October 18, 2008

Mandela, Obama, and the Post-racial Age

Interesting take from a giant in the field of African Studies. Post racial? I think the Swahili word, 'bado' captures my response succinctly. That is, in English, "Not yet." Because there are enough Americans out there not searching for a postracial age, and indeed quite nervous about the possibility. Interesting idea about 'low-hate retention' cultures, though.

by Prof. Ali A. Mazrui
The Daily Monitor
Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama are potential icons of a post-racial age which is unfolding before our eyes. Mandela has become the most respected Black man by all races in world history.

Obama stands a chance of becoming the most trusted Black man in US history. No African-American has ever come so close to winning the US presidency. But no African-American could have approached so close to winning the US presidency without an unprecedented level of trust from a sizable part of the white electorate.

A major cause of the Mandela-Obama respective successes lies in their embodying a short memory of racial hatred, and their impressive readiness to forgive historical adversaries. They have both illustrated a remarkable capacity to transcend historical racial divides.

Cultures differ in hate retention. Some nurse their grievances for generations. Others are intensely hostile in the midst of a conflict, but as soon thereafter, they display a readiness to forgive, even if not always to forget. The Armenians, Irish and Jews fall in this category.

Armenians were butchered in large numbers by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 – 1916. This story of the Armenian martyrdom of World War I has been transmitted with passion from generation to generation.

Armenians are still demanding justice from Turkey nearly a hundred years after the massacres. Similarly, the Irish have long memories of grievance. Clashes occur in Northern Ireland virtually every year concerning marches that commemorate ‘Orange Conflicts’ in the seventeenth century. Jews also have strong collective memories of the Holocaust and other outbursts of European anti-Semitism.

Mandela came from a culture illustrative of Africa’s short memory of hate. That culture is far from being pacifist. Wars and inter-ethnic conflicts have been part of Africa’s experience before European colonization and decades after independence.

What is different about African cultures is relatively low level of hate retention. Obama’s tolerance may be due to personal multi-culturalism. He had a white American mother, a Black Kenyan father, and an Indonesian step-father.

His cultural ancestry includes Luo culture, Islam and Black American Christianity. Mandela’s life passed through stages. His early days as a nationalist were characterized by a belief in non-violent resistance. In a sense, he carried the torch of South Africa’s Albert Luthuli and Mahatma Gandhi. Sharpeville was a major blow to his belief in passive resistance.

By the time that Mandela was having afternoon tea with the unrepentant widow of the founder of apartheid, Hendrick Verwoerd, he had tough acts to follow in African magnanimity. There were precedents of forgiveness that he followed and improved upon.

Post-colonial Africa had produced other instances of short memory of hate. Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, once condemned by a British colonialist as a “leader of darkness and death” was unjustly imprisoned in a remote part of the country.

When he finally emerged from prison on the eve of independence, he proclaimed “suffering without bitterness.” He proceeded to transform Kenya into a staunchly pro-Western country.

In November 1965, colonial Southern Rhodesia’s Ian Smith launched his Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain, unleashing a bitter Zimbabwe civil war. Yet, he lived to sit in a parliament of Black-ruled Zimbabwe and was not subjected to postwar vendetta. Again, Africa’s short memory of hate at work. In the late 1960s, Nigeria waged a highly publicized civil war that cost nearly a million lives. The Federal side won that war but was uniquely magnanimous towards the defeated Biafrans. Yet, another manifestation of Africa’s short memory of hatred.

For his part, when Mandela was finally released from prison in 1990, this most illustrious of all Africa’s liberation fighters embarked on a mission of healing and forgiving. This former hero of mobilization leadership became a paragon of the reconciliation style of leadership. He became the greatest of all African examples of prolonged reconciliation, an exemplar of African short memory of hate.

Obama illustrated his post-racial tolerance by denouncing his firebrand pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and leaving his own radicalized church. Obama is more of an ideological liberal than a moral Gandhian. Indeed, Obama is less of a Gandhian than Martin Luther King, Jr. was. But in their different ways, Mandela, Obama and King have all been part of the search for a post-racial age.


Anonymous,  October 24, 2008 at 10:42 AM  

that was really interesting. i wonder though if this ability to forgive and forget leads to some of the cyclic nature of wars in Africa. clearly i am not downplaying the european countries' and america's parts in almost all of the african wars but going from the thought of if you dont know the history you are bound to repeat it this forgive and forget could be a troubling aspect of a culture. Maybe a good mix of being forgiving but also ensuring that it does not repeat-which is what i think Mandela accomplished-is what is needed.

I think it is very important to not forget--or to make sure ppl know. Prime example the ladies that i am now teaching (4 women ranging from 25-35) had no reference point for the holocaust- which is a shame. About a year ago was walking in the mall, there was a painting of the middle passage and the 13yr old afr amer. girl i was walking with didnot know what the picture was depicting!


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