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Why was Prince Harry invited to give a speech about Nelson Mandela?

The British royal offered an insipid, cliché-laden take that only further watered down the anti-apartheid icon's story.
Image: Prince Harry speaks at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on July 18, 2022.
Prince Harry speaks at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on July 18, 2022.David Dee Delgado / Getty Images

The United Nations General Assembly observed Nelson Mandela International Day on Monday morning with a series of speakers celebrating the legacy of South Africa’s first Black president and its most famous anti-apartheid freedom fighter. And the keynote speaker was … Britain's Prince Harry.

That’s pretty weird!

While the event helps Harry in advancing his tortured pivot to socially conscious royal, it’s unclear why he was invited to speak in the first place. As a member of the British royal family, he’s a figurehead of colonialism and has no record of commitment to the kinds of ideas that Mandela stood for. Unsurprisingly, Harry’s remarks were an anodyne homage that avoided reckoning with the historical figure’s political goals and strategic decisions, and instead relied heavily on clichés about bravery.

Harry spoke for about 15 minutes, but little of what he said was insightful or memorable. He briefly mentioned that Mandela — who fought apartheid through nonviolent protest and guerrilla warfare before being imprisoned by South Africa’s apartheid government for 27 years — suffered “state-sponsored brutality” and “racism.” But he said virtually nothing of Mandela’s upbringing, his different political phases, his management of the immensely complex demands of integrating South Africa into a multiracial democracy in the 1990s or the lessons he learned as he evolved from protester to powerful politician. Today, as the country continues to grapple with deeply entrenched inequality, the South African left debates Mandela’s efficacy as president and whether or not he made too many concessions to vested interests.

But in Harry’s telling, Mandela was most notable for surviving imprisonment — a remarkable feat indeed, but also the easiest part of his life story to depoliticize as a tale of personal endurance. Focusing on Mandela's imprisonment allowed Harry to make use of faux-profundities like “hope is the fuel that courage requires.” And when he did mention Mandela’s great deeds, the prince said “that doesn’t mean he was perfect. No. he was something better. He was human.” I'm not sure what that meant, but I do know it allowed Harry to sound reverent without really saying anything.

Harry committed an all-too-common sin among Western liberals who frame Mandela as a kind of prophet rather than a political figure. As Gary Younge’s reflection on Mandela’s legacy in The Nation in 2013 warned: “[T]o make him a saint is to extract him from the realm of politics and elevate him to the level of deity. And as long as he resides there, his legacy cannot be fully debated or discussed, because his record is then rooted not in his role as the head of a movement, but in the beatified soul of a man and his conscience.”

It's also not too surprising that Harry — still sixth in line to the throne of a royal institution that once oversaw the biggest empire in global history — did not discuss the role of colonialism in creating the horrific injustices Mandela and his countrymen endured.

Harry is a fratty member of the British Royal family who in earlier years used racial slurs, dressed up as a Nazi at a costume party and boasted about killing Afghans well after the war in Afghanistan became a neocolonial nation-building project. One would not expect him to be able to appraise Mandela’s legacy in a sophisticated manner, nor confess to the origins of the white supremacy that reigned in South Africa. Which again raises the question of why he was invited as a keynote instead of a real activist or politician who works within anti-colonial traditions. Perhaps the calculation was that Harry’s celebrity would draw attention to an important historical figure. But the price of such a vulgar wager is that Mandela’s extraordinary legacy was watered down even more.