How do we keep Nelson Mandela's legacy alive?
Nelson Mandela lives. His passing, his home-going, his return to his village, his rest in peace and power only represents another chapter in the life of the 20th century’s greatest global leader.
His legacy will endure in much the same way that he endured the oppressive forces of racism, inequality, violence and 27 years of imprisonment.
The challenge for all of us is to discover what we are prepared to do to honor the legacy and life of an individual whose commitment to humanity transcends the era in which we all live. And by honor here, I mean take up the mantle of pursuing social justice — by any means necessary.
This is a moment in which we are charged with rallying around the principles of equity, democracy, and radical activism. We are charged with ensuring that generations beyond this moment will continue to be inspired by the examples established by Mandela – that leadership knows how and when to follow and how and when to be unpopular; that resistance can not always be non-violent; and that perseverance is the cornerstone of revolution.
Many will answer this call to articulate how we might best honor Mandela’s awesome legacy and I only offer the following as a handful of suggestions that I hope will contribute to the chorus of accolades, celebrations, and commemorations.
Freedom Day should become an international holiday. April 27th 2014 marks the 20-year anniversary of the South African celebration of its inaugural non-racial democratic elections held in 1994. Over 19 million of South Africa’s nearly 23 million citizens voted in the election that resulted in the nation’s first democratically elected president. Freedom Day is a day for reflection dedicated to those who gave their lives for the struggle to liberate humanity from the strictures of oppression and inequality. It is also a day for people to strategize and prepare to address the social challenges of the current moment. It will also, now and forever more, be the day that we celebrate the life and the impact of Mandela.
In the spirit of reconciliation and absolute fairness, we have to revise our zealous perceptions of those we label as “terrorists.” One of the many things that Gandhi, King and Mandela have in common is that their oppressive governments labeled them as terrorists. Too often, governments terrorize their own citizens and those who resist are labeled as terrorists.
We live in a world where allies and enemies are interchangeable subject positions; where economic forces over determine human existence. It is in this environment that we must remember that Mandela distinguished himself from Gandhi and King by engaging in a “just war,” violent revolutionary resistance, when no other options were available. Mandela was more practical than moral, and when he concluded that non-violent tactics were being met with obstinate violence, he proceeded accordingly even as he remained committed to the preservation of human life.
And finally, I would build on an important suggestion made by Jonathan Alter on MSNBC, in commemoration of Mandela. In honor of the long arc of Mandela’s prison narrative, some 27 years in three different prisons, we need to end mass incarceration and dismantle the prison-industrial complex in the United States.
In the spirit of forgiveness, we need to end mandatory minimums and the persistent sentencing disparities. Roll back the privatization of our prison system. Investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of sexual assault in the prison system. Abolish capital punishment. Let’s build a penal system that can embrace the capacity for human redemption; return to the principles of rehabilitation for all non-violent substance abusers; liberate all political prisoners; close Guatanamo Bay; and commit ourselves to erecting and enhancing those institutions that stand between two million American citizens and a jail cell.
These suggestions may seem radical to some – a secular international holiday, rethinking the meaning of “terrorism,” dismantling the prison-industrial complex – but not once you place them in the context of the South African revolutions to upend and overturn the Apartheid regime; or within the context of the searing legacy of Madiba Nelson Mandela.
In that context, no social justice feat is unattainable; nothing is impossible.
James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University and an MSNBC contributor. Follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson