Mandela’s place in history


Mandela’s place in history

Madiba died a year ago. How should his remarkable life be understood? Onyekachi Wambu looks back at events that shook African history from Alexander’s conquest of Egypt onwards, fixing on the Haitian Revolution as the vehicle to understand Mandela.

Nelson Mandela died on 5 December 2013. How, a year later, are we to assess Madiba’s achievements and place in history? Will he, like Osiris in ancient Egypt, become a deified ancestor, a new avatar of forgiveness and reconciliation? Or will his place be as the great conqueror of apartheid and father of the “Rainbow Nation”?

In his remarkable “Carthage speech” in Tunis, his first to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) after becoming president in 1994, Mandela suggests where he, at that incredible turning point, stood in African history.

First, Mandela identifies the tragedy that has befallen Africa over two millennia:

“In the distant days of antiquity, a Roman sentenced this African city to death: ‘Carthage must be destroyed (Carthago delenda est)’. And Carthage was destroyed. Today we wander among its ruins, only our imagination and historical records enable us to experience its magnificence. Only our African being makes it possible for us to hear the piteous cries of the victims of the vengeance of the Roman Empire. And yet we can say this, that all human civilisation rests on foundations such as the ruins of the African city of Carthage. These architectural remains, like the pyramids of Egypt, the sculptures of the ancient kingdoms of Ghana and Mali and Benin, like the temples of Ethiopia, the Zimbabwe ruins and the rock paintings of the Kgalagadi and Namib deserts, all speak of Africa’s contribution to the formation of the condition of civilisation.

“But in the end, Carthage was destroyed. During the long interregnum, the children of Africa were carted away as slaves. Our lands became the property of other nations, our resources a source of enrichment for other peoples and our kings and queens mere servants of foreign powers.

“In the end, we were held out as the outstanding example of the beneficiaries of charity, because we became the permanent victims of famine, of destructive conflicts and of the pestilence of the natural world. On our knees because history, society and nature had defeated us, we could be nothing but beggars. What the Romans had sought with the destruction of Carthage, had been achieved.”

Will Mandela, like Osiris in ancient Egypt, become a deified ancestor, a new avatar of forgiveness and reconciliation?

Mandela then mentions a number of 20th-century figures so important in the African fight-back. In the list he included Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, Mohammed V of Morocco, Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral, Agostinho Neto, Murtala Muhammed, Queen Regent Labotsibeni, Eduardo Mondlane, Samora Machel, Oliver Tambo, Albert Luthuli, and the diaspora trio of W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Martin Luther King.

All of these people played their role in the campaign to reconquer the continent for Africans, with the final drama of this battle played out in South Africa. Mandela then places in context his latest struggle.

“The titanic effort that has brought liberation to South Africa, and ensured the total liberation of Africa, constitutes an act of redemption for the black people of the world.”

The speech then ends with a rousing call for an African rebirth.

“Where South Africa appears on the agenda again, let it be because we want to discuss what its contribution shall be to the making of the new African renaissance. Let it be because we want to discuss what materials it will supply for the rebuilding of the African city of Carthage. One epoch with its historic tasks has come to an end. Surely, another must commence with its own challenges. Africa cries out for a new birth, Carthage awaits the restoration of its glory.”

The Carthage speech is considered by many to be Mandela’s most important. He provides an overarching African and global historical analysis of South Africa’s struggle. Though he concentrates on 20th-century peers and the fight against imperialism, the bookending of Carthage is noteworthy. Carthage’s defeat in 146 BCE, at the hands of the Roman General Scipio Aemilianus in the third Punic war, led not only to the total destruction of the city, but to its entire population being sold into slavery.


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Written by Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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