By Izeth Hussain –
A colossus has passed away, the mourning has been worldwide and so have been the encomiums, and it has to be expected according to established form that after some time there will be a process of debunking to show that the colossus really had clay feet. The debunking process has already begun in Sri Lanka with some comments in our State media. That is meet and proper because we all know that if Mandela had been a Sri Lankan – of a few years ago – he would have been taken away in a white van. So there is something more than a little ironic in our President solemnly participating in the funerary rites in South Africa.
The contrasts between the two leaders are striking. Mandela, who could have got away with practically anything while in power, gave no place to his family in the State; President MR is regarded as an outstanding practitioner of family bandyism. Mandela was content with just one term as President when he could have easily stayed on in power for the rest of his life; MR has changed the Constitution to enable him to prolong his power indefinitely. Mandela dismantled the worst racist regime of modern times; MR has continued the racism that has ravaged Sri Lanka since Independence. Mandela was inveterately democratic; MR is veering towards neo-Fascism. Mandela, though proud of his African heritage and his being a tribal aristocrat, was outward-looking, universalist, representing in my view the cosmic man of the future; the MR regime is in many ways inward-looking, tribalist, and regressive.
But the two leaders do share a commonality, though it is only a partial commonality. Mandela was inveterately democratic, probably because he has been deeply conscious – like many Africans over many decades – that democracy is not alien to Africa, that it is not just a product of the European Enlightenment, and that going back to African roots involves a commitment to democracy: there is ample evidence showing that before the transition to centralized states African societies were for the most part ruled democratically. The anthropological evidence suggests that that was so all over the world, but we in Asia are not conscious of that fact. Consequently, in becoming ultra-nationalist – which always involves a going back to roots – we imagine that we have to go in an authoritarian direction. At present therefore we have a hybrid regime that is quasi neo-Fascist and quasi democratic. The important point is that it is genuinely quasi democratic, and that is an important redeeming feature because it provides some democratic space for correction and improvement of the regime.
I have engaged in the above comparative exercise between the two leaders because I have come to feel in the course of reading a great many encomiums on Mandela that it could be useful to set him up as a role model, as someone by whose standards other leaders can be judged. President MR comes off poorly in the comparison, but so do all the other leaders, while quite a few come off much much more poorly. The reason is suggested by what a music critic wrote of Billy Holliday: jazz singers can be put into two categories, the first of which includes Billy Holliday; the other includes all the rest. Apart from that I have a very good reason for choosing Mandela as role model: he is African, not a Westerner. Too often, the apologists for our Government write off anti-Government criticism as the outpourings of pro-Western individuals who might be in the pay of foreign powers. That won’t apply if Mandela is the role model.
I will now make some observations on the problem of violence in relation to Mandela. His party, the African National Congress, was Communist in its ideology and therefore embraced violence as a political necessity, and furthermore, it did engage in terrorism in the strict sense of the term, by which I mean the targeting of civilian non-combatants. It is also on record that he rejected the offer of the South African PM to free him from jail in exchange for his abjuring “terrorism”. Nevertheless he is frequently bracketed with Gandhi, the quintessential apostle of non-violence, possibly because apartheid was finally dismantled without a violent struggle on a major scale.
I can make no sense of Gandhi’s non-violence. To establish my case I will use material from George Orwell’s beautifully balanced assessment in his essay Reflections on Gandhi. Gandhi’s commitment to non-violence of course led him to a pacifist position on war. Louis Fischer, one of Gandhi’s greatest admirers, recounts that in 1938 Gandhi was asked whether he would be prepared to see the Jews exterminated by Hitler. Gandhi’s reply was that the Jews should commit collective suicide which would rouse the conscience of the Germans and the rest of the world against Hitler. After the War, when it became known that Hitler had indeed exterminated Jews by the million, Gandhi claimed that he had been right: as the Jews had been exterminated by the million in any case, they would have done better in dying significantly by committing collective suicide. It was not a question of callousness towards a foreign people because in 1942 in urging non-violent resistance to a Japanese invasion of India he was willing to admit at the same time that it could cost several million deaths.
Orwell thought that Gandhi’s position on the Jews and a Japanese invasion had behind it the fact that, born as he was in 1869, he did not understand the nature of modern totalitarianism. The efficacy of non-violence depends on the ability to persuade others about the justice of one’s cause, which was possible under British colonialism but not under Japanese dictatorship or Hitler’s totalitarianism. But how successful was Gandhi’s non-violence against British colonialism? The British themselves seemed to think that ultimately, irrespective of his intentions, he was on the British side because his advocacy of non-violence rendered the Indian Independence struggle ineffective.
The fact that India won its independence without waging an anti-colonial war is often taken, particularly by Indians, as signifying the success of Gandhi’s non-violence. Actually there were complex factors behind the British decision to relinquish its Empire. The disillusionment with imperialism seems to have begun with the Boer War at the turn of the twentieth century, and in succeeding decades liberals and socialists turned increasingly against it. I believe that that was the major factor behind British decolonization in India and elsewhere. But I believe also that the possibility of violence was another factor behind decolonisation. It is reasonable to think that Britain’s decision-makers had in mind the possibility that the Indian masses might turn to violent rebellion, in which case an impoverished post-War Britain would not have been able to cope with it. In South Africa too de Klerk and others would have had in mind the fact that Mozambique and Angola won their independence through violent rebellion. I am not advocating violence but merely recognizing that violence becomes a necessity when all else fails. The example set by the violent revolutionary, Mandela, should make the third world despots realize that it is absurd to dub all rebels who take to the gun as “terrorists”.
About six months ago I read Mandela’s autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom, which impressed me so much that I decided to write an article about it. I am not doing so just now because I haven’t had the time to re-read it. What struck me most was Mandela’s extraordinary capacity for joy in life, which could withstand long spells of solitary confinement and all the other horrors heaped on his head over several decades. That I believe was the source of his very exceptional charisma. What was charismatic about the two other figures whose deaths in recent decades provoked a universal response – Mother Teresa and Princess Diana? Mandela’s charisma had a dimension not shared by the other two: he fought the good fight against injustice and stayed the course against all the odds. That appealed to the universal human hunger for justice. He shared with Mother Teresa an enduring belief – despite everything – in the better side of human nature, to which an appeal was always possible. And all three shared the ability to transcend racial and other divides. They stand in contrast to the stinky claustrophobic tribalism that pervades Sri Lanka.
In this season of good cheer we have a need to transcend the world of politics that are for the most part grim. I turn to poesy. Here is my favorite Christmas carol –
I wish my enemies will go to Hell.
Noel! Noel! Noel! Noel!
It was written by a devout Roman Catholic, Hilaire Belloc. There are many Sri Lankans who, though they are normally abounding in goodwill towards all humanity, are exasperated that President MR is going on and on in power, without there being any prospect of change. But will any change be for the better? The French have a proverb: The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing. Here’s a great poem on that theme, also by Belloc:
The accursed power which stands on Privilege
(And goes with Women, and Champagne and Bridge)
Broke – and Democracy resumed its reign:
(Which goes with Bridge, and Women and Champagne).
Should any young fellow seek my advice on how to lead the good life, I would tell him that first and foremost he must ignore what the Holy Books say and get it firmly into his head that the best things in life are not free. My kindred soul Belloc again, in another great poem:
I am tired of love. I am still more tired of rhyme.
But money gives me pleasure all the time.