The World is Not Flat: Mandela, Silences, and the Need for Complex Thinking

By Lisa Brock, Senior Editor of the Praxis Center and Academic Director of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership

At around 4:45pm on December 5, 2013, I received a text from a friend informing me that Nelson Mandela had passed. I was leaving on a trip abroad in two days and had much to do, but I stopped. Stopped organizing for my absence, stopped shuffling my papers, just stopped. And I knew instantly that I was not alone. All of my comrades around the globe, who had been a part of the momentous fight to end apartheid, were doing the same thing: stopping to pay homage to the man and the movement that had brought the Global One Percent, if not to its knees, at least to the table.

Then it commenced. Fifteen minutes later, I began receiving calls from the media asking me to comment on how “great” Mandela was, not because he was a disciplined member of a revolutionary movement whose strategies and tactics inspired the world, but because he had come out of prison a changed and softer man, a man of reconciliation. This was the narrative arc that played out over the next two weeks. So powerful was the storyline that George W. Bush attended the funeral and Ted Cruz honored Mandela in a blog. That Mandela did not seek retribution for the horrors of apartheid quickly became, for the global media, political pundits, and western politicians, his crowning achievement.

What do we make of this? The late Haitian Scholar, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, borrowed the notion of the “unthinkable” from French Theorist Pierre Bourdieu, to argue that the African-led Haitian Revolution, 1785-1803, was so unthinkable for western nations that even today its significance as the Americas’ second anti-colonial revolution(the US being the first) remains silenced. “That which one cannot conceive [of] within the range of possible alternatives…perverts all answers because [to do so] would [defy]… the terms under which the questions are phrased.” In other words, to embrace the whole Mandela who never renounced armed struggle or the key roles of Cuba, leftists, and workers in the defeat of apartheid is simply unthinkable. To do so would make three-dimensional the one-dimensional terms upon which the Power Paradigm rests. Good=American=markets=democracy=freedom.

Mandela′s Robben Island Cell Block

Moreover, while there was some “calling out” of those who did not support the anti-apartheid struggle such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, there has been almost no public airing of why. The unspoken assumption for many is that they were racist, and surely most of their domestic policies were. But let’s complicate this. Apartheid was never just a political system but an economic one in which the world’s premier banks and manufacturers were stakeholders. DeBeers made diamonds “are forever” there, Royal Dutch Shell mastered the conversion of coal to oil there and Italian arms manufacturers sold Impala fighter planes there. Even Polaroid, the instant photo company, and General Motors, the Detroit based automaker made passbook photos and police cars, respectively, there.

Apartheid was globalization writ large and never simply the brainchild of a few aberrant whites. The production of silences, then, claims two results that I want to address. First, it diminishes the capacity of people to cognate multiple truths (and lies) simultaneously and to grapple with ambiguity and contradiction, or, to sometimes even “hear,” counter narratives. I see it in the classes I teach, where students, especially those from privileged backgrounds, painfully wrestle with, and sometimes argue against, unsettling discoveries, such as the fact that Israel sold arms to South Africa, or the CIA assisted in the capture of Mandela.

That states might be both “good” and “bad” and pursue both just and unjust policies, or both oppress some while advantaging others is new to many American college students. Of course, those that live in the crosshairs of these contradictions such as youth of color and undocumented and LGBTQ youth tend to wrestle less with the new information. In fact, these students are often hungry for data that bring sound into the silences and validate their lives. I will never forget giving a talk on Martin Luther King, Jr. as part of a holiday celebration when a child of about ten years old asked a very revealing question. He said, if Dr. King was good and the police are good, why did the police put Dr. King in jail? Once the King holiday became law, (over the veto of President Ronald Reagan), it became necessary to strip King of his oppositional roots. Even this young boy, at his tender age, was begging for a more nuanced understanding of the relationship of the State to Dr. King.

Second, silences work in construction of “the other” (Said) and “the invention of the negro” (Robinson) to create colonial epistemologies (Mignolo) of justification. Myths, distortions and stereotypes can become “knowledge” that fill in where real truths and complex narratives might otherwise reside. For example, Richard Cohen, the controversial Washington Postcolumnist gave voice to what many believed about the July 2013 Trayvon Martin murder trial. That the killer, Zimmerman, had a right to be suspicious of Martin, because, “the hoodie is a uniform we all recognize.” “It’s what’s worn by a whole lot of thugs,” he opinioned.

