Xolela Mangcu

Professor of Sociology, University of Cape Town


Fall 2016: Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship; Fall 2014: Oppenheimer Fellowship

Projects on Harold Washington and Nelson Mandela

Project Description

Projects on Harold Washington and Nelson Mandela

My fellowship will focus on two concurrent projects. The first is a revision for publication as a book of my doctoral dissertation on Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor (1983-87). 

The book traces African American political history in the city from which, to cite Richard Wright, “the most incisive and radical Negro thought had come”. This historical framework provides the backdrop to the rebellion against machine politics that took place in African American communities particularly among community movements that emerged in the 1950’s and 1960’s - culminating in the black nationalist uprising that drafted Harold Washington to run for mayor in 1983.

In the dissertation I argued that through his political and administrative reforms Harold Washington opened up the opportunity structure for African American, Latino and women leaders to emerge in a way they never would have done had the machine persisted. Little did I know then that Harold had also inspired the first African American President of the United States, Barack Obama.

The book is an extension of my initial arguments to incorporate Barack Obama’s emergence as a political figure while also examining the convergences and divergences between the two men. The essence of the book is captured by long time Chicago political observer, Dick Simpson put it: “Harold paved the way for Barack, but Barack is no Harold”.

I will also use my time to further develop my book on Nelson Mandela’s presidency-. Nelson Mandela, Romantic Hero, Tragic Figure. I will be using Nelson Mandela’s unfinished manuscript about his presidency- which was graciously given to me by the Nelson Mandela Foundation – as a resource for my own independent interpretation of his leadership.

Mandela’s story has understandably been cast as one of the victory of good over evil. This has been in keeping with Romantic, anti-colonial discourses of vindication and progress as the basis of nation building. However, in the telling of the story the tragic dimension of Mandela’s experience is hardly the focus of discussion- it is treated as a detail in the otherwise grander narrative of victory. This leads to self-satisfaction and celebration instead of self-scrutiny and reflection.  But if Mandela is going to serve as our nation’s and the world’s conscience we do well to heed Cornel West’s advice:  “every time you mention his name you ought to be unnerved.  I don’t want to see folks satisfied when they talk about Nelson Mandela. He constitutes such a challenge: an intellectual challenge, a political challenge, a moral challenge”.

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