As both Gerry Adams and Nelson Mandela will tell you, democracy is a discursive process where everyone must be listened to; anything less is simply rule by repression. If our governance structures (such as majority rule) don’t allow for consensual participation by all citizens, then they must be abandoned for a system that does.
Confederated regions with aboriginal autonomies is not a new concept or practice on this continent, nor are subsidiarities in land use, education, or economic development. Because some federal obligations remain even with devolution of some powers to more appropriate, even localized levels, is no reason to abandon our attention to preparing for self-determination. Creating authentic, democratic architecture and infrastructure while subverting empire opens up opportunities for literally anyone who wants to be involved.
Perhaps we should concern ourselves with exhibiting behavior that young people would be proud to emulate; if nothing else, we will at least retain the sense of dignity required for furtherance of humanity after the fall. If that means creating new conventions borrowed from other cultures and traditions, then so be it; we have the cultural diversity to accomplish that. Making the connections to achieve this task is the only justification I can see for investing our time in online discussions—at some point we must experiment for ourselves. Family, clan and tribe are nurseries for larger solidarities.
In 1952 — the year I was born — Nelson Mandela developed a curriculum to be taught in the black townships across South Africa in order to prepare the formally uneducated for a national campaign of non-cooperation by giving them a sense of history and their place in it. The three courses were: The World We Live In; How We Are Governed; and The Need for Change.
A little-known fact about Sinn Fein’s struggle for equality and unity in Ireland, is the active support they’ve received from Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. During the 1998 negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement, that led to a power-sharing executive in Belfast, the ANC sent a senior delegation to lend its assistance by sharing stories of their own struggle against apartheid, then only recently ended.
At the Sinn Fein congress, ANC deputy secretary general Thenjiwe Mtintso said, “Sometimes people talk about the miracle in South Africa. The problem with that is that they reduce our struggle to the supernatural. There was no miracle in South Africa. There was the blood and tears of South Africans. …What is crucial is not to lose sight of the strategic objectives in whatever it is you are doing in negotiations. We had to weigh everything against the strategic objectives of complete transformation in our country.”
I was looking at the 2006 photo of Gerry Adams laying a wreath on Yasser Arafat’s grave, and recalled a photo of Sinn Fein’s president shaking hands with Nelson Mandela. As political leaders of their respective armed struggles of liberation, who were able to make the transition into national statesmen and international ambassadors uniting worldwide resistance to colonialism, they serve as role models to indigenous leaders on all continents.
While not all struggles in the movement for self-determination will take up arms, they have and will continue to experience violent repression by dominant states and cultures. What we can hope for in the tireless efforts of Fourth World freedom fighters like Adams and Mandela today, is that a global awareness and appreciation of the need to be self-governed will somehow override the media-manufactured fear of freedom and hostility to genuine democracy that still pervades the First World airwaves.
As Mandela noted in his foreword to A Prisoner in the Garden,
In the life of any individual, family, community or society, memory is of fundamental importance. It is the fabric of identity.
The struggle against apartheid can be typified as the pitting of remembering against forgetting. It was in our determination to remember our ancestors, our stories, our values and our dreams that we found comradeship.
It is the task of memory and commemoration to continue to unravel the many silences imposed by our apartheid and colonial pasts, to find space for the memories suppressed by power.
Socialist icons like Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara, and Gerry Adams are deservedly honored for their devotion to advancing human rights, but lesser known figures like Bernadette Devlin play an equally vital role in achieving peace and justice. While all are recognized for their freedom fighter status, not all took up arms to advance their particular struggle. Devlin, instrumental in advancing equality in Northern Ireland, led the civil rights movement there when even non-violent activists like herself were murdered by police, army, and paramilitaries.
Devlin, who once represented my ancestral homeland of Tyrone as an MP in Westminster, was no patsy when it came to fighting the British Empire, but today she has focused on preventing a return to warfare by building bridges between Catholic and Protestant communities. In this 2007 interview, Devlin acknowledges the different roles required to create a lasting peace.
As I noted in my essay Defending Democracy, “People who tap into the core values and articulate deeply-held beliefs—like Mandela, King and Gandhi—can move others to engage in movements that transform society and themselves.”
No serious political organization will ever talk peace when an aggressive war is being waged against it. No proud people will ever obey orders from those who have humiliated and dishonored them for so long.
As such, their demonstrations — similar to some used to protest immoral laws and policies and conduct in the present — were prohibited by law, and they went to jail as a consequence. If we are to ever stop the monstrosities perpetrated by modern states, more of us will have to be willing to go to jail, suffer loss of employment, and perhaps die in our conflict with the state apparati.
Non-violence is a good policy, but our enemies don’t always abide by it. People should discuss these things in advance of demonstrations and provide for group security should vigilantes or police run amok as they did in Mississippi Freedom Summer 1964 or Battle of Seattle 1999.
Social support networks leading to concerted actions are vital to sustaining long drawn-out struggles. Rent parties and shared child care and car pools help make it possible to take principled stands against tyranny. Without this kind of unity, we remain isolated and ineffective.
There are two books readers might want to look at: People Power Change by Luther Gerlach (a formal academic work), and Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (a more popular approach to social education) to get a sense of what is meant by my assertion that a society must be prepared for mobilization — through research, education, and organizing — prior to taking action, if they want to succeed in claiming power.
While the urgency of our many grievances often compels us to act without thought, we would do well to learn from the example of indigenous peoples who have struggled for centuries to maintain their authentic cultures and philosophies while preparing their youth — through education — to continue the ongoing effort at communicating their rights and values in opposition to the overwhelming force of nation-states.
As a movement encompassing some five hundred plus years, they have learned a thing or two about change. Not to belittle the spiritual growth that has taken place in the Euro-American counter-culture over the past decades, but as allies of indigenous peoples, we now need to discipline our hearts with strong minds, minds strengthened by studious application–not slogans.
On the other hand, majority rule — as we have in the US — is an anti-democratic system, one that systematically frustrates, subverts, and obstructs our becoming fully human. In essence, representative democracy is neither.
But perhaps more significant than the suffering and sacrifice made in pursuit of equality and justice in these two outposts of the British Empire, is the exercising of restraint in keeping their eyes on the prize. Enduring the colonial bigotry of white supremacy and religious fanaticism — that made the lives of indigenous Africans and Irish so miserable for so long — is an achievement in itself; engaging with those who incited the terror and hatred suffered by the native populations, with an eye toward a more tolerant and prosperous future, requires a devotion to humanity rarely encountered.
While we, too, have our bigots to deal with, we can take to heart the hard-earned lessons of the freedom fighters of South Africa and Northern Ireland, that in the end, the struggle is about human dignity, not vengeance, and that we cannot overcome hatred — fed on fear and nurtured on ignorance — until we understand that. Only then can we begin the healing, the reconciliation, and the constructing of a new way of life. Today would be a good day to start.