The radio these past two days is all “When I met Nelson Mandela….” and “My impressions of Nelson Mandela….” from every person of any possibly qualification, from journalists to the Prime Minister of the UK. I think this is a way of generating enough airtime on his death to do him justice without getting too deep into the very complicated and not-yet-actually-very-pretty legacy of colonialism. I have some opinions about that. Anyhow, I did not meet Nelson Mandela, but I’m going to chime in anyways.
My first memory of learning about Nelson Mandela was around 1991, when my dad gave me a children’s biography of him. Now, my dad does not give me many presents — gift-finding is on my mom’s side of my parents’ division of labor — and while my dad loves and understands me really well, I don’t always understand my dad’s presents. Let’s just say that gift-giving is not my dad’s primary love language. I was a bookworm as a kid so a book wasn’t really a weird present, but I think I wasn’t that excited about biographies at that point. I remember it bewildered me. Was I supposed to read it for fun? I’m not sure if I actually did read it, but I remember sitting on the floor of my room, on my North Seattle street with its one black family, looking at the book, trying to decide if it was going to be boring. I know I read the ending, which was that Nelson Mandela went to prison and was still in prison. This strikes me now as being very interesting — that he was a man who had done enough in his life that they were writing children’s biographies of him, long before the end of his story had happened.
Looking back on it, my dad choosing that biography shows a knowledge of me that I may not have had yet about myself. Fast forward twenty-two years, and I’m reading much more about racism and colonialism and the power of individuals working with each other to change things in real ways, and also the way colonialism has shapeshifted into global capitalism in a way that reminds me of another thing from 1991 — those balloon-tubes filled with liquid (AKA Flow Motion Water Snakes!) that kept slipping through your hands and calling it fun.
One of the momentous things about Nelson Mandela is that he reminds us that all of this stuff isn’t ancient history. Apartheid ended when I was in middle school, and I am not that old. The U.S. still has colonies, right now. And even though apartheid is over in South Africa, it doesn’t mean there is an equitable distribution of capital. There’s that old slippery snake.
You can pop those balloon snakes with a pin. Not sure about their real-world counterparts, but that is something the rest of us will have to figure out now that Nelson Mandela is gone.