Chief Theresa Spence’s Heroism Already Eclipses Nelson Mandela’s
Originally published by The Huffington Post on Jan 6, 2013
Hunger-striking Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence is the reincarnation of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. She is becoming the greatest moral and political leader of our time. In fact, Chief Theresa Spence’s courage and sacrifice already eclipses that of South Africa’s globally-celebrated anti-apartheid icon, Nelson Mandela.
Mandela came to us pre-packaged. Challenging the narrative of his heroism is mission impossible. Chief Spence’s narrative is unveiling right before the world’s eyes. It’s impossible to embellish.
I met Chief Spence on Parliament Hill on December 11 as she started her hunger protest. I felt an instant a kinship with her. I felt our shared humanity, and our common love for justice for the downtrodden, which spurred me to undertake an 85-day hunger strike protesting the Conservatives’ New Jim Crow-style crime Bill C-10 earlier this year. The brief meeting gave me the courage to challenge the hypocrisy and tyranny that accompanies the unadulterated Mandela-worship.
Criticism of Mandela often solicited angry reminders of the brutality and racism of both apartheid South Africa and colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where I spent the first nine years of my life. African friends often try to silence me with reminders that Madiba is the gift we black Africans gave to the world. Really?
Explain to me the overwhelming presence of white males in Mandela’s key moments? British journalist Anthony Sampson helped Mandela craft his famously ringing statement in the 1964 Rivonia sabotage trial. He wrote Mandela’s “definitive biography”. George Bizos is Mandela’s longtime lawyer. In 1993 Mandela jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize with FW de Klerk, South Africa’s last white ruler. What remains of the icon if we remove these white males and their self-interested constructions?
Until now, I lacked the courage to publicly say that I never subscribed to the general hagiography surrounding Mandela. I never felt Mandela. I secretly doubted that freedom from apartheid was an ideal he was willing to die for. I doubt that he’d have chosen to go to prison, let alone languish therein for 27 years.
Chief Spence is the essence of a true hero. She’s gone where very few dare to go. She’s sacrificing her own life to liberate an oppressed people — and enlighten the rest — from what former prime minister Paul Martin recently confirmed with his statement: “we were, and still are, a colonial power”.
Chief Spence’s life is now in serious danger. After five weeks of my hunger strike, my body entered the “starvation mode” — a critical phase where the body starts mining vital organs for nourishment. The risks include: a) failure of internal organs b) brain damage c) dementia d) hallucinations e) damage to body tissue f) weakening of bones, and g) death.
But Chief Spence is also slowly dying a symbolic death that articulates the Aboriginal experience in Canada. The Supreme Court of Canada recently confirmed that colonialism, displacement, and the residential school system continue to “translate into lower educational attainment, lower incomes, higher unemployment, higher rates of substance abuse and suicide, and … higher levels of incarceration” for Aboriginal peoples.
A true hero emerges from among the oppressed. Chief Spence is hunger-protesting from a teepee on Victoria Island, right in the middle of the unforgiving Canadian winter. She arrived on the island from a tortured past. She was born into the open prison that is the life of many an Aboriginal in Canada. Like an estimated 150 000 Aboriginals, she lived and survived the genocidal residential school experience. Chief Spence and the Idle No More movement are protesting the Conservative government’s final pull at the tightening noose around First Nations.
Mandela arrived on Robben Island, where he spent 18 years, from an aristocratic upbringing in a royal family of South Africa’s Xhosa tribe. He and other prisoners were locked up only at night. During the day, they roamed freely. He spent his last few years in comfort at a warden’s house at Victor Verster prison. For most of the year, the warm African sun smiles on both prisons.
Mandela liberated many but himself and most of Africa’s blacks. Until 2008, he was still on the infamous US terror watch list. I can understand why prisoner Mandela was designated a terrorist. That’s what colonial and apartheid regimes called our armed freedom fighters. But I can’t bear the image of Mandela, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, first black president of South Africa, international icon and personal friend of former US President Bill Clinton, requiring special certification from the US secretary of state every time he visited the US. Mandela ceased to be a terrorist when American politicians finally felt guilty enough and pressured then President George Bush to sign Bill H.R. 5690, which removed him from the list.
Mandela’s failure to challenge his terrorist designation confirms the fact that far too many black Africans still simultaneously adore and fear their former conquerors. It betrays what Mandela himself has described as a “permanent state of inferiority”, which inspires hatred and violence, and follows many out of Africa.
As recently as 2012, South Africa’s ruling ANC party defended the infamous “kill the Boer” (kill the farmer or white man) song. Recently, Zimbabweans gave up on the fine art of democratic conversation over the thorny issue of land ownership, and resorted to savage racist violence. Fellow Africans in Canada always warn me about the inevitable consequences of challenging Mr. Harper and the Conservatives.
Chief Spence is the epitome of courage. She’s publicly challenging Mr. Harper, arguably the most powerful leader in the western world today. She’s challenging the Crown to come to the table and discuss the oppressive Canada-First Nations treaty relationship.
Mandela and I never questioned the double standards that underpinned the west’s relationship with Robert Mugabe, the genocidal dictator of Zimbabwe, before he became the pariah that he is today. In the early 1980s, Mugabe engaged in a “systematic campaign of terror and repression against the minority Ndebele-speaking people”, which killed an estimated ten thousand innocent black villagers. One of the survivors would become my step-mom.
After the massacres, he received honorary degrees from Scotland’s Edinburgh University (1984), the University of Massachusetts (1986) and Michigan State University (1990). In 1994, Queen Elizabeth II made Mugabe a Knight Commander of the Order of Bath. The accolades were withdrawn after the violence of 2000-2003, when Mugabe confiscated white-owned farms, and murdered about 300 opposition supporters, about a dozen whites. The Queen annulled Mugabe’s knighthood in 2008.
Mandela too eagerly embraced violence. He co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the ANC. During 46 years of apartheid rule, at least 18,000 people died due to violence by MK freedom fighters, the police, the army and rioters.
In his statement made from the dock on April 20, 1964, at the opening of his trial on charges of sabotage in the Supreme Court of South Africa, Mandela explained that he embraced violence “as result of a calm and sober assessment” of the “tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by the whites.” He declared that “without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy.”
First Nations in Canada are living the predicament Mandela articulated. But, from the onset, Chief Spence encouraged peaceful solidarity protests. In fact, a hunger strike itself is a peaceful protest.