his total lack of malice toward those who had done this to him […] an amazing man, an extraordinary heroic figure, but someone with a sense of forgiveness, which I think is the lesson we all have to learn and try to live by.”
This was indeed the great miracle of the Mandela presidency, the ability to overcome decades of conflict and build a political consensus around a peaceful transition. And it made possible a second miracle: the universal celebrity of Nelson Mandela which transcended the political programme he stood for.
In scenes bizarrely reminiscent of the death of Margaret Thatcher in April – two more contrasting politicians are hard to find – world leaders of all political shades, bitter rivals in the day-to-day affairs of their countries, united in paying tribute to the former South African president. The wider political programme of the man, embodied by the Freedom Charter of 1955, seemed almost forgotten. This document was written by the ANC and their close allies the South African Communist Party, who would later participate in Mandela’s government. It proposes racial and sexual equality, the redistribution of land and wealth, nationalisation of industry and finance, trade union rights, state welfare, full employment, a minimum wage, a forty hour week, universal housing and free education.
This large act of forgetting is due in part to an ever-increasing cult of celebrity, as Ben Sellers wrote about in the founding post of this blog on the reaction to Thatcher’s death. (The Cape Times cheekily transcended this boundary with their headline covering this event). Looking the other way is also part of an instinctive response to death of any individual: to honour the memory of the deceased and not draw attention to controversy and sources of division from when they were alive. While this is a sensible reaction to the passing of personal friends and relatives, it is highly questionable when the deceased is remembered for their impact on society and their mark on history.
Unlike the natural sciences, the study of history is not cumulative. Nor does it arrive naturally at consensus. Historical debate advances dialectically, with opposing views in constant conflict, reflecting the conflict awash in both the society of the historian and the society she is studying.
This is what is at stake in Michael Gove’s reforms of school history syllabuses. A creeping return of jingoism and an over-emphasis on national history threaten to propagate an interpretation of the past that is that of ruling élites. Namely, that historical events justify the current configuration of power in society, to which the past is the natural prologue. History – both the events themselves and their study – does not belong to ruling élites, but to people. An interpretation of the past is inevitably an interpretation of how society functions, making history a battlefield of interests. Hence the words of Milan Kundera: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”.
This struggle will make itself known next year during the centenary of the First World War. Two interpretations of the war will be pitted against each other: on the one hand, the official, government sponsored-interpretation which will resemble a “celebration”. On the other, there will be a popular interpretation by intellectuals, campaign groups, veterans and members of the general public for whom the enduring memory of the war is the desire for peace.
Statesmen attempt to overcome the conflict inherent in historical debate to put out messages which can reach a universal audience. But they cannot escape history. This was clear during the obituaries to Margaret Thatcher. Neither Ed Miliband nor David Cameron could have delivered the other’s speech to parliament paying tribute to the deceased Prime Minister. This was true even despite criticisms that public mourning of Thatcher by the Conservative government was closing down historical debate.
No doubt, David Cameron felt the weight of history as he gave tribute to Nelson Mandela. That his recently deceased predecessor had described Mandela as a “terrorist” is well known. That “Hang Nelson Mandela” t-shirts were worn by Young Conservatives is even more damning. Perhaps Cameron’s own business trip to apartheid South Africa weighed on his mind. It is therefore not surprising that he chose to emphasise Mandela’s forgiveness. Cameron was being consistent with his party’s history, celebrating how Mandela kindly made it possible for the ANC’s opponents to conveniently look away from, if not forget, the past.
Many black South Africans are critical of this universal forgiveness, embodied in their country by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, inasmuch as it exists against the backdrop of the non-application of the principles of the Freedom Charter. More than anything, Mandela’s original supporters are no doubt as bitter about this last point as his former opponents are grateful. Nelson Mandela’s struggle goes on in South Africa, as it does in Palestine and around the world. That is why we need a popular history of Nelson Mandela and of what he stood for.