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How Nelson Mandela Brought The 20th Century To A Close

The last of the past century's 'counter-history' leaders, Mandela represented the ultimate triumph over the destructive powers of the notion of racial superiority.

Nelson Mandela in 1994
Nelson Mandela in 1994
Achille Mbembe*

This one wish, he expressed many times. No mausoleum. On his grave, no epitaph. One simple word carved in the stone would be sufficient: “Mandela.” This wish is about to be granted, but several questions linger.

First, is it really true that, the name “Mandela” being enough, there is no need for anything else and that, once it is pronounced, there is nothing left to explain? Is there anything to add to this now universal name, when the man being buried is the one who represented, deep in his flesh, in his skin and in his bones, the hopes of freedom of a whole era, a whole part of humanity and an entire people?

Or do we still have one last gesture to carry out? There is the risk of turning his funeral into the sort of ecumenical celebration of life, and of reconciliation that, by erasing the difficulty of the choices he came to take on, would then make us forget what he stood up for, and fought against?

Until the end, Nelson Mandela was a 20th century man. His misfortune — or his luck — was to be born in a country eaten away by nostalgia for the 19th century and determined to go back in time in the hope of regaining stability and security. During the 19th century, Europe indeed finished consolidating its supremacy over the known world. It not only occupied the space, Europe also claimed to be the driving force of history.

But after destructive colonial wars, massacres and annexations across the globe, the 20th century opened up with a brutal boomerang effect as genocidal impulses arrived on the Old Continent.

Two cataclysmic wars claimed millions of lives as humanity witnessed the largest-scale genocide of its history and, for the first time, nuclear hellfire. Fascism and Nazism were eventually defeated, only to give way to a new global battle opposing democracy and totalitarianism. The defeat of communism put an end to the Cold War and led to the birth of globalization and, with the 21st century, the era of “terror.”

But the 20th century also has a counter-history, the one that produced Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon and many others. Because, at the beginning of the 20th century, two-thirds of humanity lived under the yoke of colonialism, a relatively primitive form of racial domination.

In the history of the modern world, this form of domination first materialized with the plantation system, under slavery, between the 15th and 19th centuries. It was based on two dogmas: first, the racial superiority of white people; then, the subjugation of non-white people, who were relegated, especially “negros,” to the status of human objects or human merchandise.

During the 19th century, the ideology of white supremacy started to be fought openly by several emancipation movements. By promoting the idea of a world without slavery, they radically challenged the orthodox definitions of humanity that, at the time, were based on racist and evolutionary premises. And, even beyond the captives’ emancipation, they were also looking to defend a certain idea of mankind and of the innate rights attached to it.

Apartheid's death

The question of equality is also in the middle of two movements that have left a deep mark on the 20th century. First, there were the struggles for decolonization. Just like the abolitionist movement had enabled the extension of the modern conception of fundamental human rights, the struggles for decolonization led many to deeply rethink the modern conception of international law.

Then, there were the struggles for civil rights, with the U.S. as epicenter. Here, the concept of a colorblind democracy served as leverage to the movement for equality. Black people were not asking for preferential treatment. They did not want to build a community separated from the rest of the nation. They demanded to be treated like everyone else. The relationship between democracy and difference (whether it is racial or gender-based) were bound to be redefined.

The abolition of apartheid, in 1991, represented the last stage of this long cycle of struggles, and Nelson Mandela became its defining figure, the last of the great witnesses. To a large extent, it brought the 20th century to a close.

The history that Mandela struggled to deconstruct is one made of borders, walls and enclosures. It is also a history based on the principle that this world belongs, in reality, to only a few people and that we do not all partake of it equally.

Mandela’s voice carried it so far that it continuously reaffirmed one simple truth: there is only one world and what we have in common is the desire to be, deep down in every one of us, humans beings in our own right. And to do so, the first condition was that we considered every other one of us as human beings.

He knew that, to build this world we have in common, those who had been deprived of their inherent share of humanity had to recover it. The links that had been broken had to be repaired and the parts that had been amputated reassembled. For both the victims and the persecutors, there could be no reconciliation without restitution; they could only keep on giving up on this project he consistently called for — the collective rise of humanity. This was the foundation of his reconciliation theory. Restitution and reparation were therefore at the heart of the possibility of the construction of a common global conscience.

Mandela knew there was a share of intrinsic humanity in every person. It makes us, objectively, at the same time different from each other and similar. Because it is inherent from restitution and reparation, the ethic of reconciliation implies the acknowledgement of what one might call “the share of the other,” which is not mine, but for which I am responsible, whether I like it or not. This share of the other, I cannot monopolize without any consequences for the concept of oneself, equality, justice, rights or even simply humanity and the universal project, if this indeed is the final destination.

*Achille Mbembe is a Cameroon-born professor of philosophy and expert on African post-colonialism.

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