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Commemorating Nelson Mandela as a Person and as a Symbol

By Anja Berninger

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Few statesmen in recent history have been revered to the same extent as Nelson Mandela. When he died in 2013, international heads of state flocked to Johannesburg to attend the memorial service and US flags were flown on half-mast. Four years before his death the UN had already declared July 18th to be “International Nelson Mandela Day”. Since then, bookshelves have been filled with glowing accounts of his life and numerous streets and schools across the globe have been named after him.

The fact that commemorations have taken place not only in South Africa but worldwide indicate that they are not (or at least not exclusively) meant to show gratitude towards Mandela. Rather, the dominant emotion of many of these acts seems to be admiration both for Mandela’s character and his actions. And, indeed, Mandela seems to be a worthy object for such feelings. In the long fight against apartheid he showed tremendous courage and stamina. Later, as head of state, he oversaw a (largely) peaceful transition period, during which the government focussed on reconciliation instead of revenge. Despite the unjust treatment he had to endure, he remained largely free from bitterness and acrimonious feelings. Today, the South Africa Mandela formed is often considered as living proof for the claim that it is possible for nations to come to terms with a difficult past.

In spite of these obvious achievements, critical voices also abound. Some have claimed Mandela did too little to distribute wealth more equally, thus (unwittingly) allowing many of the apartheid-era structural injustices to persist. Others have chastised Mandela for upholding close and friendly relations with brutal dictators such as Muammar al-Gaddafi (probably because of Libya’s support of the ANC during apartheid). Yet others suggest that, as a head of state, Mandela did not do enough to curb corruption and cronyism in the ANC’s own ranks.

The allegations, if true, highlight deficits both in character and political acumen. They are not, however, concerned with acts of downright evil. Certainly, at least some of these mistakes are understandable given the difficult period in which Mandela came into office. Yet, the deficits mentioned are not mere trifles either. Many are directly linked to some of the most severe issues South African society faces today. They also suggest that Mandela was no saint, but rather a human being with many extraordinary strengths, but also some significant flaws. So, overall, it seems fair to suggest the criticism throws a shadow on Mandela’s glowing legacy.

Commemorative acts, however, have proceeded as if these allegations were irrelevant. It almost seems, as if we think they make no difference for the admiration we express. At first glance, this may seem terribly wrong: Aren’t we whitewashing history by treating Mandela as some saint-like figure instead of a real-life person? Wouldn’t it be better (or at least more honest) to remember Mandela as he really was? And, doesn’t that in turn mean reflecting the potentially negative sides of his character and his less saint-like deeds as well? Shouldn’t we therefore call for changes in our memorial practices?

These suggestions have some initial plausibility. Yet, they rest on a very strong assumption. They understand commemorative acts as being aimed at truthfully depicting people in all their complexity. If this were right, we would need to take negative aspects of those commemorated into account. Yet, there are good reasons to think this is an implausible position. Most importantly, commemoration just doesn’t seem to allow for shades of grey or for a “yes, but…” sort of standpoint. To see this, just imagine how strange it would be if the UN were to pronounce: “We declare July 18th to be International Nelson Mandela Day to commemorate Mandela’s contribution to creating a non-racist South Africa, though we should add, he also showed some significant weaknesses and shortcomings along the way.” Qualified endorsements are fine when it comes to objectively assessing Mandela’s legacy. But, they have no place in memorial practices.

One might argue that if no such qualification is possible, then we would do well in abandoning commemorations of Mandela altogether. On this view, we should only commemorate those worthy of our utterly unqualified all out admiration. This suggestion has far reaching implications. Given these restrictions, it seems that no one at all would qualify as a proper object of commemoration. Therefore, the suggestion would probably result not just in giving up commemorations for Nelson Mandela, but also in abandoning all person-focussed memorial practices.

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In response to this conclusion, we should reflect on what we stand to lose in changing our memorial practices in this rather radical way. I will suggest that there is indeed something important that would be lost were we to give up commemorations for Mandela (and other individuals like him). Central to this is that our memorial acts are not supposed to give us an account of his life (historians are much better at doing that). Rather, they provide us with narratives of his epic struggle against racism and discrimination. And, by doing so, the commemorative practices motivate us to emulate him in this struggle. In remembering Mandela, we are asked to fight racism and inequality. Commemorative practices for him thus clearly have a strong exhortative dimension. Because the fight against racism is still important to us today, we therefore have reasons to uphold memorial practices for Mandela even if that also means perceiving him through rose-tinted glasses.

Nelson Mandela is not central to our commemorative practices because his character and legacy are flawless. Rather, he plays such an important part because his life is intimately bound up with a specific cause, namely, the fight against racism. The degree to which he identified (and is in turn identified) with this fight is nicely summed up in his now famous speech held from the dock during the Rivonia Trial. There, he said:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” [1]

Mandela, more than the other activists trialled with him on that day, has become a symbol for the fight against racism and apartheid. In commemorating him, we are primarily interested in his symbolic quality and the (connected) exhortation to fight racism. Once we understand that it is Nelson Mandela (the symbol) and not Nelson Mandela (the actual, real-life person) that we commemorate, we can see why leaving negative aspects out of our memorial practices does not amount to whitewashing the past.

