Manqoba Nxumalo
Manqoba Nxumalo

Mandela for blacks is different to Mandela for whites

As former president Nelson Mandela lies sick in hospital the narrative of what he will represent to future generations will, without a doubt, take a pendulum swing between two opposing sides. As we have all come to accept his inevitable departure, we find ourselves asking what we shall tell our kids about Mandela. Will whites talk of Mandela as blacks do?

I argue that the Mandela of the black community is and will be different to the Mandela of white society. To the black majority, he is a fighter and a radical militant who refused to be broken down even by jail. To them he is a reminder that in order to get justice you must fight because there is honour in struggle. To the white liberal community, he represents reconciliation, forgiveness and peaceful coexistence. Yes, he represents all this and more but there is a fundamental departure between blacks and whites on what takes precedence in all the things that makes up this icon called Mandela.

The white community wants us to believe that the story of Nelson Mandela starts and ends when he came out of jail. It is seldom mentioned that Mandela speared-headed the formation of Umkhonto weSizwe and what this means in the context of a party that had previously adopted peaceful resistance as a method of struggle. It must never be forgotten that at the time of the formation of MK even leaders of the ANC were against the idea. Mandela was therefore part of a generation of radicals that saw an armed struggle succeeding where peaceful resistance had failed. Mandela went against the views of leaders like Albert Luthuli, who had himself won a Nobel Peace Prize for believing in non-violence. Imagine the embarrassment Luthuli must have felt when Mandela went for military training much against the party blessing and at a time when the world had just celebrated his non-violent struggle.

Mandela was a stubborn believer of freedom; he was prepared to do anything to achieve it. Together with his contemporaries like OR Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki etc, they built the ANC into a strong force, capable of mounting a sustained resistance against apartheid. Even after being found guilty of treason, he refused to appeal his sentence. This again gives us a cameo peek into his life and character. When black people read this they see a man whose dedication to justice was not going to be stopped by death or a lengthy stay in prison. They feel inspired to fight for whatever struggles they believe are correct. When they fight in Khayelitsha for proper toilets, for example, they look at Mandela as their inspiration. They do not think he would disapprove of their actions.

However, the white community thinks differently of Mandela. They marvel at a man who came out of prison and assured his former oppressors of peaceful co-existence. They make this look like it was Mandela’s benevolence and saintly status and not a policy of his party. They look at how he served only one term in office and get mesmerised in a context where liberation heroes become dictators who turn their countries into personal property. They track back how he reconciled a nation divided along racial lines and conclude he surely must be a god. It is for that reason that we are reminded all the time about how Mandela believed in reconciliation. Forcing a “white Mandela” down the throats of poor black South Africans who are yet to enjoy materially the fruits of freedom has the danger of setting him against his own people.

The Nelson Mandela that is today commoditised believed that the ultimate goal of the liberation struggle was political freedom and economic justice. When many poor South Africans talk of still being in struggle they are shouted down and told that the struggle ended in 1994. The black poor majority rejects this farcical democracy and believes the struggle must be taken “to its logical conclusion (read democratisation of the economy)” and believes Nelson Mandela would agree. The more Mandela becomes the hero of white community the more the space for a new Mandela of a black community opens up.

However, there are those who go to the extreme by desecrating the Mandela legacy and imputing that he sold blacks out. I reject this postulation as infantile. Mandela delivered on a generational mandate and where his generations failed others must take over and not blame him. He did well to stop this country from descending to a costly civil war and excelled in dispelling the visceral fears for change within a small wealthy coterie of whites who were worried of a political apocalypse should a black government take over.

Those who say that there has been a “Mandelanisation” of South Africa forget that this is not peculiar to South Africa. Mandela did not decree that the struggle be personalised around him or that he be deified post-liberation. A friend of mine reminded me recently that the personalisation of a heroic struggle is not a peculiarity of South Africa. He said Mahatma Gandhi or Bapu (father of the nation) was not the only leader of Indian nationalism in colonial India. Millions of Indians, literally, were involved in the struggle for independence but they are not revered.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk did not found the modern state of Turkey on his own but he alone is known as father of the Turks. The same goes for Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the case of Pakistan. The British to this day revere Winston Churchill for leading them through World War II. He didn’t do it alone, but try telling that to the Poms. Aung San Suu Kyi is not the sole proponent of democracy in Burma. The point is that all people are entitled to give a pre-eminent position to any one of their leaders. In South Africa that person happens to be Mandela. Having said this, let us be wary of how we celebrate Mandela in a country considered the most unequal in the world.

