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On Mandela, freedom and our concept of democracy

Why is it that in the U.S. we can recognize Nelson Mandela’s contributions to creating South African democracy, but too often fail to see our own as genuinely established by people who were rejected as citizens at the founding?

Nelson Mandela knew that a democracy can never go on autopilot and expect to remain a democracy.
REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

This year marks the centennial of Nelson Mandela’s birth. This anniversary provides us with a chance to reflect on his life — a great and admirable one — but also on how we as a nation have interpreted it. In the United States, Mandela is frequently referred to as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. This is, of course, correct. Before Mandela’s election in 1994, white South Africans had been conducting elections of one kind or another since 1910. Yet the vast majority of South Africans, who were not white, were denied political power and faced savage levels of racial discrimination.

Jeff Kolnick

So, South Africa was a democracy in 1910 in the same way that the United States was — a democracy in name only.

Here, women weren’t granted the vote until 1920

Strangely, we in the United States would never say that Warren Harding was the first democratically elected president, even though it was only in 1920, when the passage of the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, that a majority of Americans could participate in elections for the first time. If we thought of ourselves in this way, we might honor Susan B. Anthony or Alice Paul in the same way as we do Nelson Mandela.

Nor do we think to say that Richard Nixon was the first democratically elected president, even though it was only in 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, that millions of African-Americans in southern states could participate in elections for the first time. If we imagined ourselves in this way, we would consider Fannie Lou Hamer or Amelia Boynton in the same light as we do Nelson Mandela.

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How nations remember their history is important. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela is rightly understood as representing the long struggle to bring democracy to his nation. This is true even though voting and party systems in South Africa preceded his election by some 80 years.

In the United States, we attribute democracy to “the Founders,” all of whom were white men and many of whom owned enslaved Africans and conceived of women as property, enslaved or otherwise.

Why is it that in the United States we can recognize Nelson Mandela’s contributions to creating South African democracy, but too often fail to see our own as genuinely established by people who were rejected as citizens at the founding?

Too many Americans are on autopilot

Americans have been taught that our Founders placed us on an unwavering path toward freedom. American democracy, we believe, is self-correcting. The stirring words of the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble of the Constitution, the lingering effects of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism, mean that we need not struggle to become free — we are on autopilot. Too many of us have lost our civic muscle and no longer feel the obligation to make a difference by organizing and banding together as citizens.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. knew better than this. His experience as a nonviolent activist caused him to understand American democracy differently. 2018 also marks the 50th  anniversary of King’s assassination. King knew that time was not on the side of justice. Locked in a jail cell for helping to organize massive demonstrations, King wrote that it is “strangely irrational” to think that “the very flow of time will cure all ills…. Human progress never rolls on the wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” 

Nelson Mandela knew that a democracy can never go on autopilot and expect to remain a democracy. In 1964, about to be sentenced to prison for demanding to live as a free person in the country of his birth, Mandela said:

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Freedom ‘must be demanded’

One year earlier, King reminded us that “we know from painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” I suspect that this is an idea our Founders would have shared, as they, like King, learned it from experience.

How different we would be as a nation if we adopted South Africa’s understanding of democracy. If that were the case, we would recognize our Founders while exalting those who toiled, and are still toiling, to expand our democracy. Only if we tell the story of American democracy this way can we truly honor the legacies of Mandela and King.

Jeff Kolnick, Ph.D., is a professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University.

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