I was having a Skype conversation with someone and talking about the price of living one’s commitment to social justice and ecological wellbeing. The sound on my television had been off. I looked up from my computer screen to see printed across the television that he, Madiba Rolihlahla Mandela (known to the world as Nelson Mandela), had become an ancestor—one of the world’s cherished ancestors.
The moment was singed with poignancy, awe and reverence. Hearing about his ancestral transition—as an activist of African ancestry who came of age as an activist shortly after the movement to get governments, corporations and education institutions to financially divest from apartheid South Africa, I connected with the enormity of the personal sacrifice Madiba made as a revolutionary activist, a political prisoner for the twenty-seven years and later as a President and iconic symbol of his country. Such sacrifice makes tragic the everyday efforts by each of us to get a seat at the table of privilege and access, enjoy middle class happiness and comfort, and receive rewards and recognition for our tacit complicity with imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. How small those efforts appear in the face of such extraordinary work by an ordinary person like Madiba—for he was not born the international figure of revolutionary struggle and moral achievement so much as he became that figure.
Given the history of his work to end apartheid and institute ethnic justice, Madiba’s commitment to social justice and ecological wellbeing has to be thoughtfully considered in the context of the early moments of post-apartheid South Africa. In the midst of tremendous pressures to focus exclusively on healing the wounds created by centuries of white supremacist oppression and state-sponsored racialized terrorism, South Africa chose, the seemingly inconceivable path for the mid 1990s, to inscribe in the founding constitution of the nation a prohibition against discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender.
Putting this effort into the context of US democracy history, remember that in 1787 at the founding of the constitution of the United States, the legal inferiority of people of African ancestry who were enslaved was legally inscribed by classifying them three-fifths of a free person for the purpose of the allocation of taxes and the apportionment of members to the United States House of Representatives — a compromise reached between Northerners who wanted these people to be considered property and Southerners who wanted them to be fully counted but denied representation. Women in that same constitution could not vote.
In the context of US sexual equality history, the official policy of the United States military in 1994 was changed to the now infamous and deplorable policy known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—enacting a code of sexual silence, silencing, and shame within our armed services. The equally infamous and deplorable Defense of Marriage Act was enacted in 1996 further defining sexual inequality within the United States—an espoused exemplar of democratic government and society.
I, like many people of color with a critical analysis of race, cringe when LGBTQ organizations with little to no authentic relationship to people of color communities attempt to comment about events and issues that directly affect us, e.g., George Zimmerman murder trial verdict or heterosexism and trans-hatred in our communities. But it is equally distasteful for such LGBTQ organizations to ignore, marginalize or deny the impact or role played by people of color in the advancement of sexuality and gender equality such as the Stonewall Riots or the advancement of equality in the South African constitution. So I am honored that the American Institute of Bisexuality asked me to pen this article for Bi Magazine.
Madiba’s South Africa has special significance in bisexual history. It was shortly after Madiba’s presidency that bisexual activists and other LGBTQ delegates at the 1999 International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) World Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa commemorated the first day celebrating bisexuals and bisexual experience.
Madiba’s commitment to social justice and ecological wellbeing so modeled for all of us the ways we can live our values. He eschewed the trappings of privilege and access available to him, in his case afforded to him by his education, to work for freedom, justice and wellbeing of all peoples. When faced with the option of being comfortable or sacrificing, he chose a life of sacrifice. At the moment when he could have embraced a provincial politics of group interest, he reached beyond those limitations to uphold an egalitarian and inclusive politics of social justice across many forms of difference. And he never stopped speaking truth to power—whether he was in a disempowered or powerful position himself.
Let us not forget the person that became the symbol. He was a son, husband, father, grandfather and member of a tribal family. He was also marked as a terrorist by various governments around the world. He was a community and youth organizer. He was a political prisoner. He was a politician and statesman. He was the physical embodiment of the struggle against imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. He was the leader of a movement—fist in the air, chanting, “Amandla!“ He was a person who decided that personal comforts were not enough to sustain a life, freedom and justice were worth the effort and oppression, however insidious and vitriolic, was unsustainable. If we maintain a relationship with his humanity and its complexities, we may very well gain from his life what we need to do our own work. Madiba, may your ancestors and Divinities embrace you in peace, love, and grace.