Teaching our kids to be as contradictory as you were – An open letter to Nelson Mandela
Dear Nelson Mandela,
In September of 2013, not long after you’d got out of the hospital for the last time, I was in social studies class with a group of fourteen ten-year olds. We were breaking down two fundamental things: that a communist government was not necessarily a dictatorship, and that in a democracy the leaders of a country are supposed to listen to what the people want. The latter was the hardest one for most of them to stomach.
But. Said one kid. If you have to listen to the people, what’s the point of being president?
The kid’s face turned the color of mystification and disappointment. If you’ve never seen that before, it is the color of we-don’t-live-forever. There were two minutes left in class, and I’d turned into a statue.
Here was a question that was the reason why I wanted to teach. I teach and I learn, because I believe that a liberating education is the key to the inner strength and self-knowledge necessary to survive when life, inevitably, turns into a much more sinister and unjust version of Survivor then you’ll ever catch on TV. I also believe it is the key to the ability to collaborate collectively in popular struggles and projects that work to call out and to challenge the unjust: unjust acts, unjust institutions, unjust laws, unjust systems. The ability to think for ourselves and to express ourselves was the first hammer-blow to the Berlin Wall; just as it was the first tear to Apartheid in South Africa. I heard through the grapevine that you once said that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Here was a question that could lead be the beginning of a seed that created a truly revolutionary leader. And it was a question I had no idea how to answer. During the first uncomfortable ten seconds that I let the classroom sit in silence, I thought about asking you to knock some sense into him. If anybody could teach about the value of democracy, it is the undoer-of-apartheid-spent-27-years-in-prison-first-democratically-elected-black president of South Africa. Right?
But I didn’t ask you for help. Nor did I heroically set the building blocks for a future generation prepared to dismantle injustice. Instead, I did probably one of the worst things I could do. I stared into the disappointed faces of fourteen ten year olds, and I said:
Excellent, excellent question. Let’s think it over and talk about it later.
The things I might have told them
“When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.”- Nelson Mandela
You might have been a perfect example for me. I could have served you up to them as a larger-than-life–liberator. I could have told them the story of how you led a superhuman fight for racial and economic justice in a country where rich white supremacists denied citizenship rights, human rights, and homes to millions of people based on the darkness of their skin. I could have told them that you successfully stood up to a power-structure so cruel that it made black people carry around passports in their own country.
Apartheid, if you were one of 19 million blacks people, you lived on just 13% of South Africa’s land. If you were on of 4.5 million white people, you could chose to spread out over the other 80%. It was a system that promised white people over 75% of the country’s income, and where the color of your skin was literally a question between life and death. 20% of all black babies in cities died, compared to 2.7% of all white babies .
Then we could have compared the economic and racial injustices in Apartheid South Africa to the injustices that the kids could find in their neighborhoods today. Man, would those ten-year olds have beens shocked. And that story would probably have been a wonderful lesson:
You are a man who spent twenty-seven years in prison–most of them in a cell the size of a cage for a chicken in a slaughter house– because you believed that what you were fighting for was right. During that time the South African State did everything in its power to try to convince you that you were not worthy of being a human. You slept on a straw mat and shit into a bucket. But more importantly, you spent the majority of your adult life cut off from physical contact with anybody that you had ever loved. Once every six months you could send and receive letters. You didn’t touch your wife for twenty seven years.
If that weren’t enough, the United States had you on a terrorist watch list until 2008. (During Apartheid, while U.S. corporations made loads of money in South Africa, President Reagan encouraged “constructive engagement”, with one of the most racist and dehumanizing governments in the world.) You had two governments– one of them representative of the most powerful empire in the word– trying to break you. Still, you stood strong in your beliefs. It is a story capable of teaching us the true power of conviction and persistence.
More than that, it is a story is one that could have taught those kids the power of looking beyond our own hurts and connecting struggles to achieve change. Because to pick apart Apartheid it was necessary to understand that racial injustice was part and parcel of a white supremacist economic system, otherwise known as capitalism, and sometimes known as neoliberalism.
You did not limit yourself to the South African context. Instead, you learned from revolutionaries and struggles all over the world, including the experiences of Che Guevara in Latin America. The constitution that you would help to write in the 90s was a testament to this insight. It did not only recognize the rights of blacks, but it upheld the rights of everyone as human beings, including, points out Rinku Sen, editor of Colorlines, those of LGBT people. Exactly because of this, your work has inspired millions and millions and millions of people and thousands and thousands and thousands of social movements all over the world.
