The death of Nelson Mandela has been the occasion for a great deal of self-righteous preening. Barack Obama cribbed from Edwin M. Stanton in his statement, declaring that Mandela “belongs to the ages,” but CNN helpfully recalled more original words from Obama about Mandela from 2010, in which he laid claim to the great man’s mantle:
Through his choices, Mandela made it clear that we did not have to accept the world as it is — that we could do our part to seek the world as it should be….In the most modest of ways, I was one of those people who tried to answer his call.
The tributes to Mandela all sounded similar themes: he fought oppression and injustice and prevailed, transforming South Africa and the world. But Obama’s was by no means the only accolade to contain a self-congratulatory note. Numerous leftists and Islamic supremacists hurried to remind the world that Mandela was once branded a “terrorist,” implying that modern-day terrorists would one day be hailed as new additions to the pantheon of secular saints. Al Jazeera’s Wajahat Ali tweeted:
Let’s never forget #Mandela’s courage once made him despised & feared. The long road to icon-hood is paved w/ persecution & sacrifice.
Yet these modern-day mini-Mandelas, however they may style themselves as champions of the downtrodden and oppressed, laboring mightily against the contemporary incarnations of the architects of apartheid, have a curious blind spot. Mandela fought against an unjust system built upon racial prejudice. His struggle is easy enough to support from twenty-first century armchairs, when the oppressive system is long dead and no one in his right mind would support it or call for its revival. But oppression and injustice are by no means dead on the African continent – they’re just coming from a different source.