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For Nelson Mandela
A polemic on behalf of the jailed black leader by the eminent American writer Susan Sontag.

A political prisoner is in jail, under sentence of life imprisonment, since 1964; but many men and women on this planet are imprisoned, detained, silenced for their political views and activities. The majority of the inhabitants of a country are disenfranchised and oppressed; but majorities in many countries around the world are deprived of democratic liberties and social justice. 

Why this man? Why this country? 

This man is exemplary. Because of who he is, how he has behaved, what he has said (and goes on saying); because the cause of which he has been for decades a pre-eminent leader is just; and because his version of it is the most mature, politically and morally, the most realistic, the one most likely to lead to reconciliation and to avoid the otherwise inevitable carnage. Outside his prison, he has a wife, daughters, friends, comrades, who, operating under dire constraints, unremitting harrassment, and great danger, continue his struggle. He would like to be free. But he will not accept anything less than an unconditional liberty. 

He has refused, more than once, a conditional release. He has said that he will not negotiate with his captors, since a prisoner, someone who is not free, cannot enter into contracts. This of course is not, strictly speaking, true. One can negotiate in captivity for one's freedom - if it is one's own freedom only. But he understands that his freedom is not just his own, that it is (if he so chooses) linked indissolubly to the freedom of the people he represents. He cannot negotiate their freedom as a captive. 

It is often said that this man is a "symbol". But no one is inherently a symbol. Someone becomes a symbol, is made a symbol, as this man has been. The few moral heroes - and this man is a moral hero - who become celebrated (as distinct from the many heroes who do not) do so under the pressure of historical need. The practice of singling out as exemplary one person - specifically, one prisoner or victim - illustrates the way in which all affections and attachments inevitably must become institutionalised, acquire titles, engender hierarchies, in order to have historical weight: to be political. Inevitable, too, in this process are some corruptions of feeling and distortions of truth and of response. Still, when the struggle is just and the behaviour of the prisoner really exemplary such singling out is not only ineluctable but positive. It is right that this man has been made a symbol. 

He represents not only aspirations held by most people around the world but a very large community in his own country, who acknowledge him as their leader. He is in opposition, he is in prison. But he is not a "dissident". Unlike, say, Andrei Sakharov, another prisoner of great personal nobility, moral and political wisdom, purity and tenacity of principle, and world-wide renown, who (alas) does not represent the majority of his fellow citizens - his views are shared by only a small unorganised minority living mostly in Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev - this man does represent the majority of people in his country. That is why he cannot be treated as a common political prisoner, hidden away, starved, beaten, humiliated, cut off from contacts with relatives and with the outside world. This man, in prison, receives (or refuses to receive) important visitors to his country, like the major political figure that he is. Tacit head of a political party which, although it plays no formal political role and has its headquarters in exile, already wields major power; de facto head-of-state, the president of a democratic country that does not yet exist but will exist, he is both a symbol, living in what is (given the present realities of his country) an aptly symbolic place, a prison, and a very real political force. 

Of course, it is the present undemocratic racist government which permits him this role -- as the British, even when they imprisoned Gandhi, were obliged to detain him under conditions that reflected his immense political power and moral influence, the power (that is the mounting ungovernability) of the vast community outside the prison which he continued to represent. But it was not always so. The early years of his imprisonment, on Robben Island were as harsh as any Gulag; and there was no communication with the outside, no parleying with foreign dignitaries who could report being "first struck ... by his immaculate appearance, his apparent good health, and his commanding presence. In his manner he exuded authority and received the respect of all around him, including his gaolers." (I quote from the report issued this year by "The Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group on Southern Africa.") Only in the last years, since the community he represents has had to be reckoned with by the present government, has he been granted this status. The government would like nothing more than to strike a "deal", and to release him. But he refuses a conditional release because he is in a position of strength. 

Becoming the subject of an international campaign for his release does not confer this status on a prisoner; political realities, both domestic and international, do that. Sakharov is at least as famous and morally admired a political prisoner as this man, but the fact is that Sakhrov represents mostly his own exemplary courage and the rightness of his views. The government that detains him knows that he represents no threat; the deal to be struck is with world public opinion, not with its own citizenry. 

We call for liberty for Sakharov, for Irina Ratushinskaya, and for the many more imprisoned unjustly in that country (among, others) because we want these precious people to survive, we hope they may even be allowed to resume their lives and their work. We are moved by the plight of the elderly scientist and advocate of human rights sent into internal exile, under virtual house arrest, physically abused, and in failing health; of the young lyric poet condemned to seven years in a hard labour camp, who, because of physical mistreatment and untreated severe illness, is unlikely to live out her sentence. Seeking the release of these heroic individuals, exemplary human beings who are suffering greatly, we honour who they are, the principles they stand for; but what we are asking for is clemency. Their freedom would consist in being allowed to leave, to go abroad. For Sakharov, Ratushinskaya, and others, there is no difference between a conditional and an unconditional release. They want, we want for them, to get out. In other words, we do not believe the oppressive government that has deprived them of liberty, that is cruelly punishing them, that is slowly killing them, is likely to change in the foreseeable future. 

With this man, it is different. We do not simply seek his liberty. We respect his decision to remain in prison. We believe the days of this government are numbered. To release this prisoner is to bring the fall of the apartheid government much closer. We seek his freedom, not just on the grounds of compassion but on political grounds. For his liberty, when he has it, will be a major step toward the liberation of the majority of his compatriots.

He is not free inside prison now, but he is powerful. He is powerful because of the trust that flows to him from the community he represents. We seek his freedom because we seek the freedom of the majority of the inhabitants of his country. His freedom is theirs. He has made it so. (He could have lived his imprisonment otherwise.) We demand his freedom. And the freedom of those for whom he is imprisoned. 

This man. This country. 

"For Nelson Mandela" © copyright 1986 by Susan Sontag. This text was written in July 1986, for a book of tributes to Nelson Mandela solicited from various writers around the world. Susan Sontag was the only American writer who agreed to contribute. The book, Pour Nelson Mandela, was published by Gallimard in September.