Brand Mandela: Erasing the Radical


This month’s extensive international news coverage of Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy stands in stark contrast to the coverage accorded to the recent death of another extraordinary 20th century leader: Võ Nguyên Giáp, the 102-year-old Vietnamese general who humbled three world powers and a rising fourth.  Giáp died in Hanoi on 4 October 2013.

While Mandela – the radical political activist turned president and elder statesman – was memorialized in Johannesburg on 10 December, French and African Union troops were stabilizing the Central African Republic (CAR) which appeared to be on the brink of civil war.  Broader discussions about Mandela’s impact across Africa or his complicated and rich legacy of violent radicalism were in short supply in the 24/7 mainstream media cycle.  Oddly, even U.S. president Barack Obama’s eulogy failed to mention Mandela’s connection to his African nationalist contemporaries like Ghana’s first post independence president Dr. Kwame Nkrumah or Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta.

Clearly some contemporary leaders and seasoned media outlets are uncomfortable discussing political radicalism and its role in finding solutions to the legacies of European colonialism, poverty, injustice, and government corruption – obstacles to freedom and independence which both Mandela and Giáp had squarely in their sights throughout their lives.

If ever there was a time to look straight at these and other obstacles to freedom, it is now.  Together we face the frustrations and fears of Muslims and Christians in the CAR and beyond.  We seem confused about how to bolster fledgling democracy movements and fight totalitarianism which is emboldened when the United Nations and world leaders remain quiet.  We even see democracies in Asia facing serious threats to their stability from rising political, racial, religious factions and broader regional tensions, particularly as China elbows its way onto the world stage.

So I found it troubling that while Mandela’s life and legacy were given non-stop TV coverage with specially designed graphics and pre-packaged video homages Giáp’s life and recent death – with all its complex implications for our post Cold War world – received scant attention, with the exception of the excellent in-depth ‘Breaking News’ story by the BBC World News and online articles.

In contrast CNN International announced Giáp’s death on its low key ‘Breaking News’ ticker followed by a brief news story and online obituary.  There was no CNN expert panel discussing Giáp’s enormous and lasting impact on U.S. military doctrine, foreign policy or even contemporary U.S.-Vietnamese diplomatic relations in the context of the recent military standoffs in the South China Sea.

Overall this superficial news coverage of Giáp’s death and Mandela’s legacy of radicalism was both a lost opportunity for good journalism and sophisticated, forward thinking political leadership.  If I may borrow words from another president recently remembered, we should embrace these historical figures and confronting events ‘not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’

Mandela was widely described as an iconic leader who embraced peace and reconciliation. But Mandela was also branded a ‘terrorist’ by the U.S. government until 2008, and he fiercely and publicly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2001.  These inconvenient nuggets were not widely reported recently and it is important to ask why.

Like Giáp, Mandela began his political life as a non-violent student activist who was expelled for his efforts.  Both men would later turn toward sabotage and violent direct action to oust their respective governments created by European colonial rule.  In the end, both men would confuse, frustrate and confront many in the world’s corridors of power while leading South Africa and Vietnam to national independence, albeit along two very different paths.

I mention these similarities not to demean Apartheid’s brutality and the response to it or the unique conditions under which Giáp and the Viet Minh fought the French, Japanese and later the Americans and its allies.  I mention these things because after the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in which 69 unarmed, peaceful protestors were killed by South African government forces Mandela went underground and formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the African National Congress, and travelled to Algeria for military training in 1961.

If these conditions sound familiar they should.  Follow Twitter feeds and blogs from Syria, Egypt, Kiev, Moscow and elsewhere, including the U.S. where Edward Snowden’s political activism continues to have serious international ramifications.  If we wait too long to engage we may miss the next young Giáp or Mandela who are fighting injustice and oppression and looking for allies online and on the ground.  If we don’t join them in honest and open discussions or direct action we may face a world for which we are unprepared.  Climate change will be the least of our worries.

Like millions of others I have faith in the South African and Vietnamese people, and I cheer them on as they work toward national unity and development.  Perhaps Vietnam can learn from South Africa’s fledgling democracy as it aspires to stamp out corruption and treat people equally and with dignity – whether at the heart of power or along the edges of society.

As Mandela said to me and thousands of others packed inside Yankee Stadium in June 1990: “There is an umbilical cord that ties us together.”

The deaths of inspiring leaders like Mandela and Giáp, and historic moments like the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., are significant and rare events which connect us.  We can choose to ignore them or we can discuss them in all their rich complexity to help us reassess who we are, where we’re heading and what we value as citizens and members of the community of nations.

Rachel Cunningham is a Master of Arts candidate at the University of Western Australia in Perth, Australia where she is researching contemporary foreign policy.  She graduated from the University of Chicago with a BA in Political Science and is a former journalist.  She currently resides in Hanoi, Vietnam.  Follow Rachel on Twitter @RCHanoi.

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  1. Richard Kitchener

    Rachel thank you for your piece on Mandela and Giap.

    Freedom fighter or terrorist have been an ongoing labeling debate. This part of Mandela’s career was widely overlooked in the recent Mandela coverage. I have no issue with him and his association with MK. He did what he had to do. Makes Gandhi all the more special!

