My Nelson Mandela

One of the ironies of 21st century historical discourse is that despite significantly increased access to information, historical narratives are shaped by economic and political interest and ideology more than ever before. Widely distributed accounts about iconic political figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King stun those of us who are knowledgeable about the times in which these figures lived. Real historic figures get lionized, sanitized and most importantly redefined as defenders of the ongoing order rather than activists who committed their lives to revolutionary changes in the economic and political structures that exploit and oppress people. Most of the media reviews of the life and achievements of Nelson Mandela fit this model.

However, most of my remembrances of Nelson Mandela are different.

First, he committed his life to the cause of creating an economic and political system in his homeland that would provide justice for all people.

Mandela attends a rally in Romania for the South African Communist Front. (Image Credits:

Second, Nelson Mandela was part of the great wave of revolutionary anti-colonial leaders who participated in the mass movements for change in the Global South in the 20th century. These movements for independence led to the achievement of liberation for two-thirds of the world’s population from harsh, inhumane white minority rule. The campaign against apartheid in South Africa was part of this anti-colonial struggle. Mandela shared the vision of such figures as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharial Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah, Amical Cabral, Franz Fanon, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. These leaders were spokespersons for mass struggles that transformed the world in the 20th century.

Third, Nelson Mandela gave voice and inspiration to young people in the Global North who sought peace and justice in their own societies. Mandela inspired movements that went beyond the struggle against racism and imperialism to address sexism and homophobia as well.

Fourth, Mandela made it clear to many of us (despite sanitized media frames) that he saw himself as part of the movements of people who themselves make history. He worked with all those who shared his vision of a just society: grassroots movements, the South African Communist Party (SACP), the South African labor movement (COSATU), the Black Consciousness Movement, and progressives from faith communities. To quote from Mandela’s first speech upon release from prison on February 11, 1990:

Mandela greets Fidel Castro. (Image Credits:

Finally, Nelson Mandela inspired many of us in our own ways to commit to the historical march of people to make a better world. That commitment is powerfully described by a friend, Willie Williamson, a retired teacher from Chicago:

As a young man I learned about Nelson Mandela serving time in prison in South Africa. At that time I was politically ignorant about international affairs, but became curious about the Apartheid racial system because it reminded me so much of the small Mississippi town that I grew up in. Already angered, after completing a stint in the Vietnam War, I became outraged and somewhat withdrawn. But it was the fight to free Mandela that brought me around to understanding that I had to become a part of a movement with justice at its core. I have Mandela to thank for my understanding of how to relieve an unjust power of its stranglehold. The fight must always be for justice throughout the world!

Harry Targ is a Professor in the Department of Political Science in Purdue University. Bodhi republishes his note on his blog remembering Mandela.