From Pretoria to Peoria, the whole world is in mourning. For a one-time revolutionary leader from South Africa, that ought to say something. Not just about his political achievements, in helping end his country’s hated Apartheid regime. Rather, what Nelson Mandela’s breakthroughs meant to persons abroad, with little to no immediate stakes in his victories.
Partially inspired by post-colonial guilt, partially due to Western engagements in Vietnam, the European version made sense. Racism was inseparable from the conflicts then-inflaming the Third World, though largely subordinated to Cold War power politics. The South African struggle was simply another version of the same, albeit one step removed from direct intervention by foreign powers.
Still, the sorts of solidarity politics that eventually gave birth to the popular anti-Apartheid movements that swept Europe during the 1980s, were not immediately transparent, in a domestic sense. Might they have any bearing on emerging debates about multiculturalism and tolerance in the UK, or in the Netherlands? Or were they just about the foreign issue itself, in South Africa?
Looking back at the broad support that Nelson Mandela once received from European progressives, especially given current debates about immigration and diversity, it’s hard not to detect a parallel conversation taking place, however abstract. Their campaigning was just as much about promoting tolerance and equality at home, as it was about promoting ethnic equality in former colonial holdings.
Indeed, so widespread was European sentiment in favor of dismantling Apartheid, it’s hard to imagine, given today’s animus, for example, towards migrants from southeastern Europe, the idea of London buses adorned with anti-racist slogans again. Solidarity with Czech Roma, against Apartheid? Highly unlikely, despite the parallels with 1980s South Africa. The moral generosity is just not there.
Not even in the United States, which, like the United Kingdom, played host to an enormous and politically influential divestment movement, which helped put an end to South African Apartheid. Indeed, few could imagine posters like the one above, being created today, even though the US is not as well-known for its anti-tolerance politics as today’s Europe.
In the wake of a decade’s worth of disastrous wars, allegedly led to impose democracy in the Middle East, the crusading desire is spent. Can you blame Americans? Still, the passing of Mandela, particularly in the US, is of enormous significance. Particularly given its increasingly diverse leadership, who owe its enfranchisement to the struggle for equal civil rights, in the post-WWII period.
Without a doubt, it would be hard to imagine today’s America without its own struggle against domestic Apartheid. One which was still on many a persons mind during the 1980s, when hundreds of thousands Americans, black and white, demonstrated in solidarity with South Africans eager to repeat the successes made in the United States, against Jim Crow. Hence, the Coke-South Africa problem.
If there is any value in commemorating Nelson Mandela’s achievements, it should be as much about what they meant, outside South Africa, as it meant domestically, to South African minorities. This brief sampling of anti-Apartheid art, in Europe, and the United States, is a start. Still pressed to discern their relevance? Just ask a Palestinian. They’d have a lot to share, for sure.