It is now a year since Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela passed on. Mandela passed on at a time when South Africa was celebrating 20 years of democracy and Africa was has travelled 60 year of decolonization. Mandela’s gift to the world has been the paradigm of peace as a constitutive element of the broader anti-colonial/decolonial humanism underpinned by ubuntu. This paradigm of peace is opposed to the colonial paradigm of war and oppression that enabled the slave trade, imperialism, colonialism, apartheid and neocolonialism, which taken together are inimical processes constitutive of global coloniality.
But the fundamental challenge that we face as we celebrate 20 years of democracy in South Africa in particular and almost 60 years of decolonization in Africa in general; is that we are still snared within a complex paradigm of war and a contemporary politics informed by the will to power. This reality has seen some scholars falling into the trap of accepting the idea of war as natural and the conception of politics as dirty and violent. While we are indeed engulfed in seemingly unending conflicts and wars, we still need to push the frontiers of decolonial liberation to the level of replacing the paradigm of war with the paradigm of peace. Since the dawn of Euro-North American-centric modernity, humanity has passed through two humanist revolutions from ‘God-centred’ conception of humanity during the Renaissance to ‘Man-centred’ conception of humanity during the Enlightenment period.
Today we have entered the third humanist phase of decolonial humanism informed by ‘I am because you are’/’ubuntu.’ This third phase of the humanist revolution is opposed to the naturalization of the paradigm of war and the reduction of politics to the simple will to power. It is ion this third phase that we find people like Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela embodying (both symbolically and substantively) a decolonial humanist perspective gesturing towards a politics of life founded on the will to live rather than the will to power.
This reading and interpretation of the meaning of Mandela presents him as an embodiment of the paradigm of peace, racial harmony and an advocate of post-racial pluriversal humanism. Mandela’s life of struggle and legacy if carefully analyzed enables us to think carefully about how to transcend the paradigm of war which is constitutive of the modern world we live, despite its pretensions to be pushing forward discourses of democracy and human rights. Despite the impressive strides made by human beings to decolonize and deimperialise the world, we still find ourselves locked in racially hierarchized, patriarchal, capitalist and asymmetrically organized modern world in which at its apex is the USA with its Pentagon and supported by NATO and at the subaltern bottom is Africa and its people still fighting to regain full ontological density. This modern world, which in many ways is still structurally Euro-North American-centric, is locked in use of the paradigm of war as a solution to modern problems. This is very evident in the way use of war in the form of military interventions is a constitutive part of neo-liberal imperialism or humanitarian imperialism, in which some individuals like Saddam Hussein and Colonel Murmur Gaddafi had to be killed for others to live, for democracy and human rights, to flourish.
The problem which is often missed in this paradigm of war is that it falls within what Frantz Fanon termed ‘repetition without change,’ that is, in culminates in production and reproduction of a circle of perpetrator-victim cul-de-sac in which yesterday’s perpetrator becomes today’s victim and vice-versa. The other problem with the paradigm of war is its production, reproduction and universalization of the post-1945 Nuremberg paradigm of justice in the form of the constitution of the ICC, under which the question of justice is still narrowly conceived in terms of criminal justice targeting selected individuals for punishment, without investment in building a new society in which perpetrators and victims are re-born as human beings who have survived mass violence—living as survivors opposed to the paradigm of war in its totality and working together to establish a paradigm of peace.
Apartheid was founded on a paradigm of war and was sustained until 1994 through this paradigm which was informed by race as an organizing principle. Mandela’s life of struggle and legacy is that of an African who literary walked through the shadow of death to emerged with deep wisdom to see the limits of the paradigm of war. Mandela was tried for treason a Rivonia, he survived a death sentence, and endured an exceptionally long period of incarceration at the notorious Robben Island. These experiences justify why Mandela is understood as a typical survivor who emerged from the reality of imperial/colonial/apartheid brutality to lead the world away from the paradigm of war to a new world predicated on a paradigm of peace and post-racial pluriversalism.
Can anyone deny these four truisms about Mandela:
• that he emerged from the centre of imperial/colonial/apartheid milieu vehemently opposed to the paradigm of war, logic of racism and coloniality to the extent of being prepared to die for the cause of democracy and human rights long before these values were globally accepted as part of the post-Cold War international normative order.
• Even after enduring 27 years of incarceration at the notorious Robben Island, Mandela avoided bitterness and preached the gospel of racial harmony, reconciliation and democracy.
• Mandela’s leadership role during the transition from apartheid to democracy inaugurated a paradigm shift from Nuremberg paradigm of justice to a new paradigm of political justice privileging political reform and social transformation as its teleology.
• When he became the first black president of a democratic South Africa, Mandela practically and symbolically made important overtures to the erstwhile white racists aimed at hailing them back to a new, inclusive, non-racial, democratic, and pluriversal society known as the rainbow nation.