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    • Skerminkel

      I envy Mr Nxumalo his wisdom and insight. If only I could fit people in boxes this easily, based merely on the colour of their skin. Wow! I never knew all black people thought alike.
      Thank you so much for this informative piece.

    • Sembene

      To some blacks he is a sellout that compromised the land struggle which was the very first reason for our struggle. he legitimized the 1913 land act.

    • Commentato

      I enjoyed your piece and I agree with your assertion. The issue for me though is that white people have to believe in a benevolent victim as a matter of survival and black people have to accept that a militant freedom fighter also had it in him to forgive. Black people will always claim Mandela as their’s and everyone else seems him as being above colour. Nothing will ever excuse the horror visited on black people and many will never forgive but how else do we move forward without holding hands?

    • Manqoba Nxumalo

      Dear Sembe.

      Do consider the political nuances that were at play at the time. Logically, negotiations by their nature you do not win everything. Where Mandela failed the subsequent governments should have corrected. The old man did what was possible at the time. Let us be fair to him.

      The question should be; have we done enough to advance the struggle given the foundation he laid?

    • http://none Richard Becker

      I am white and would be pleased if you would show me the courtesy of not assuming you know how I think. My thoughts on Madiba are nowhere close to what you assume. You have given written proof of your racist attitude.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Wars are not won by committees. Armies don’t follow pieces of paper and nobody ever fell in love with a conference table.

      Mandela didn’t do it alone but he lead from the front. The struggle part was more his wife of the time in the driving seat but, afterwards, he was the driver. Mandela showed the way and the various committees simply trundled the cart in that direction. Today, the cart does more directing than the driver, but that is a whole different story

    • Sankara

      This seems like a balanced, objective view. It shows perhaps not so much the black vs white view of Mandela, but also some ideological nuances. Mandela as noted had some moral ambiguities, especially around the use of violence as a political tool. Many of his economic views were also dubious with their strong adherence to socialism and communism, which he never fully rejected. But at least through all of these points, the basic morality, care for people and consistency of his views is clear. And it contrasts very favourably with the lack of both in the current SA political leadership.

    • Craig Macaskill

      Very well said: an excellent piece! When people turn another person into a saint they let themselves off the hook — and create a situation which psychically calls for redress and balance. People forget Madiba was an astute politician as well as being a far-seeing human being. What he represented gave us all another chance. I hope against hope that we haven’t blown it.

    • Call for Honesty

      To me, a white, Mandela will always be the man who failed to listen to the wisdom of his predecessor, Albert Luthuli, and in doing so missed the opportunity of possibly bringing a peaceful resolution to the unjust situation in South Africa at least a decade earlier.

      To me Mandela will always be the key figure in the founding of the armed wing of the ANC Umkhonto we Sizwe and in the process happy to be friends with the USSR and to receive funding from them from 1961-1991 – despite Russia being a country with one of the worst human rights records in the 20th century. This while ignoring the incredible Christian teaching of the Wesley brothers whose message led to the establishing of the Methodist movement and to planting the church in which Mandela was raised.

      My views on Mandela have nothing to do with my race or his. They are based on our very different beliefs and world views (views that I am happy to share with many from every race and nation on earth.)

    • OneFlew

      That’s a lie! Winston Churchill did it all on his own.


    • Rod MacKenzie

      Nonsense. Even before these sentences: “The white community wants us to believe that the story of Nelson Mandela starts and ends when he came out of jail. It is seldom mentioned that Mandela speared-headed [sic] the formation of Umkhonto weSizwe and what this means in the context of a party that had previously adopted peaceful resistance as a method of struggle”. Absolute rubbish. So I stopped reading.

    • bernpm

      you ask: “……what we shall tell our kids about Mandela. Will whites talk of Mandela as blacks do?”

      my questions:
      “Do all blacks talk the same about Mandela when talking to their children?”
      “Do all whites talk the same about Mandela when talking to their children?”
      “Are there blacks and whites who talk in the same positive terms about Mandela when talking to their children?”
      “Are there blacks and whites who talk in the same negative terms about Mandela when talking to their children?”

      Some of the answers on all these questions are already in your article. Just find them. Use the response by Mr Skerminkel as your guideline. Enjoy

    • mmmm

      I think he stands for freedom for all from self-interest at the expense of others including the present unwritten memorandum of amabenzi understanding between “snakes in suits” capital and “snakes in suits’ ANC leadership

    • morris

      Amidst all the discussion I want to find some newspaper or magazine to publish my article on my unique meeting with Mandela and de Klerk to re-start international student exchange in South Africa 1993. This was an example of quiet behind the scenes cooperation of both men at de Klerk’s home.