Dr. Brock, Students and Directors of the Centre for Popular Memory, University of Cape Town

One wonders how many “thugs” Cohen actually knows or how he did his research. The fact that he can argue this as if it is “true” and defend it when questioned later is illustrative of the power of “filler”.  In fact, he is so unquestioning of this stereotype that when asked where he got his data: He lazily wrote, “look in the newspapers, online or on television: you see a lot of guys in the mug shots wearing hoodies.” Wow. I don’t know one college professor who would accept this as solid evidence gathering.  If a student approached me about such a topic, I would ask if they were interested in the etymology of the word thug or the issue of crime and criminality. If the topic were crime, they would be encouraged to research crime statistics, policing practices, the legal system and race and class in one city or neighborhood as well as the attire of offenders to determine whether those who commit crimes tend to wear hoodies.

In a late November 2013 article Cohen went on to write about the November election of Bill de Blasio as New York City’s mayor. “People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman
and with two biracial children.”

Now I raise Cohen, here, not to cherry pick a journalist whose writings so obviously support my point. Rather, reading these two pieces in light of what he wrote in-between their publications, is most telling. He wrote the following after seeing the film, Twelve Years a Slave.

I sometimes think I have spent years unlearning what I learned earlier in my life. For instance, it was not George A. Custer who was attacked at the Little Bighorn. It was Custer…who attacked the Indians. Much more important, slavery was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks. Slavery was a lifetime’s condemnation to an often-violent hell….
Steve McQueen’s stunning movie “12 Years a Slave” is one of those unlearning experiences. I had to wonder why I could not recall another time when I was so shockingly confronted by the sheer barbarity of American slavery. Instead, beginning with school, I got a gauzy version. I learned that slavery was wrong, yes, that it was evil, no doubt, but really, that many blacks were sort of content. Slave owners were mostly nice people — fellow Americans, after all.

Enough said.

Freedom Park, Pretoria South Africa

The unveiling of the “Mandela story” in the wake of his death should give us all pause. There is so much to say about the violence of silences. Mandela was a revolutionary who, along with millions made a decision that without justice there would be no peace. And when he finally reached across the racial chasm, he did so only when the end of the apartheid was in sight, a new constitution was in the making, and from a position of power that his people’s heroic life-sacrificing struggle had earned him. State brutality and a movement’s resolve is what framed the bloody and contentious end of apartheid. Today, a raging debate is taking place about the African National Congress’ ties to global capital. It would be great to have this debate beyond the confines of insiders. Yet, by memorializing Mandela in caricature, we miss out on a robust discourse of one of the world’s most important social transformations. The people – all people – are in desperate need of complex thinking.

The world is not flat. It is filled with the likes of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin and Nelson Mandela; repression and resistance; love and hate; silence and voice. As we begin a new year, here at the Praxis Center we dare to see the world in all its complexity, and we invite you to join with us to read, write, deliberate, imagine, debate, and ultimately act on the making of a more just and humane world.


  1. Lisa Brock

    Actually, Dr. Griffin, Mr. Cohen is still in his maze of ignorance. I pointed out that he wrote the revelatory piece in-between his two outrageous pieces, so in someways his brief acknowledgement of needing to unlearn, has not dislodged the “filler” he is determined to believe in. This I think is profound as it shows the power of silences and the tenacity of the power paradigm. And to Dr. Johnson-Odim, I think, your point is well taken and there might be many reasons why Mandela supported reconciliation and the TRC. It would be great to hear from others on this point. To do, as Mr. Williams wrote, continue to bring the good news. Thanks for all the engagement and your joining this community. There will be new posts each week.

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  3. Fay Akindes

    Thanks for bringing “sound into the silences” with your thoughtfully written essay. Political and poetic. . . Your reminder that apartheid functioned as a global economic system is an important one. Several U.S. companies silently profited from apartheid. IBM, for example, was the largest supplier of computers and technologies to the S African gov’t. Blood stains on its keyboards are loud.

  4. Cheryl Johnson-Odim


    Congrats on establishing this wonderful site. The best upside of technology is the capacity it supplies for being in touch with others, particularly those in a shared intellectual and political community. The Mandela piece was excellent. Earlier I expressed the belief that among the complex reasons Nelson Mandela elected to support Truth and Reconciliation was to keep “the people” from wasting time and energy on retribution (however much deserved) when it was so needed in the process of re-building. I, too, look forward to continuing dialogue about South Africa now—as they used to say in Mozambique “Victory continues, the struggle is certain.” Thank you for this place in which to engage.

    Cheryl Johnson-Odim

  5. Thanks for your timely article, Dr. Brock. I have had the same thoughts–though not so well informed as yours–since Mandela’s death; for this reason the wonderful New Yorker cover gratified me. Your article has raised a plaguing question for me, about the proliferation of ignorance.

