Friday, December 06, 2013

Representing Mandela

Picture from: http://www.freedomarchives.org/audio_samples/Nelson_Mandela.html
With the sad, but sadly inevitable, death yesterday of one of the greatest political figures of the last hundred years it might be a good time to look at how language shapes different representations and how those representations change over time.

For many, Nelson Mandela was always a hero: a man fighting injustice and racial intolerance in a country that had institutionalised racial separatism like no other. Given the almost-universal praise and warmth for Mandela upon his death, you might have thought that this was what people felt at the time, but it wasn't always like this.

While the Special AKA recorded the magnificent single Free Nelson Mandela, making the point that Mandela was not just a figurehead but  - as they put it "only one man in a large army" -  young Conservative Party activists designed tasteless Hang Nelson Mandela t-shirts and posters - an early form of trolling, no doubt - and leading Tory ministers actively campaigned against economic sanctions (probably the same ones who would now support harsher sanctions on Iran) or even (in the case of the current Prime Minister, David Cameron) went to South Africa on a jolly, paid for by an anti sanctions company.

But things move on, and people's views evolve and perhaps mellow as time goes on. Cameron is now singing the praises of Mandela's integrity, leadership and forgiveness. I used to think the Conservative government should be hung, drawn and quartered for their support of apartheid South Africa. Now, just 2 out of those 3 would do for me...

For each person who saw Mandela as a freedom fighter, another saw him as a terrorist. I'd like to think that there were more of us in the former camp, but as this article by Peter Beinhart points out, powerful forces saw Mandela as a dangerous agitator. Even in 2008 - yes, 2008 - the ANC and Mandela were still on a USA terrorist watch-list!

Others, like the excellent Guardian journalist Gary Younge and writer Musa Okwonga offer alternative viewpoints. Younge describes Mandela as "never a revolutionary, always a radical" and Okwonga cautions against a revisionist, sanitised view of Mandela, which removes his anger and replaces it with sainthood.

So, for English Language students there's a lot to consider in the coverage of Mandela's death. If you look back through articles from the 1970s to 80s when he was still in prison and the ANC were seen by the South African state as  a terrorist organisation, the language may well strike you as less sympathetic: often related to violence, struggle and conflict. Fast forward to 1990 when the world's press watched him walk free from prison with all the hope, reconciliation and bridge-building that seemed to embody, and now on to the sanctifying of Mandela as a modern day saint and you'll find the language shifting into a whole range of other fields: tolerance, forgiveness, understanding, inspiration and harmony.

A great man and a great study in how perceptions can change and how language can change the way we see the world.

Edited on 06.12.13 to add link and correct error.

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