      Is there a place for a constructive article on working cooperation for the future of university students in international economic affairs and the way three men got it going! contact [email protected]

    • morris

      thank you south Africa!

    • Sicelo

      Nxumalo, you make interesting and admittedly valid points, in general terms naturally. But two things are lost in your argument that

      (a) Mandela’s exemplary role has dual currency for blacks perhaps more than whites. In other words, both that which Mandela enunciated pre 1994 and that which he espoused post 1994 is equally important to blacks than, perhaps; to their white counterparts. Indeed, he remained consistent throughout and as such there is no dividing into separate parts the manner of his conduct in pursuit of the freedom ideal. This is where his role unites rather than divides between blacks and whites. Any inequality in the unity (which is essentially your departure point) derives from the richness of Mandela legacy in its contribution to black struggle versus white guilt.

      (b) juxtaposition of black versus white interests is of itself core to not only understanding correctly South Africa’s history but also for determination of the country’s future positioning. It is a common psychological trap in which we all too often trip on. The error naturally leads to arguments such as yours backsliding to fit for relevance into a bygone era, the pre-1994 era during which skin color defined everything.

      The reality is that our political dispensation post 1994 and to which all subscribe, allows for the majority view to lead, and insofar as population demographics stand in service of our racially defined viewpoint, blacks are in the majority and thus their viewpoint…

    • michael

      Mr Nxumalo, Mandela is history, do not look back rather look to the future.

    • Ntokozo Gumede

      I was of the same view that Mandela sold out until a friend reminded me that blacks lost in Kliptown 26 June 1955, apparently freedom charter was written by whites communists only without any black input hence formation of break away party PAC. I agree wholeheartedly that Mandela merely delivered on generational mandate, good piece Mkhatshwa.

    • Richard

      Sembene – I don’t believe we would have had a political solution if the ANC didn’t give up communism and supported property rights. Yes, yes, I know – you would have taken it. No chance. The armed forces were very different from the diluted bunch who supposedly protect us now. The only solution was to negotiate. Because Mandela did, we have had two decades of economic growth and a huge amount of people now have access to the things we now take for granted.

      However, some would prefer they have their cake and eat it. The economy and the land and the free imported technology and skills and capital and everything. Those who made the tough decisions but didn’t give us everything we want, now, are sell-outs.

      You’ll notice that countries north of us are now inviting our farmers to go there. They have the “land” you’d lay unique claim to, but they know they need more. If it was so easy, why don’t you go there and show them what to do with the land?

    • Steve

      Please dont generalize or assume to know how other people think…

    • Willem Hanekom

      Great piece of writing, reflecting South Africa’s complex legacy and reality.
      In medical research (my field), we constantly get into trouble if we view populations in terms of summary statistics – i.e., if we use a mean/median and a distribution statistic to describe the population – and as such not take into account so-called outliers. Clues to decisive outcomes (in our case, disease) are often elucidated only when we allow specific examination of outliers.
      I wonder if the same would apply here. Yes, on a population basis, the statements may be true. But diversity within populations question usefulness of blanket statements – perhaps outliers within populations are those that really drive the agenda.

    • Sydney

      Perhaps the White love affair with Mandela was a victory of hope over experience; That African politicians could and would have the qualities that he showed.
      Recent events have elevated him even more, not as a precursor of good and honourable government, but as an exception, now we see our rulers regressing to the norm. The writer objects to the White impression that Mandela was different to the ANC and not part of it, but clearly as events have proven that perception was correct.
      The oft expressed : we shall never see his like again, is hardly a confidence in the ANC.

    • Dave Harris

      Excellent points!
      Mandela, like other freedom fighters around the world, does not see himself as a deity in the way whites now stereotype him. Furthermore Mandela has repeatedly emphasized that our liberation was the result of the collective effort of the ANC and not just him. Most whites however, try to distance Mandela from the ANC – the old divide and conquer technique perfected by colonialists.

