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Mandela’s place in history

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Mandela’s place in history

But had Mandela had the time he might have gone even further back, before the Romans, to the beginning of Europe’s more than 2000-year assault on Africa. Alexander’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BCE began the process of extinguishing Egyptian independence and its unique political and religious system. With Pharaonic Egypt, the greatest African power, prostrate, the northern part of the continent became ripe for the taking.

Alexander’s conquest should be understood within the emerging discourse of Western rationalism. His tutor, the famous philosopher Aristotle, provides us with insight into how this new spirit viewed war in his book Politics.

“The art of war is a natural art of acquisition, for the art of acquisition includes hunting, an art which we ought to practice against wild beasts, and against men who, though intended by nature to be governed, will not submit; for war of such a kind is naturally just.”

Since Alexander’s assault, a significant part of Africa’s history has been about fighting off European “just war” attempts to dominate and induce submission. The Greeks gave way to the Romans, who turned North Africa into their breadbasket. The fight back against the Roman Empire produced significant historic figures, such as Hannibal, and later, in another corner of the empire, the battle against occupation would give the world Jesus, and the philosophy of turn the other cheek.

The Roman Empire couldn’t last forever, eventually fragmenting into multiple European states. The Muslim Arabs, whose expansion spread to Spain, in turn conquered North Africa. They were first pushed back from Spain in 1492, and then replaced in the modern period in northern Africa by the Ottoman Empire.

It is perhaps in this modern period after 1492, and the European discovery and naming of the Americas, that Mandela’s importance more accurately belongs. Though in his Carthage speech he mentions some of the great personalities of the last century, he bears better comparison with an earlier giant of African history and is better bookended with this figure, Toussaint L’Ouverture. The contrast with Toussaint, and the differences and lessons learned are an important key to understanding Mandela.

The coffin of the former president is escorted by the military to the compound for his funeral in Qunu

The first group of Africans to seriously shake off the system of racism were in Haiti, led by Touissant. Their battle took place during a time of global upheaval. The Americans had recently launched their Revolutionary War against the British in 1775, and the French had launched their revolution in 1789.

That Haitian generation seized the opportunity to destroy slavery driven by the will to be free and using Jacobin revolutionary ideas. Beginning their uprising in 1791, the Haitian revolutionaries would at different times fight and win against the most powerful armies in the world – the French, the British and the Spanish.

Mandela and the great generation that ended apartheid, and the arguments amongst them about values, tactics and strategy, recall this great generation from an earlier period on the Caribbean island, and Santo Domingo, which had secured the first victory against slavery, constitutional racism and white dictatorship.

There were other arguments about whether a deal could be done with the white authorities that would leave the Africans with freedom and a measure of independence under French tutelage, or whether a Black Nationalist alternative was better. There were also huge disputations over this position with the mixed-race population, who sometimes saw themselves as distinct.

Toussaint’s faction had “progressive” supporters in France, who, once the Haitian uprising began, passed a law in the National Convention in 1794 abolishing slavery in line with the principles of the revolution. But the French revolutionary experiment collapsed, and Napoleon Bonaparte emerged to end it. After “order” had been restored in France, slavery was restored in the colonies.

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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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