It is this experience that set Mandela apart as a decolonial humanist par excellence. He sits comfortable in the list of other decolonial humanists from the Global South such as Aime Cesaire, William E. B. Dubois, Frantz Fanon and many others who experienced and endured the consequences of being a racialized and dehumanized subject as well as being written out of the human ocumene and being reduced to dispensability. The decolonial humanism that Mandela espoused had very deep roots within the ANC. Some of the leading ANC decolonial humanists include the founding leader Pixley ka Isaka Seme who was committed to the African struggle to deliver a new civilization that was deeply humanistic. The second leading decolonial humanist in the ANC was Chief Albert Luthuli, a president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who during his acceptance of the prize informed the world that Africa was offering the world the gift of ubuntu and proceeded to anticipate and envision a new post-racial civilization. Mandela is a child of this ANC decolonial humanism.
Uniquely and paradigmatically, instead of colonial/apartheid dehumanization turning Mandela into a monster in the Nietzschean sense, he emerged from it fighting for a new world governed and informed by a paradigm of peace and underpinned by principles of pluriversal humanism and co-humanness. Mandela’s political struggles as encapsulated in the autobiography and as demonstrated in actual leadership of the ANC during Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) as well as his presidency collectively signify consistent push for decolonial turn which I argue gestures towards re-admission of formerly enslaved and colonized subjectivities into humanity alongside those who had fallen into the abyss of rabid racism. Mandela define the anti-colonial/anti-apartheid struggle that was led by the ANC in decolonial humanist terms. This is how he put it:
This then is what the ANC is fighting for. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live (my emphasis).
Mandela’s liberation struggle was aimed at the liberation of both the oppressed and the oppressors: ‘I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.’
Mandela’s leadership at CODESA was exemplary on his commitment to a paradigm of peace. He led the ANC into CODESA fully aware that it was another ‘theatre of struggle, subject to advances and reverses as any other struggle.’ He emphasized that ‘To make peace with an enemy, one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes your partner.’ These two wisdoms enabled him and the ANC to push for political justice which far transcended the post-1945 Nuremberg template of justice as punishment. Nuremberg paradigm of justice was predicated on the logic that violence should be criminalized without exception and that those identified as perpetrators be tried in a court of law. As argued by Mahmood Mamdani CODESA paradigm of justice became predicated on a particular thinking of mass violence as political rather than criminal which suggested re-making of political society through political reform as a lasting solution. At the centre was a drive to transcend a paradigm of war and conceptions of justice as criminal justice involving punishment of certain individuals. What Mandela wanted and demanded from the apartheid regime was the dismantlement of apartheid and commitment to a non-racial, democratic and free society. His overriding intention was to banish once and for all oppression. This is why in his inaugural speech as the first black president of South Africa in 1994 Mandela emphasized that:
Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another. […] The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement. Let freedom reign. God Bless Africa!
The point is that indeed the decolonial anti-apartheid struggle was not meant to punish the ideologues of apartheid but to destroy the edifice of apartheid itself. On the ashes of juridical apartheid, the ANC and Mandela envisaged a new post-racial and pluriversal political community founded on new humanism and inclusive citizenship. Even the TRC escaped the Nuremberg trap by displacing the logic of crime and punishment with that of crime and confession.
As noted by Joel Netshitenzhe the logic of the negotiations and the settlement from the perspective of the ANC was understood this way:
At the risk of oversimplification, it can be argued that a critical element of that settlement, from the point of view of the ANC, was the logic of capturing a bridgehead: to codify basic rights and use these as the basis for more thoroughgoing transformation of South African society.
Netshitenzhe reinforced the argument that the search for a paradigm of peace drove the way Mandela and the ANC imagined a post-apartheid South Africa. This is how he put it: that:
The articulation of the ANC mission by some of its more visionary leaders suggests an approach that, in time, should transcend the detail of statistical bean counting and emphasis on race and explicitly incorporate the desire to contribute to the evolution of human civilization. At the foundation of this should be democracy with a social content, excellence in the acquisition of knowledge and the utilization of science and a profound humanism.
Inevitably Mandela presidency became as a site of symbolism, which he used effectively to further hail the erstwhile racists into a new South Africa. These involved him visiting the 94-year old widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, who was identified as the ideologue of apartheid and its architect; Mandela agreeing to the erection of a statue in remembrance of Verwoerd; Mandela visiting Percy Yutar who played the role of the prosecutor during the Rivonia Trial in which Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment and Mandela visiting the ex-apartheid President P. W. Botha. While Mandela was criticized in some quarters of bending too much to placate whites, his idea was to ensure that indeed the erstwhile ‘settlers’/’citizens’ and the erstwhile ‘natives’/’subjects’ were afforded enough room to be re-born politically into consenting citizens living in a new political society where racism was not tolerated.
The fundamental message is that Mandela played an active part in an epic struggle to transcend the paradigm of war. That decolonial struggle remains as an unfinished project. The current generation needs to build from where Mandela left and intensify the decolonial humanist struggle for a post-racial pluriversal society.
Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni is a Professor and Head of Archie Mafeje Research Institute for Applied Social Policy (AMRI) based at the University of South Africa (UNISA). He is also the founder and coordinator of the Africa Decolonial Research Network (ADERN) based in the College of Human Sciences at the University of South Africa. He is a decolonial theorist who has published extensively in African history, African politics, and development.