The above described version of you is radical education’s version of a knight in shining armor fairytale. It is a story that could have taught those kids that we cannot afford to let ourselves bask in the uniqueness of the things that are hurting us. Our struggles against gender inequality, racial inequality, economic inequality, age inequality, our struggles for housing rights, for welfare, for healthcare, for citizenship, all of our struggles are inseparable, and must be recognized as such. In a world where many consider politics are washed out and boring, your story might have redefined political. It could have answered the question: But. if you have to listen to the people, what’s the point of being president?
And Why I Didn’t
“No single person can liberate a country. You can only liberate a country if you act as a collective.” -Nelson Mandela
Here’s the issue. That story is not a story I believe in. The reason I didn’t bring you into the classroom that day, is because I have some serious questions for you, Nelson Mandela.
The least of which is recognizing that you were the son of a prince. Bill Keller, writing for the New York Times, says that your fellow prison-mate, Amhmed Kathrada, says that “the first thing to remember about [you] is that [you] come from a royal family.” It gave you that little something extra.
And for the last months of your imprisonment, and for the next years of your life, you lived in exaggerated luxury. You lived in a mansion, you wore absurdly expensive clothes, you drove around a silver mercedes. And it’s not that you don’t deserve it. And it’s not that your lifestyle takes away from all the things you achieved. But it is a mark of privilege that many other South African freedom fighters never had. It’s a mark of privilege that might well have separated you from other potential yous. At the very least, it’s necessary to recognize it.
Second, and here’s where things get a little more serious, they tell me that in the late 80s and early 90s, you secretly negotiated with white supremacist power structures on the behalf of an entire movement. Andrew O’Hehir writes for Salon.com that:
Madiba, as he was known to millions of Africans, took it upon himself to negotiate in secret, in the poshest suburbs of Johannesburg, with the military and intelligence leaders of the apartheid regime – precisely the people who were staging deadly raids in the townships and beating young men to death in secret prisons.
How could you, you who claimed to believe in the value of openness and democracy? How can that possibly be called democracy? What does that say about everything else you claimed to believe in? What does that say about your intentions as a leader? No matter your intentions, without honesty, how can we ever trust the people that lead us?
And third, Nelson Mandela, it’s tempting to say that you sold out. How can you claim to be honest in your critiques of economic justice, when you spent the latter half of your life nurturing relationships with the same mining tycoons, developers, and other corporate powerhouses that you so vehemently rejected earlier? Word has it that you asked them to finance your political campaign in the early 90s. In 2005, you told the G8 meetings in the U.K. that “where poverty exists there is not true freedom.” Nonetheless, during your presidency, you stuck a foot in working peoples’ mouths, largely ignored union demands, accepted an IMF loan, and promoted privatization as a “fundamental policy” for economic development.
Growing Nelson Mandela’s in our Children
“I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying” -Nelson Mandela
I’m writing this letter, in part, because I don’t know how to answer these questions. I just know how to ask them. And in part, i’m writing it because I’ve realized that your story isn’t worth telling my kids unless it includes your complexities and my uncertainties.
You are not a perfect, revolutionary hero that can teach millions of young learners how to change the world. And thank god for that.
If there is one thing I’ve learned teaching history, it is that textbooks that turn people into superheroes are boring. We cannot possibly learn from people who have never made mistakes. Our revolutionaries, our groundbreakers, and the roll models for our children cannot be flavorless, if perfect, cardboard cutouts.
The reason why you are presence that I want in my classroom, and in my students’ lives is exactly because your work confuses me as much as it inspires me. Ourselves, and our kids, we learn best from stories of people who are just as complicated as we are.We learn from people who through their privileges challenge us to question our own privileges. We learn from contradictions and mistakes that challenge us to dig deeper into our own contradictions and our own mistakes.
We learn from the people who teach us that despite our contradictions and the inevitability of fucking up, we should set the bar as high as we possibly can. We should continue to struggle despite, and because of our shortcomings. When we fail, we should fail magnificently.
The reason I want you in my classroom is because your life doesn’t let me get away with an easy answer to the question: If you have to listen to the people, what’s the point of being president?
With respect from another person who never had the opportunity to meet you, but carries you very much in my heart,
Christine J. Williamson – I’m Super Mommy