    • Cyberdog

      Without even discussing this with me, you make an assumption on what my “community” believes, this is selfish, short-sighted and prejudiced. Some of the exact principles that Mandala fought against… Ironic, isn’t it. Are you going to try prop him up next to you like a puppet as well, and try to sell off his lack of disapproval as being in line with your narcissistic self greed. Yes, it will always remain the most unequal in the world, (which is debatable) as long as racial groups, and government bodies continue with the racial classifications, and discrimination. Much akin to what you are doing. I would not argue that South africa is the most unequal, I would argue they are the most ignorant, and blind. After going through the struggles, and having Mandela as a hero, leading through the struggle for removal of discrimination, and classification We still not only allow it, we still sell this classification as an elitist tool. It is really sad. The Ironic part of this, is the lack of understanding, and humanity. Just with this statement, it will bring to mind two sets of ideas, generally, one of how the white elite are somehow controlling everybody through some magical means, even though the opposite of that is true, the richest, most powerful are the black elite. Peddling off the “white supreme” to keep the masses in fear to get more at the feeding frenzy at the pig trough, Shoveling it into their greedy faces. Then the others sitting there, thinking yeah, damn, BEE…

    • Sean Haywood

      Great article! This from a white South African living in Pom-land! Whats great about the article is that its thought provoking and some of the responses even more so!
      Will South Africa ever get over the color issue that always raises its ugly head? Not in my life-time, maybe in a few generations. There are pockets of racism here in the UK, but overall I find people just get on with it – accepting individuals for who they are irrespective of skin colour. Go Winston! (or is it Winnie!)

    • GrahamJ

      I would like to add to several of the earlier comments that my view of Nelson Mandela is not represented here and neither is it part of the sweeping generalisations suggested in the article.

      Don’t tell me how I think and I won’t tell you to justify the Hutu massacres or other REAL atrocities in countries north of here.

    • Grant

      I think Mandela walked into government and realised as many others do that the view from the top is verty different from the view at the squabbling bottom. Presidents are dealt a hand. They are shaped by larger forces, not the opposite. Mandela became a symbol of the post Cold War world as it ralted to the racial solution in South Africa. He was smart enough to embrace it. You quite rightly assert that he was a militant. I found it amazing how little his book dealt with this militancy considering it is what set him on his path and put him in jail.

      On the masses below looking for democratisation of the economy there is some bad news. Economies will not be democratised. An economy is not a cake that can be equally dished out. An economy is the collective skill and education of the players within it plus the momentum it has. Mandela realised that the skills lay within the white community. Before we jump up and down and claim that is due to apartheid, these skills were imported from Europe. Wealth created was due to apartheid but the economy is not. You can remove the skilled players (black or white) and strip them of their assets and give them to the poor. Within a short time, you will have no economy. That is the reality and that is why Mandela reconciled with white South Africa and no leader since has done otherwise. He needed them.

      Mugabe went the other route. It has probably been good for black pride, disaster for the economy though.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Gumede, PAC was more effective in fighting the apartheid government than the ANC, the big powers hand SA over to the ANC because of Mandela. The ANC didn’t have one military victory against the apartheid government so, Mandela didn’t have very much power at the bargaining table. It was the big powers that leaned on the apartheid government that made the difference. The same comparison can be made in the US civil war, prior to the battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln had tried to get the south to talk to end the civil war. However, after the battle of Gettysburg the south wants to talk and Lincoln then called for unconditional surrender. In the case with SA the big powers made the difference.

    • SarahH

      Thanks Mr Nxumalo for giving us food for thought.

      @GrahamJ – the fact that you capitalise REAL atrocities elsewhere and obviously imply that they were not real here – is an example of the denial that most white people manifest.

      It shows a preparedness to go through the motions of reconciliation, returning to your privilege, and expecting business as usual, as most black people continue in poverty.

      You seem incapable of acknowledging the multiple violences (and its consequences, including uninterrupted inequality and counter violence)that colonialism & apartheid unleashed on colonised and oppressed people.

      Why is that?

    • Jack Sparrow

      Very similar to Gillian Schutte; based solely on generalisations that will ultimately destroy what’s left of the SA that Mandela gave up so much for. Strangely I think he had some considerable antipathy for white people but was prepared to supress it and not allow it to come out in policy because he knew it was counter productive for SA.

      Many current South Africans, including political leaders aplenty, the writer (and Gillian Schutte etc), do not have this strength or vision, preferring to sink into their personal negative generalisations. I am afraid this will erode all the good that Mandela’s willpower and foresight generated. As with ZANU PF, The Nats and the Nazis there is seldom a positive outcome once this path of racial prejudice is taken and followed.

