By Sipho Singiswa
It may be hard for many to gracefully accept or admit, as has been an African tradition, that when Madiba has decided he is ready to go meet his ancestors or when they call him, only he will know when best to go. I am writing in response to all the liberal sentiment abounding in pre-obituaries for Mandela because when I read them I just cannot help but turn my thoughts to the marginalised and vulnerable communities who, it seems, are further marginalised in this Mandela frenzy. Since the ANC’s on-going rubber-stamping and endorsement of neo-liberal economic policies, my people have persistently been driven into the most inhumane working and living conditions. Do these people waxing lyrical about Madiba even care about the poor of this country? The hypocrisy of the minority bourgeois class, and a puppet-like African leadership that now manages its “white” capital, is nauseating at this juncture in our history.
As an ex-Robben Islander I, too, was influenced by Mandela and as I was by a few other African leaders in my youth. The old man remains in my thoughts and I too hope he makes the recovery many of us wish him to. But I think this is now largely dependent on him and our ancestors. I shall also not be too surprised if Madiba is quite ready and happy to take that “last step to ultimate freedom”. After all surely he is largely tortured by disappointment after disappointment at how the “so-called” rainbow nation and its economic policies has let his people down while the minority white population continues to bask in the economic kaleidoscope of that same rainbow.
I am, in a kind of morbid way, relieved that Mandela was critically sick and unable to be coerced by the ANC’s corporate giant events-managers to indulge in an internationally staged Mandela and Obama meeting.
For this I have to thank our ancestor’s timely divine intervention that spared Madiba from the extreme embarrassment and humiliation of a corporate-driven meeting and photo session with a well-known international war criminal, the US president, Barack Obama, whose foreign and human-rights policies have become worse than his predecessor, George Bush.
Mandela’s ancestors made a divine intervention to protect what little remains of his human dignity. Without this intervention, I have no doubt those who have long since reduced his family name into a giant corporate business token would have, as they have in the past, compelled Mandela into a meeting whereby Obama would have forced himself on Madiba with hugs and handshakes dripping the blood of thousands of innocent women and children in Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East.
Unfortunately, we cannot say the same about Ahmed Kathrada and the likes of Trevor Manuel who, it seems, may still be harbouring ambitions for a position at the World Bank or IMF. Their ancestors had exposed their double-speak, selective political amnesia and schizophrenia for the nation to see. They, and a few other ANC bigwigs appeared only keen and too happy to sycophantically share in the company of this international war criminal, Obama. Added to the mix was Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, whose ancestors had abandoned him to the cosy embrace and the warm shaking of Obama’s blood-soaked hands, as if being considered an Afro-American excused Obama of his heinous human-rights violations.
Of course, we can’t overlook the fact that the memory of how white capital cajoled an ANC leadership besieged by state-sponsored political violence and economic-induced pressure from the west, to compromise its core liberation struggle values, its constituency and the Freedom Charter in order to accommodate white privilege and all its economic insecurities. All these probably did not sit well with Mandela’s conscience and health when he realised that in general white people were refusing to reciprocate as he had expected. They were happy to sing his praises, and still are — but that is about as far as they go.
While he is, and will remain a struggle icon and hero to many, Mandela must surely be tormented by the knowledge that some, including prominent ANC members who continue to abuse his name, have equally iconised him around the globe, not for noble reasons synonymous with the social and moral values associated with his legacy of universal human rights, but for their selfish enrichment at the expense of the poor.
For Madiba, the year 2012-2013 must have indeed also been a turning point in his life. His family members were seen to be openly at each other’s throats over the Mandela dynasty assets and all that accompanies a global dynasty in the 21st century. For Mandela, this was further crowned by the Marikana massacre and the manner in which an ANC-led government dealt with the post-massacre shock waves.
It would surprise me, too, if the health of the Madiba I once knew has not been detrimentally affected as he is haunted by this and the endemic corruption associated with some leaders of the ANC and white corporate companies; the police brutality that resulted in the massacre of the Marikana Lonmin mineworkers and the pain of their families. The knowledge that the current ANC leadership has been reduced to an intellectual and moral shadow of the liberation movement we once were so proud of, must have weighed heavily on the shoulders of Madiba and further denied him any peace of mind in his golden years.
Despite all the global recognition, acceptance and perhaps the feigned respect that the western economic kingpins, their mining industry and corporate giant banks heap on Madiba and the likes of Desmond Tutu, they have not extended this compassion to the poor majority Africans who continue to be driven deeper and deeper into the vicious quagmire of poverty by neo-liberal economic policies.
What is more bizarre is how often you hear neo-liberals stating from “one side of the mouth” that in this “so-called” rainbow nation South Africa we must “all” just get along because “Mandela brought us freedom, peace and democracy”, while from the “other side of the mouth” blame black Africans for their continued economic subjugation and hardship. Many deny that their current racially-based automatic privilege came at the expense of indigenous Africans whose children are still confined to a lifestyle of misery and hunger because their parents continue to be treated as cheap labour by the western-driven economic greed that some elements of the current African leadership is only too happy to benefit from.
This is not to imply that since Mandela’s release nothing has changed positively in South Africa. But the cold reality lies in the existing high levels of poverty, unemployment, lack of access to quality housing, equal education, primary health-care and the resultant hardship that is unique to black South Africans. This is proof that the social change remains largely cosmetic as a result of conniving neo-liberal economies and their surrogate African leaders. This partnership uses the Mandela magic to distract the public’s attention from the litany of human-rights abuses committed on a daily basis against the indigenous African.
The many current human-rights violations in South Africa makes one wonder at the sincerity of the concern expressed by the minority privileged for Mandela’s health. How is it possible for this privileged minority to express such empathy for one African man who, after his release from prison, has been so well looked after, when at the same time they are incapable of doing the same for the poor majority? Is it possible that their concern has nothing to do with Madiba as such, but more about their fears of the possibility that when the man they once labelled a terrorist and later altered their views to accept him as the guardian angel of their automatic privilege, will leave them exposed to the frustration and anger of African people.
This is an anger that has been simmering for the past 19 years to which the minority groups have been deliberately insensitive and so conveniently exempted themselves from blame. The fact of the matter is that the black majority has been systematically pushed to the bottom of the economic ladder in a form of post-1994 neo-apartheid triple oppression and somehow Mandela’s name is in this mix.
As a Robben Island ex-political prisoner who grew up in the liberation struggle and who once had the privilege to enjoy a few precious moments with Madiba, I am compelled to ask why the privileged minority is able to exhibit such compassion that they are bestowing on Madiba and yet can turn a blind eye to the plight of the poor.
What does this tell us about the legacy of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela? In asking this we must also not lose sight of the opportunity to call for an honest and retrospective review of whether the political concessions made by the ANC have harvested the desired social transformation to help improve in a meaningful way the lives of the marginalised and poor majority South Africans, the elderly, the women and children in line with his liberation struggle and global legacy?
It is not enough to argue, as some would, that the political concessions made by the ANC at the World Trade Centre were absolutely necessary to advance the country’s social development when this has just meant the corporatisation of our liberation struggle principles and icons.
To you Tata, the man I once knew, I say go if you have to go, but only if this is your deepest desire, and as reluctant as we might be to let you go, when you do go “Hamba Kahle and Rest In Peace”. You were a great source of inspiration to many of us in our, as yet, unquenched desire for true freedom and equal justice for all.
Sipho Singiswa, a veteran of the liberation struggle, is an ex-MK underground operative and Robben Island prisoner. He now works as a social justice activist and filmmaker and is chair of the Black Filmmakers Network.