Amandla, comrade Castro!

Mandela and Castro

from The Independent: Mandela and Castro

I love this picture. Nelson Mandela giving the amandla salute with one arm, the other around Fidel Castro. I love it because it reminds us that he is not what most people would have him be. He is not a kindly old grandfather-Christmas, a Gandhi (who has been equally mythologised) who stands for whatever we thing of as ‘good’ this week. He’s a man, a great man. And like so many great men, he stands for things that will make many people uncomfortable.

He is a friend of Cuba and Libya more than he is a friend of Britain and North America. Up until recently, he was still on a terrorist watch-list in the US. and with good reason. He started as a freedom fighter and his ideology did not change over the years so much as adapt itself to new challenges. Like Jesus, he has been appropriated by mainstream politics as a symbol of heroism — alll fine and good. But real heroism, which he certainly represents, means standing against prevailing power structures in the same way Jesus often did.

Mandela was imprisoned, let’s remember, by the apartheid government that all the ‘good guys’ of international politics (Britain, America) continued to support for maaaany years. Now that apartheid has fallen they have ostensibly changed sides. The question today is: who are the mandelas of tomorrow? Who are the figures we today call terrorists and whose imprisonment and bombing we finance, who tomorrow we will hail as heroes and claim as our own beloved symbols?

As Mandela embraced Castro and Gaddafi — an aspect of the man that the west conveniently ignores when it praises him– so there may be other heroes who we cannot recognise because we are so blinkered and conformed by the ideology of our self-interest or the interests of the corporations that set news agendas, that we are unable to tell right from wrong.

For the Christian, these questions are made more complicated because, despite the similarities and analogous points, Mandela and Christ are not the same. Christ was not a revolutionary. As much as he opposed the social order he also ignored it. He would never take up arms. He would never plant bombs. But then, I think, neither would he condne smug and self-satisfied acceptance of the status quo, or support for those who are the architects of oppression, simply in the name of ‘maintaining stability’.

We need to be honest. Jesus is as far from realpolitik as he is from greed and sin. And the real heroes we choose to venerate, while flawed, are heroes precisely because they have opposed our own way of life, not despite that fact.


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