Words and Worlds without Mandela

Words and Worlds without Mandela

Erik Doxtader


It is a loss for the planet and a planetary loss. Bound by grief and unsteady, we inhabit a world that is now missing a center of its own gravity.

In the next days and weeks, millions upon millions of people will pause to reflect on Nelson Mandela’s life and mourn his passing. I will be one of them. Around the globe, praises will be sung for the father of South Africa’s democracy, for the revolutionary leader of a movement who stood up in a Pretoria courtroom in 1964 and delivered a “speech from the dock” that challenged the law of apartheid with an account of justice that was as personal as it was universal, for a man whose spirit never succumbed to the bitterness that might well have followed decades of imprisonment and who worked tirelessly to transform a deeply divided country and indeed a world into a “home for all.”

For a time, the planet’s axis will tilt toward Pretoria and then to Qunu, the small town in South Africa’s Eastern Cape where Mandela grew up and where he will join his ancestors. With this shift there will be a rush of words. In so many different languages and so many heartfelt idioms, Mandela’s friends, colleagues, and comrades will honor and pay tribute to Mandela, not least by documenting his long list of accomplishments and the ways in which he literally made something of the history in which we all live. If it promises to be a bit overwhelming, all of this will be a good thing – our children need and deserve to confront what it means and what it takes to look injustice in the eye and struggle to make the world anew for the better.

Going a bit further, some will endeavor to distill the “meaning of Mandela” and to explain why it is, as Jacques Derrida put it, that Mandela not only inspires but commands our admiration. In the name of capturing even just a fraction of his stature, a portion of his inspiration, Mandela’s passing will provoke myriad theories of his political genius and heroic character. This is to say nothing of the attention that will be paid to how he shaped the first twenty years of South African democracy and the ways in which his legacy will inform the ongoing and increasingly fractious transition from apartheid.

There will certainly be some truths in all of these reflections. And yet, I doubt that any of these words, my own very much included, will rise to the occasion. Why? As we look back and peer ahead, why will our words fall short?

It is not just that Mandela’s death is an unspeakable loss or that we betray Mandela’s very humanity when we covet his life as our meaning. The more fundamental problem is that we are still struggling to understand one of Mandela’s most profound lessons – a lifelong concern for the transformative power of language itself. As Mandela himself put it in a speech at the 2000 International AIDS conference, “It is never my custom to use words lightly. If twenty-seven years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact upon the way people live or die.”

 Words can make all the difference – if we let them, if we stop mistaking their power as a means of control.

 As a young lawyer and leader of the African National Congress Youth League, Mandela pledged himself to creating a country in which all citizens could express themselves freely. Imprisoned on Robben Island after his conviction for sabotage, Mandela wrote an autobiography – A Long Walk to Freedom – that fueled the flame of struggle and helped mobilize international outcry against the crime against humanity that was apartheid. In the late 1980’s, at the risk of being branded a traitor by his comrades, he undertook secret talks with government officials in the name of finding the common ground needed to end apartheid. After his release in 1990, he led the “talks about talk” that gave way to South Africa’s negotiated revolution, a transition to non-racial democracy that surprised and inspired the world, not least as it demonstrated that revolution can unfold through words of reconciliation.

 We live in a world that too often takes the freedom of speech for granted at the same time that it tempts us to distrust complex oratory and dismiss the value of simple expressions. Mandela refused these presumptions. Indeed, when I met him in Johannesburg, he had just delivered a remarkable keynote address to delegates at a conference on the future of South African civil society.  While he spoke thoughtfully about how the promise of democratic life rests on the ability and willingness of citizens to find their voice, engage with institutions, and debate how best to define and realize the collective good, the brilliance of the address was how it engaged the controversy that surrounded the conference itself, a dispute sparked by the alleged exclusion of certain groups from the proceedings and which culminated in a call to boycott the event. As government was quick to point out, such action was simply unthinkable – no one forces Mandela to cross a picket line! To this, Mandela gently chastised those who deemed him above criticism and then argued, so powerfully and yet so gently, that government can only claim to serve citizens when it is willing to give them the first word – and the last. 

 To listen to Mandela, to hear him fully, is to grasp the powerful art of saying what needs to be said and saying it in a manner that strengthens the very fabric of the human condition. A Thembu political prisoner finds the generosity needed to speak with his oppressors in their language – Afrikaans. The leader of a wholly just struggle concedes that there are always at least two sides to every conflict and that the difficult work of building peace requires hearing all perspectives. In the midst of deadlocked endless negotiations, a leader creates common ground between enemies by balancing expressions of justifiable anger about decades of humiliation with gestures of profound humility and even forgiveness. With the declaration that he will serve only one term, a new president demonstrates that the essence of political power is a self-sacrifice made in the name of fostering a “people-centred” society.

 What worlds can we make when we learn that words constitute some of our most profound deeds? What change can occur when we recognize that our own principles are ethical only as they allow us to still our voice and genuinely listen to what we may not care to hear?  What power can we create when we grasp that violence does not begin with arguments but when our capacity to disagree is subverted by those unwilling to change their minds? What hope is created as we struggle to find and fashion the words between us, the words that disclose a common bond and move us to discover new ways of living together?

 From Cape Town to Cairo to Columbia, these are the questions that Nelson Mandela has bequeathed to us – all of us. It is not enough to say that Mandela will live on through the traces of his voice and the record of his words. We abide with him only as we learn to speak beyond ourselves, for a world that awaits.

 Enkosi, Madiba. Hamba kakuhle. Thank you, Mandela. Go well.