    • born2bJaded

      @Callforhonesty: hahaha peaceful negotiations that would have ended apartheid a decade earlier? that is such bull! ANC was formed in 1912. MK in 1961. That time was peaceful. There was NO room for peaceful resistance any longer. It wasn’t a choice between being peaceful or violent. It was simply whats left? The peaceful route HAD been done, and sweet f all was borne from it. I appreciate your view on Mandela, but the idea that abandoning peaceful resistance resulted in apartheid lasting longer is utter bull! Just look at the laws that were being instituted by the government BEFORE MK was formed.

    • Rick Baker

      A provocative article… a point that has not come up is the extent to which a few radical politicians are able to manipulate the public into following their ideology, however demented it is. …Hitler did it, Verwoerd did it, Kim Jong Urn in korea is doing it, Mugabe did/is doing, Zuma….??.
      To imply that all whites supported apartheid is convenient but as ridiculous as saying all Germans supported the holocast. The truth is that they didn’t realise the extent of the atrocity as the entire propaganda machinery of the state was being used to convince them that all was well. The rest of the ‘white’ world was screaming that apartheid was a crime against humanity but us South African whites were brainwashed into thinking the world was wrong! No person who can objectively see what Mugabe is doing in Zim would deny that he is a mad dictator but many Zimbabweans put up with it. The ANC is entrenching corruption and steadily ruining SA but using its vast propganda power to tell its gullible followers that they must be patient.
      I think it is very simplistic to say Mandela will be viewed differently by whites and blacks…it depends very much on which whites and which blacks and where in the world they were and are!

    • Call for Honesty

      @ born2bJaded

      You have twisted some of what I said. I do not believe peaceful resistance was tried for long enough – in a number of European countries the right for all citizens to vote was given only after World War II and Switzerland only in 1971.

      If you looked closely at SA history from 1948 to 1994 you will see that there were opportunities for moving towards change a decade before the release of Mandela but that the militant groups put a real brake on the involvement of blacks. I believe that had Mandela followed the example of Luthuli that there would have been an earlier move to a universal franchise and quicker change in the laws.

    • Jon Story

      @Dave Harris: our liberation was the result of collective effort.

      Never a truer word was spoken.

    • Karl

      You consider this country the ‘most unequal in the world’?

    • Brian B

      There is sadly, currently just so much tactless comment and speculation regarding Mandela’s state of health as well as cynical debate regarding his role as a leader while he is gravely ill and may not have long to live.

      Can the multitude of self appointed commentators not resist the temptation to seek controversial capital out of the failing health of a man who is an icon to the vast majority of South Africans, regardless of their background and politics?

      You are trying to polarize opinion with dubious self serving rhetoric to the detriment of the Nation.

      Nelson Mandela’s legacy as a great leader who sought to reconcile the people of South Africa will live on long after the media vultures and political hacks cease to squawk.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Call for Honesty

      I would like to think that peaceful change would have come through peaceful methods but I doubt it. When the great Steve Biko started making white people sit up and pay attention to wise words, he ‘met with an accident’. If Bish Tutu didn’t have the whole of the Anglican church behind him, I doubt he would have survived so long.

      The ‘clevers’ were as disliked by the government of that time as much as they are disliked by the current crop

    • Clarence Esau

      Thanks, everyone, for a thought provoking discussion.

    • annie

      Yes, I do regard Mandela as forgiveness and reconciliation but I do not regard him as a saint or god at all. We will never know if he took the Albert Luthuli route (peacefull) the struggle would have ended the same? Economic freedom does not come by giving some-one a peace of land or a lumpsome of money. or even a social grant. It comes by getting educated and and everybody doing their part to upgrade our economy. There is way too many people out there who just sits and wait for a hand-out and have no ambition to upskill themseleves. We need more dedicated teachers to help and encourage the youth to be economically independent.

    • missing the point?

      What so many young people forget is that the average white never heard of or saw Mandela, especially after the rivonia trial. We had no TV until 1976 and all photos of the struggle icons and heros were banned , and talk of them was heavily censored. it was only once the uprising in “76 that the general public began to wake up to the reality of the struggle against apartheid. We only saw the first photos of Mandela once De Klerk unbanned all of the parties. So of course most whites would have seen Mandela as a reconclier, especially after our husbands and sons had been sent to the borders to fight wars that we we knew F-all about. People have very short memories. Do the words “swart gevaar ” sound famliar? Personally I see black people as hugely forgiving. As an English speaking South African I still have afrikaans “friends” telling me that my forefathers put theirs in concentration camps. I wasn’t even born and my forefathesr had been here for generations before the anglo boer war. Maybe we could all learn a thing or two about forgiveness from Mandela and from our black brothers and sisters,

    • Doug

      Good article with accurate generalisations.