President Mandela in many ways reflected the character, substance, revolutionary presence and diplomatic acumen of Dr. Martin Luther King and Minister Malcolm X. His dedication was no less than those two brothers. It is clear to me that his walking among us allowed us to be larger than we would have been without him. Like Dr. King and Minister Malcolm X, he was here to work for rather than lead us. He was here in all the imperfections of the human condition to be an example rather than telling us what to do. He not only liberated South Africa, he in many ways liberated Africa and much of the world by his action and very careful articulation. As the first black president of South Africa he felt the weight of the world on him to fail. Much of the world felt that, due to the generations of apartheid legislation and policies in South Africa, there was no way that the nation itself could be liberated without bloodshed. He, as King and Malcolm, was working 24/7 between a hurricane and volcano: the white South Africans and the black majority, who were at odds about how to move and how to resolve the conflict of generations of white nationalist and white supremacist policies in South Africa.
We must understand in no uncertain terms that President Nelson Mandela, with an acute legal mind and a history of revolutionary struggle, had emerged out of Robben Island as a diplomat of the first order, and his portfolio, just as the portfolio of King and Malcolm, was not from the illegal government of South Africa but from the people. And he never forgot that. He was not only a moral authority but a political one. As we celebrate his life we cannot, we must not forget Winnie Mandela, a revolutionary also, and the Mandela children and what they must be going through at this time.
He was one of the true revolutionaries who stood up at the right time. We, all around the world—his cultural sons and daughters—worked to make sure he was liberated and free from Robben Island. I, along with many other artists, struggled using art as a political force to make sure that the apartheid nation of South Africa would not stand. We, as artists, boycotted South Africa, the poets the writers, the musicians and actors, we all understood at this critical juncture of our history and vowed among ourselves that we would not let that nation stand as it was. Many of us grew up in liberation struggles here in the United States and South Africa represented in no uncertain terms one of the most brutal, disrespectful, ugly, white supremacist countries in that growing continent of Africa.
He set the example for what I feel true revolutionaries are about. True revolutionary men and women are about the love of their people and all people who are working in the best interest of the great majority rather than the acute few. They are men and women who are keen on lifelong knowledge acquisition. They know that just because it was right last year doesn’t mean that it’s right today. They’re about action rather than talking about what we need to do. They have a plan and in that plan are means and mechanisms for creating rather than destroying. Nelson Mandela represented all of that.
He was a lawyer and he used his legal and diplomatic skills to actually save South Africa. His death is a great loss, but I’m not saddened by this. I think we need to celebrate and study his words and work rather than mourn. I’m happy because he’s not suffering anymore.
As president he showed us that he didn’t need to be president for life. He truly believed in the democratic process. He set an example in terms of his time in office and maintained a lifestyle not of the rich and famous. He reminded me on one level of Julius Nyerere, president of Tanzania, in that he was a common man but politically brilliant. To me he was as important as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to our struggle, two men whom I believe did not in any way fail us, just as President Mandela didn’t fail us.
This is a great loss but we can’t dwell on the negative. We need to dwell on what he brought to us and how we all grew. People who are serious about the development of the world will continue to use President Mandela’s work, words and revolutionary action as an example. I loved him as a brother—he’s many years my elder—but he was a brother. I learned so much from him.
—As told to Akiba Solomon
Dr. Haki Madhubuti is an author, poet and publisher of Third World Press.