    With respect to Giap, although largely ignored by the international press, he was given full honors within Vietnam by the press, military, politicians and most importantly the Vietnamese public.

    Well done to Mandela and Giap…..warts and all!

    1. Thanks Rich! History – worts and all – is worth exploring. Thanks for being part of the journey.

  2. Good point about General Giap and the media’s disinclination to properly face the power of radicalism.

    On the other hand, i think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that Mandela opposing the Iraq war is inconvenient to the story of him as a peaceful figure. He may have been a violent radical in the 1960s, but he emerged in the 1990s to bring his people to peaceful reconciliation with his tormentors and enemies…

    1. Thanks Andrew. I was thinking about the coverage because Mandela’s evolution from underground militant to an advocate for peace vs war with Iraq is a journey worth exploring in all its complexities. To ignore one aspect without the other devalues his legacy and impact.

      1. From a political theory point of view, the “framing effect” of radicalism on a discourse can be profound. In short, extreme positions redefine the centre of gravity in a debate. It’s something I’m seeing a lot of in China’s “hawkish generals” phenomenon, and i think you have a classic example in American history with the Black Panthers – not that many people actually agreed with their positions, but they served to highlight how reasonable the demands of non-radicals were.

        Ash sent around a link a while ago from Stephen Walt’s blog titled from memory ‘The genius of neoconservatism’:

        1. Rachel Cunningham

          Great point Andrew. All the more to discuss the political spectrum of ideas and how they relate to solving every day challenges. The media can indeed do this, when they’re so inclined. Editors may not be known for advocating political dialogues but editorial choices are in fact, political decisions. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  3. I think you are right. Bretton Woods and U.S. hegemony have been stabilising for ‘developed states. For others its has entrenched disadvantage. We seem to have lost our ability for what I would call ‘critical empathy’

    1. ‘Entrenched disadvantage’ – well put. I suppose there is some irony to be found while reading the equally thick books ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ by Nelson Mandela and Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’.

  4. I don’t think anyone bearing the title ‘general’ has been popular in the West since WWII. ‘Activists’ we can relate to. We can share their victory when we are persuaded that their arguments align with our values.

    While I condone activism I think the role of ‘Western’ activists in defeating apartheid has been over played. Before its downfall there were a large number of Cuban trained combatants in Angola supported by a robust cold war supply chain. The apartheid regime could not have survived without resorting to WMD. Accommodating the ANC was the only way U.K. and U.S. could ensure a transition that protected property rights and Anglo-American investments in the country. History had to be written to make ANC the good guys.

    1. Rachel Cunningham

      “I don’t think anyone bearing the title ‘general’ has been popular in the West since WWII.”

      Particularly since Vietnam, including Giap and Westmoreland.

      “‘Activists’ we can relate to. We can share their victory when we are persuaded that their arguments align with our values” … I wonder.

      Even when the activists appear to align themselves with ‘democratic freedoms’, e.g. Pussy Riot and Greenpeace Arctic 30, there still appears a cool distancing by the mainstream press and editorial writers on the issues raised by their direct action. There appears to be a discomfort about covering ‘radicals’ because they confront the status quo – and mainstream media is a part of the status quo. Readers, listeners and others can engage the reporters (and their editors) and demand more in depth coverage…or they can turn the channel. Either way, its clear the public wants more quality reporting and coverage.

  5. Whats wrong with national sovereignty and self determination anyway?

    1. Rachel Cunningham

      “Whats wrong with national sovereignty and self determination anyway?”

      Not a thing. But stability for stability sake can easily curtail the rights of the people. And there’s the rub – that is, if democracy is the goal.

  6. Lots of discussion following Mandela’s death … he got labelled either a terrorist or leader on many forums .. and never the twain shall meet for many.

    Your piece looks critically at both sides of his life … well said.

    Never heard of the other guy but I guess coz he fought the west and Mandela didnt … explains much?

  7. Thanks Kevin. Much appreciated. You reckon Mandela and the ANC were not fighting a ‘western power’? The Apartheid regime reflected the vestiges of European colonial rule in South Africa. Although economic sanctions eventually kicked in the South African government was ‘western’ and supported by the west until it became clear Mandela and the ANC transition was inevitable. Check out Peter Beattie’s reflections:

  8. I really like the article…Just a comment…It is most interesting that the fact that Mandela was a communist was mentioned by Bill O’Reilly on his TV show in covering Mandela’s death. O’Reilly then went on in his statement to state that regardless of this fact, Mandela had done so many other wonderful things thus it can be said that one can overlook one’s ideology if it doesn’t agree with theirs when good things are part of their life. Immediately, the narrow minded, often illiterate and simply one sided Al Sharpton on his TV show showed the clip portion of O’Reilly stating that Mandela was a communist without the rest of the footage illustrating the ‘other’ positive side of Mandela and essentially condemning O’Reilly for stating this fact. One gets condemned for stating ALL of the truth. The PC in our country is simply over the top and that’s your answer as to why other things regarding Mandela did not surface and why the death of Giap was simply some words streaming across the bottom of a TV screen. I would not have known of Giap’s death unless I read this article. It prompted me to read more of him…amazing man with a great legacy for his country. There are few heroes today like these two men…can anyone name one?

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