    Last week I reposted on Facebook an article stupidly titled “!0 Stupid Things You Should Never Say to a Person with Depression.” The list was excellent, but one commentator decried the word “stupid.” I supported her–I see no reason to shame ignorance by calling it stupid. And yet . . . I wonder why a man in Richard Cohen’s position was permitted to dwell in such dismal ignorance about American slavery until Steve McQueen (thankfully) yanked him out of it. The nature of slavery in this country is easily ascertainable from books, documentaries, autobiographical records, and even couple of miniseries called “Roots.” While more than willing to acknowledge huge areas of human historical experience in which I am ignorant, I am still regularly amazed by people who have just now realized the nature of slavery–or of violence against women, my particular area of focus. This ignorance is, of course, itself a primary product of privilege: to be white is to have the privilege of never knowing the human cost of racism, past or present. I guess I’m simply raising what is for me a provocative question here, one I ask of myself as well as of others: to what extent is ignorance simply ignorance, and to what extent is it a hiding place?

  6. Willie Williamson

    No the world is not flat. It is teeming with vibrant life that baits the beginning of new struggles. Struggles that will quell the many attempts to record history in a twisted and convoluted form. Struggles that will not allow silence to be filled by those who would define a peoples history in an undemocratic fashion. As the older people in the south would say, You bring good news. I will be reading and commenting, but most of all boasting about this wonderful site. Congratulations to you and your staff Doc
    Willie Williamson

  7. Dr. Brock, this is an excellent post. You’ve deftly captured many of my own thoughts as I reflected on Madiba’s passing. Moreover, I greatly appreciate your assertion of the need to be much more nuanced about our view of individuals, groups, and nations. I look forward to reading more of your insights! Peace.

  8. Denice Miles

    Great article; I would like to hear more
    of your analysis of the South Africa phenomenon.

  9. Makheru Bradley

    The Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela of Umkhonto we Sizwe, training for guerrilla warfare, was taken out of his development when the CIA under John F. Kennedy tracked Mandela down, and notified the white supremacist South African government of his whereabouts. That fact made the pictures of President Obama posing in Mandela’s Robben Island prison cell sickening. And as the person chosen to head the American empire, Obama knows that American politics (the science of deception) requires that he praise Mandela’s forgiveness, without ever acknowledging America’s role in his capture. Of course the imperial psychopaths have a vested interest in reducing the entire 95 years of Rolihlahla’s life and struggle to just one word–forgiveness, specifically forgiveness in the absence of repentance. The same as they have tried to reduce Martin King to a “dreamer.”

    Of course forgiveness never applies to America’s political prisoners, some of whom have been incarcerated for lengths longer than the 27 years Mandela was incarcerated.

    However, I don’t think that anyone who has read Mandela’s “I Am Prepared To Die” speech should be surprised that the ANC has become more reformist than revolutionary. Reform is one thing. Full-blown neo-liberalism is another.

    To break apartheid rule through negotiation, rather than a bloody civil war, seemed then an option too good to be ignored. However, at that time, the balance of power was with the ANC, and conditions were favorable for more radical change at the negotiating table than we ultimately accepted. It is by no means certain that the old order, apart from isolated rightist extremists, had the will or capability to resort to the bloody repression envisaged by Mandela’s leadership. If we had held our nerve, we could have pressed forward without making the concessions we did.

    All means to eradicate poverty, which was Mandela’s and the ANC’s sworn promise to the “poorest of the poor,” were lost in the process. Nationalisation of the mines and heights of the economy as envisaged by the Freedom charter was abandoned. The ANC accepted responsibility for a vast apartheid-era debt, which should have been cancelled. A wealth tax on the super-rich to fund developmental projects was set aside, and domestic and international corporations, enriched by apartheid, were excused from any financial reparations. Extremely tight budgetary obligations were instituted that would tie the hands of any future governments; obligations to implement a free-trade policy and abolish all forms of tariff protection in keeping with neo-liberal free trade fundamentals were accepted. Big corporations were allowed to shift their main listings abroad. In Terreblanche’s opinion, these ANC concessions constituted “treacherous decisions that [will] haunt South Africa for generations to come.”] — Ronnie Kasrils

    Our situation in America is not that much different. The Civil Rights Movement brought about reforms. The Black Power/Black Liberation Movement pushed for self-determination, but ultimately lost its momentum as our best generals were systematically taken out, among other factors. Today we find ourselves dealing with a neo-liberal regime led by an Afrikan American.

    The major difference is that South Afrika is a powder-keg ready to explode into Black-on-Black violence–The ANC (backed by the US/NATO) against the Black masses. Rolihlahla’s legacy hangs in the balance.