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The iconicity of “peaceful resistance”

The New York Times’ Mandela Obituary Headline Couldn’t Have Been More Wrong

The iconicity of “peaceful resistance”

The New York Times’ Mandela Obituary Headline Couldn’t Have Been More Wrong


The original headline for the NYT’s Mandela obit; it has since been changed.

Before it falls down the memory hole, it should be noted that the online US edition of the New York Times marked the sad passing of the great Nelson Mandela with this odd headline: “Nelson Mandela, South African Icon of Peaceful Resistance, Dies”. (They’ve since changed it to “South Africa’s…Moral Center”, which sounds like a place FIFA could have held business ethics conventions during the last World Cup.)

“Icon of Peaceful Resistance” makes it sound like Mandela was an advocate and practitioner of nonviolence. He wasn’t. Apartheid was above all a socioeconomic system of structured viciousness: the whites were not going to give up their advantages without a fight. The struggle against Apartheid was necessarily bloody. The symbolic force of an “icon”, no matter how noble its martyrdom, could not have defeated Apartheid. It had to be defeated at the cost of lives. Mandela always knew this.

Mandela founded and ran Umkhonto we Sizwe, the paramilitary wing of the ANC, which carried out armed resistance and a bombing campaign. The bombings mostly targeted high-profile pieces of property, but were nevertheless responsible for many civilian deaths. Umkhonto we Sizwe also executed collaborators.

Botha would have freed Mandela in ‘85 if he’d agreed to renounce armed struggle; Mandela courageously refused. On his release in 1990, Mandela repeated:

“The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement will be created soon so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle.”

He was right on both counts.

Don’t think he wasn’t reviled for it. In the eyes of many among the Western elites, Mandela was a Soviet-dominated terrorist until the day he walked out of jail, and into iconicity. Reagan put the ANC on the State Department terrorist organizations watch-list; this wasn’t undone until 2008. Reagan vetoed the South Africa sanctions bill, and was overridden — not before Jesse Helms fillibustered the override vote.

Then there were even more charming expressions of Western antipathy to Mandela’s violence, like this poster produced in the 80s by the UK’s Federation of Conservative Students, which I will reproduce without further comment:

Poster by the UK’s Young Conservatives (thanks to @sarahlicity)

But in American bourgeois fantasy life, the only good liberation struggles are Gandhi and King, and if a struggle does not match that mythologized template, could not have matched it, it will be roundly condemned while it is ongoing, and if it happens to be successful (despite us), its history will be rewritten.

The dialectic is a familiar one — familiar and a little sad. There is a way in which the myth of peaceful resistance is flattering to the oppressor and disabling to the oppressed. It’s as much the oppressor’s narrative as anyone’s. “You ought not to fight us with more than the image of your own broken body,” it says, “for we who oppress you are good and rational — most of the time. We have the same interests as you, and understand that you enjoy the same basic rights. We, your rulers, simply need to have our consciences pricked from time to time.” By couching the antipathy as a mere moral lapse, the oppressor is permitted simultaneously to deny the actual material basis of the social division and hence the necessity for a struggle for liberation that is more than merely symbolic, and to perform a mental splitting-off from its own identity of those aspects of itself it can now pretend were inessential deviations from its rational, humanistic core. Just as the United States broadly did with the benighted South of Bull Connor and the Klan. As if the story of American racist oppression was one of mere regional ideological peccadillo and not one of the founding principles of the whole nation’s economic structure. As if the story of Apartheid were simply those nasty Afrikaners and their gauche racism. They’d probably lived in Africa too long and allowed its “tribalism” to rub off on them, and so deviated from the European universalist norm. Still, one of us in the end, eh?

That’s the funny thing about colonialism — even when it’s visible, it appears only in ideological garb flattering to the oppressor.

In fact, this is such a reflex that the Times probably wrote that headline without a second thought, and it was only after a few thousand derisive tweets that they remembered that there is occasionally such a thing as real history, and they quietly changed it.


this post also appeared on my blog, threefingeredfox.net