Human Economy Blog tribute to Nelson Mandela

I repost here a piece I wrote as chief editor of the Human Economy Blog, originally published on 19 December 2013.

Last Sunday Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was laid to rest in Qunu, his home village in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. To pay tribute to a great man and the father of the new South African nation, the Human Economy Blog would like to recommend a selection of commentaries that discuss the man and his legacy for South Africa and the world.

Keith Hart, co-director of the Human Economy Programme, recommends a piece by Bert Olivier, philosopher and distinguished professor at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. Olivier provides an inspiring treatment of the revolutionary drive of Mandela’s struggle for radical equality. His claim that all humans are equal under the aegis of a unitary state remains as subversive today as it was during the apartheid days. It is this principled belief, Olivier argues, that enabled Mandela the man to forgive his oppressors as fellow human beings and embrace them as part of the new dispensation.

Olivier warns that radical economic equality, however, is an essential goal yet to be realised in South Africa – one might add the rest of the world too. If radical equality of the kind professed by Mandela is a crucial element for the building of a human economy that empowers all those who participate in it, there remains the question as to whether the deal the ANC brokered with white and multinational capital for a new South Africa was actually the right choice for the country and its people. The economic – and racial – inequalities of contemporary South Africa are striking, even more so given the iconic status of Nelson Mandela’s message.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s controversial piece on Mandela’s legacy is directed at exactly this question. Žižek is suspicious of Mandela’s transformation into a world hero, he sees that as a clear sign of his failure to bring about radical change – read socialism – to an economy dominated by exploitation and inequality.

There are no straight answers and the consensus on the uncomfortable pact that lay the foundations for the new South Africa might be rapidly shifting. Yet, Mandela’s personal story and grand vision of change continue to influence these debates and help us focus on the issues that really matter for human economies around the world. In South Africa, where our programme is based, struggles over interpretations and appropriations of the symbolic power of the man and his actions will continue for some time, especially since we are only few months away from general elections. Erik Bähre, anthropologist at Leiden University, discusses these developments in an insightful piece on the “politics of mourning”.

Marina Martin, postdoctoral fellow in our programme and blog co-editor, captured a powerful passage from Barack Obama’s acclaimed speech at Mandela’s Memorial held on Tuesday 10 December:

“Finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. There is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us. We can never know how much of this was innate in him, or how much of it was shaped and burnished in a dark, solitary cell.”

Like all exceptional leaders, Mandela was inspired by and reinvented ways of life and moral principles he grew up with. Ubuntu is shared by most people in South Africa and the southern African region. This worldview is at the core of life in southern Africa, and a lesson in humanity to the world as a whole.

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