One might wonder, however, why we need such symbols in the first place. Wouldn’t it be better just to remember the end of apartheid, without even referring to individuals instrumental in bringing it about? In my view, reference to individual agents is valuable mainly because ideals such as “forming a society free of racism” are terribly abstract. It is much easier to cherish such an ideal when there are concrete narratives and images associated with it. And, it is here that symbolic characters such as Mandela have a central part to play. It is through them that we can connect to such grander ideals and aims.

“Once we understand that it is Nelson Mandela (the symbol) and not Nelson Mandela (the actual, real-life person) that we commemorate, we can see why leaving negative aspects out of our memorial practices does not amount to whitewashing the past.”

Symbols do not always have to work this way around, however. Other important examples of commemorative practices involving symbolism are the many monuments that have been erected for the unknown soldier. In these cases, the symbolic value seems to lie in the complete absence of any concrete narrations or images. There is certainly more to be said on the issue, but one way we can interpret these monuments is by suggesting that their role is not to make some abstract ideal more accessible. Rather, they give all members of a nation a central place where they can come together to mourn their dead after war and conflict and especially those among them whose remains rest unidentified. The symbol of the unknown soldier allows each member of a nation to project his or her own grief unto a symbolic figure. So, here the symbolic value potentially lies in managing the transition from something very concrete (i.e. one’s own grief) to something much more abstract (i.e. the grief of a whole country). There might thus be various ways in which symbols might be put to work in our memorial practices.

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Coming back to the case of Mandela, it is important to note that there are limits as to how far we can abstract away from the past as it really was even when focussing on symbolic aspects. Obviously, not everyone can function as a symbol for just anything. There really does need to be an intimate connection between a person’s life and a good cause, so that we can legitimately treat the person as a symbol for that motive. Furthermore, some deeds seem to bar us from considering a person as a symbol for some good aim. Thus, it seems unacceptable to use Cecil Rhodes as a symbol for intercultural friendship and understanding, even though he founded one of the first international scholarship schemes. He does not qualify as a symbol for this cause because of the openly racist and imperialist views he held.[2]It would seem equally inappropriate to commemorate someone who is responsible for gross violations of human rights in the same way as we commemorate Mandela. This would be the case even if that person were intimately bound up with some noble cause as well. In other words, there do seem to be evils that we cannot just abstract away from in our commemorative practices.

“…we should see Mandela as a worthy symbol for a greater cause, a cause that he worked towards in his lifetime, but that has not been fully realized yet.”

One might object that this cannot be the whole story. It may seem wrong to suggest that we only commemorate Mandela as a symbol because of some instrumental value this may have. One might thus suggest that we owe it to Mandela to keep him in public memory, because of the great sacrifices he made and the good he did. This sort of commemoration is not merely instrumental, but is based on a specific duty we have.

It is right that there may well be this additional non-instrumental aspect behind many of our commemorative practices and it also seems true that this may be something we owe to Mandela as a person. But, this does not mean that Mandela does not function as a symbol in the resulting memorial practice. Indeed, there is an additional reason to think that this might be the case. The sort of commemoration mentioned is not only something we owe exclusively to Mandela. After all, he was not the only one forced to make personal sacrifices, nor was he the only one that worked towards reconciliation. Similar things can be said of many other anti-apartheid activists. That indicates we have memorial duties towards these other activists as well. But, there are too many of these activists for us to do justice to each and every one of them. One could thus suggest that in remembering Mandela and his sacrifices we are also paying our respects to those other activists. Thus, even when we focus on the additional memorial duties we may have towards Mandela as a person, we still find a symbolic quality ingrained in the resulting memorial practices. And again, Mandela here stands for the epic struggle against racism and the personal sacrifices demanded by that struggle.

In conclusion, we should indeed commemorate Nelson Mandela. But we should do so not because he is truly free from flaws or never took a wrong turn. Nor should we aim at including all his negative sides in our commemorative practices. Rather, we should see Mandela as a worthy symbol for a greater cause, a cause that he worked towards in his lifetime, but that has not been fully realized yet. In commemorating him as a symbol of this epic struggle we are thus called upon to do our share in reaching this ideal. And that indeed may seem far more important than remembering Nelson Mandela (the person) as he really was.[3]


[2]Note though that this does not necessarily imply that we need to tear down all statues of Cecil Rhodes or rename the scholarship scheme. I think that this is a different, complicated question which would deserve further reflection.

[3]Thanks are owed to the audience of the Stockholm workshop on “Honour and Admiration after War and Conflict” as well as to the editors of this blog for helpful comments and suggestions.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Ethical War Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations. 

Published 9th May 2019

Anja Berninger

Lecturer, University of Stuttgart

Dr. Anja Berninger teaches philosophy at the University of Stuttgart. Her current research focusses on collective memory as well as emotion and empathy. She also has a strong interest in Chinese Philosophy.