In the early 1990s I was teaching Economics in a fifth floor classroom at Khanya College in downtown Johannesburg. During one of my early lessons at Khanya I was in the middle of explaining supply curves when a roaring sound from the street below began to disturb my teaching. I tried talking louder but the roar from the streets grew too powerful. As the sound reached a crescendo, my students got up and went to the window. I joined them there. This was my first exposure to the mass democratic movement. I had been on many demonstrations in the US but what I saw in the streets below was totally different.

These protestors were not students or lifelong agitators like myself. These were workers, carrying their union bannners-street cleaners, drivers, metalworkers, miners, domestic servants, hotel waiters. In the US workers were quiet, almost invisible. Yet with great joy and fervor these South African proletarians were demanding, as they had for decades, an end to apartheid capitalism. Over the next few years, I would join their ranks on many occasions, gradually learning the songs, the chants, and the high kicks of the toyi-toyi.

During the past few days as the world has reflected on the life of President Nelson Rolihlala Mandela, these ordinary South Africans have been largely absent from the media accounts. We have witnessed a rapid re-writing of history where the struggle spearheaded by the mass democratic movement that marched past my classroom has been collapsed into the special personal determination and charisma of one great man and, at most, a small circle of people around him.

Having spent six and a half years in prison myself, I have the highest regard for Madiba. But he did not take his long walk to freedom alone, nor did he succeed because of some American-style rugged individualism. Madiba was a product of his traditional Xhosa community in the Eastern Cape. He was also a product of a hateful apartheid system that propelled him to envision a loving, inclusive alternative. But most importantly, Madiba was a product of some of the most profound social movements of the 20th century. From the ANC Youth League of the 1940s all the way through to the United Democratic Front and the Mass Democratic Movement of the 1980s, he was surrounded by thousands of people grappling with the complexities of changing a hateful system and constructing a society based on participatory democracy and sharing of wealth. That long road to freedom which Madiba walked was a crowded highway bursting with masses of creative, energetic, dedicated and vastly intelligent people. Madiba drew on their strengths to rise to his special heights. So when we remember him let us not swallow the iconized version of an African giant, but instead keep in mind all those who walked that road with him, without whom he never could have undertaken the journey.

About the Author

James Kilgore is an educator, author, and activist based in Urbana, Illinois and author of Understanding Mass Incarceration (2015). He spent six and a half years in US prisons, preceded by a six-week stint in South African jails.

Further Reading

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