We don’t live in a world of heroes, but at rare moments we celebrate those who emerge from the shadows to push them further back. I don’t know if Nelson Mandela had heroes. He must have done. We all know he had comrades, both within the ANC and without. When he visited Mali in 1996, he wanted to see some of those foreign comrades, men who had helped him in the early 1960s before they were all—guest and hosts alike—imprisoned. When, in 1962, he had come to Bamako before his trial at Rivonia and his imprisonment, the struggle in South Africa was accelerating. When he returned thirty-four years later, he was a sitting president. Some Malians remember with pride that pair of visits, separated by decades, one by a young freedom fighter, another by an elder sage.
In April 1962, traveling on an Ethiopian passport in the name of David Motsomayi, Madiba stayed in Bamako’s Grand Hotel. Young Mali had already put its shoulder to the wheel to aid the Algerian FLN, and the young Mandela was hoping for similar support for the armed struggle. He got it. Two years later, as exhibit R 47 of the Rivonia trial, South African prosecutors produced a letter from Mandela thanking Madeira Keita, Mali’s hard-line Interior Minister, for his support for and commitment to the ANC. Madeira, whose name he knew from Ruth First’s Fighting Talk, had promised him that if the ANC’s recruits made it to Tanzania, Mali would help to train them.
In a letter produced as R 48, Mandela thanked Modibo Keita, the proud, pan-Africanist president who hoped to resurrect ‘Maliba’ (greater Mali). The two Keitas had promised to consult with Ghana and Guinea on how best to back the ANC’s cause. Symbolic as it was, Mali’s support for the ANC would continue even after Mandela, Madeira and Modibo were all languishing in their respective prisons, the latter two following a coup d’état. Modibo would die in detention, but Madeira and others survived. In the years after his own release, Mandela retraced at least part of his African odyssey from three decades prior when he made a state visit to Mali and a personal call on Madeira.
Before Mali’s National Assembly, he recalled the contributions of South Africa’s “long-standing friends; brothers and sisters who shared in our victor as they shared in our struggle.”
The struggle was continuing, as Ken Saro-Wiwa had predicted; the Nigerian playwright had been hung only a few months before, and Madiba joined Mali in condemning the actions of Nigeria’s military government.
Madiba had already been to Georgia, and that’s where I saw him. In the late 1980s, early 90’s, I was coming up in another world, a bit of a redneck world. I did double shifts in a Georgia factory where I sorted screws so their heads could be painted, working for two things: school and records (books were cheap). Not much time for stirring speeches by world historical figures delivered in summer stadiums.
Good thing I had a girlfriend smarter than me to drag me from the screw factory to a rally in downtown Atlanta, where a host of speakers recalled local struggles and long-running solidarities before an old man made it clear that these things were bigger than all of us. There was something odd about a moment that did not naturally, spontaneously segregate by race, as things in Georgia seemed to. It was as if the social world of Atlanta was somehow briefly suspended in some other liquid. But the world had turned upside down: on a hot afternoon in the land of Coca Cola, no one was drinking it. The anti-apartheid campaign had succeeded, at least for that moment, in making something familiar stand in for an evil many thought was distant, some one else’s problem.
The soda hawkers stood there looking forlorn, but otherwise it was a moment for celebration. Mandela, the ANC, apartheid, its end: all of this was both exotic and intimately familiar in a part of the country where many were proud of the Confederacy, smug in their white suburbs, sour, righteous, anxious, guilty … And where others saw the Civil Rights movement anchored in its living activists (men like Representative John Lewis and Reverend Hosea Williams) and enshrined in the tomb of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This place was light years from the New Orleans of my childhood. Same sun, much darker shadows. Mandela had come to talk about all that, in the broadest strokes. When he went into prison, after Rivonia, Jim Crow was alive and kicking hard in Dixie. Blacks voted at their peril. Madiba could never have visited, certainly not as he did in June 1990. Welcoming him then, the crowd in Atlanta had also come to the stadium to celebrate how far we had come.
It seemed like a big moment, and maybe it was, but things move forward in tiny increments and unevenly. Saro-Wiwa’s struggle isn’t over. Trayvon Martin passed, but needlessly. This week the U.S. Supreme Court kicked the legs out from under the Voting Rights Act—a product of the activism of King, Lewis, and so many others—but it also threw out a law that designed to make gays and lesbians second-class citizens. So here in Harlem, some are mourning, some are organizing, and today’s party is Pride. The question after Madiba is where tomorrow’s parties will be, and who will hold them.
* This post draws on the following sources: Fatima Meer, Higher than Hope: the Authorized Biography of Nelson Mandela, esp. 208-09; David James Smith, Young Mandela: the Revolutionary Years; Rivonia trail documents; and interviews with ex-US-RDA militants and family members in Mali.
This article first appeared on AIAC in June under the title “Mandela, Maliba and Me.” In the image at the top of this post, Mandela stands with sunglasses in the center of the second row at an Algerian training camp in Morocco in 1962.