Many a critic of the West have pointed to a certain poverty in imagination when Western intellectuals are forced to conceptualize a world where they are not making the rules and setting parameters.
The premise of the criticism is that there is a lens of ideological heterodoxy which Western intellectuals cannot substitute for anything else. It may be because they are uncomfortable with perspectives that do not resemble their cultural narratives.
Every other perspective comes to these intellectuals through the looking glass.
Take, for instance, Nelson Mandela and how he was perceived in the United States and Great Britain. Looking back into history, one notices an evolution of sentiments about the former South Africa leader among the elite class of academics, politicians and journalists in the West.
In 1987, Margaret Thatcher was sure Mandela was the leader of a terrorist organization called the African National Congress (ANC). Later, the former British prime minister thought Mandela’s release from prison was important to any progress in South Africa.
Thatcher was not the only one of mega-repute who thought Mandela was a troublemaker and changed her mind. Her ally and US president Ronald Reagan was also enthused about Mandela for sometime.
We may applaud these leaders on their maturation from ignorance. But the fact that Mandela and the Black majority in South Africa, in spite of what they had coherently argued for decades, had to be seen as antagonistic to peace and order, speaks to a Western obsession with an ideological rule of thumb.
Peace and order were seen as superior values to justice and the right. Was it because justice demands discomforting circumstances for South Africa’s white people who were people with means? Those who would prefer peace and quiet for the free market to function?
When they decided they loved Mandela, the West tried to pick his friends and enemies for him. They were perhaps unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the Mandela who wrote in his 2008 autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom:
“I read the report of Blas Roca, the general secretary of the Community Party of Cuba, about their years as an illegal organization during the Batista regime. In Commando, by Deneys Reitz, I read of the unconventional guerrilla tactics of the Boer generals during the Anglo-Boer War. I read works by and about Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro.”
“We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of a vicious, imperialist-orchestrated campaign. We, too, want to control our own destiny.”
Until his death, Westerners could not quite comprehend why Mandela showered praises on Fidel Castro. How and why did Mandela find an enemy of the West a comfortable ally?
They may find their answer here, in what Mandela said to Castro at a public event in Havana:
“Who trained our people, who gave us resources, who helped so many of our soldiers, our doctors?”
It was the Cubans – and also Muammar Gaddafi, another favorite enemy of the West. Gaddafi clandestinely funded armed ANC resistance to the apartheid government for years.
It was not simply that Mandela was grateful to Gaddafi and Castro but he also thought they were exemplars of how to respond to incessant imperialism from the West. Another point in this regard is that Mandela also viewed himself as a socialist, or at least, a man in favor of a collectivist mechanism to power and material relations.
But he did not allow himself to be trapped into a self-imposed ideological jail. As Jake Bright argued, “Mandela would embrace the open-market path that led to [growth]… remarkable given the African National Congress’s (ANC) and his own Marxist-communist leanings.”
It is almost as if Mandela was open to a variety that would spice the quality of life. We must not forget that against the sentiments of most in the country, Mandela welcomed white-minority roles in building the new South Africa.
The Mandela we have at the end, given the biases with which every side loves to claim him, was best described by himself on a visit to the US in 1990.
When asked why he warms up to the likes of Yasser Arafat, Castro and Gaddafi, Mandela responded, “One of the mistakes which some political analysts make is to think their enemies should be our enemies.”
This was a man who was not going to inherit anyone’s enemies or restrict himself to some outdated heterodoxy.