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The danger of making Mandela apolitical

By Nhlanhla Mtaka

It is true, nature has the capacity to force us humans to act. This was evident the day former president Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela died. On that day the message from Mother Nature seems to be clear: stop individualising the multiple and avoid the trap of making Mandela apolitical.

Mandela died on December 5, a day that arsenal of Pan-Africanism, Robert Managaliso Sobukwe, was born, in 1924. In African political history, Mandela and Sobukwe’s activities place them among other African giants like Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere who personified the African need and urge for independence and freedom.

But for so long government historians, some politicians, thought leaders and media practioners/houses have been altering the post-colonial and post-apartheid narrative. Especially about former president Mandela, to the point of trying to single him out as a unique man, better than Sobukwe, Biko, Nkrumah or Nyerere and yes even better than President Robert Mugabe. In essence this scholarship and idea, paints Mandela as an anomaly among Africa and Africans.

It was therefore, not surprising to hear President Barack Obama’s eulogy saying that “like America’s founding fathers, he (Mandela) would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations”. Obama continued to compare Mandela to Gandhi. You will notice that here, Mandela is treated and singled out as being a better African — dead or alive.

There exists a danger with such a narrative, as the African intellectual Cheikh Anta Diop once warned Africans when he stated “every time when situations are not favourable to Western cultures, an effort will be made to undermine the cultural consciousness of Africans by telling them, there are no Africans”. Diop continues warning Africans not to fall into this trap because if they fall, they will be going round in circles in their quest for cultural, political and spiritual consciousness and emancipation.

One of the many problems with this false narrative is that it has the capacity to distort the whole African political history particularly the liberation movement’s importance and sociological meaning.

In her paper titled “Notes on the general features of national liberation movements” Mwesiga Baregu (1979) argues that national liberation movements were essentially a historical phenomenon responding to conditions of foreign domination, invasion, political domination, cultural sub-ordination and economic exploitation. They were thus inspired and driven by the desire to address these challenges, with the ultimate aim of bringing about national self-determination, political independence, equality and economic progress.

In defining the character of the liberation movement in the transformation process Baregu (2004: 97) presents that:

* The liberation movement is organised to overthrow an incumbent regime and capture state power by force. The political party is expected to win elections through democratic processes and persuasion of voters.

* The liberation movement is largely concerned with the mobilisation and radicalisation of popular dissent. The political party in power is preoccupied with the consensus building and, to extent, the suppression of deflection of dissent.

* The liberation movement, with its armed wing, is organised to prosecute armed struggle until it wins the liberation war. The political party is interested in demobilisation and disarming the guerrilla forces, or transforming them into regular professional army. Moreover, it has the challenge of winning the peace.

Looking at this explanation it should therefore not be difficult to conclude that Mandela was not a lone ranger. That his contribution to the national struggle, like that of leaders who came before him was a response to conditions of foreign domination, invasion, political domination, cultural sub-ordination and economic exploitation.

Given Africa’s colonial and apartheid history, one of the critical problem areas is the manner in which post-colonial and post-apartheid Africa is portrayed, and the extent to which the continent’s history has been falsified. The passing of Mandela calls for a continued interrogation of the manner in which African agency in the continent’s history is treated.

Africans must understand the trap and understand the stakes. If not, those who succeeded in divorcing the struggle of W.E.B Du Bois from that of Marcus Garvey, the struggle of Martin Luther King from that of Malcolm X will eventually succeed in divorcing Mandela from the liberation movement and context. Perhaps as a start, let us do as Mother Nature has reminded us. Let us use December 5 as a day to celebrate the lives and contributions of Sobukwe and Mandela to our collective struggle. In doing so we will avoid the trap.

Nhlanhla Mtaka is the group chairman of the Ingabadi Group

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    • MrK

      The problem is that there is no consensus program, complete with budget and schedules, to turn back the hoarding of land that happened under colonialism and apartheid.

      Without it, the economy cannot change, and no amount of BEE is going to paper over that.

      (BLACK AGENDA REPORT) Reconciliation is Not Decolonization
      Wed, 12/11/2013 – 13:02 — Jemima Pierre

      (HERALD ZW) A strange love for Mandela
      December 9, 2013 Wenceslaus Murape Mai Jukwa
      Amai Jukwa and Garikai Chengu

    • Momma Cyndi

      I don’t understand this. Are you saying that Madiba was NOT a better ‘African’ or a better human?

      Something strange happens in our country. If someone does good, it is the collective. If someone does bad, it is their fault.

      – When Mandela had to pull rank, don a rugby jersey, prevent a civil war and convince the ANC to go with the reconciliation angle – it is the collective.
      – When Mbeki questions if HIV causes AIDS, doesn’t want antiretrovirals, fires his deputy and tells the unions to hush up – it is his fault.

      Seems like multiple personality disorder is the name of the game!

      To be a ‘Founding Father’ is just that. It is the person who lays down the foundations of a better way. The creator of the dream which inspires others to greatness in order to fulfill that dream. It is not an attempt to undermine his colleagues.

      Some days I feel that a picture of a box of puppies would be construed as ‘racist’ and insulting!

    • RubinB

      When a politician rises above petty politics, he becomes a statesman. Examples of Americans are: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington etc. UK examples include people like Churchill. Politicians like these are accepted by citizens of all parties (and races) as above the level of petty party politics.
      I believe Mandela to be in that category. It sounds as if you don’t.
      Your level of thinking is exposed in your sentence: …” trying to single him (Mandela) out as a unique man, better than …, ……. and yes even better than President Robert Mugabe”, which suggests that you think Mugabe is the best of them all. If I remember correctly,Mugabe was a man who fought elections “democratically” until he lost one, upon which he refused to hand over power, like all African “democrats” tend to do.
      What you are trying to do, is to cover up your blatant black racism with “intellectual” claptrap.
      You are not fooling anybody.

    • MrK

      How tired for racists to call Black people ‘racist’.

      Try another one.

    • RubinB

      Sorry MrK, I forgot black people cannot be racist.
      The document should actually have been an internal ANC document. Since the ANC can no longer claim the moral high ground, all it has left is the legacy of Mandela, which this document is actually trying to capitalise on. Most voters with any brains will see right through this and hopefully act accordingly.

    • Mmesa

      The article is on point. Mandela did great for the struggle, but he cannot, and should not be divorced from those who fought for the same ideal-i.e Africa’s total imancipation. King and X were for the same ideal, freedom of Americans of Africa. Yet they were potrayed as oppositions by white media.
      History, and not the status quo, media, and oppressors, will show greatness of Mugabe’s legacy, greater than Mandela’s. Biko’s is actually greater than Mandela’s, so is Sobukwe’s, for Africans. But power dictates percptions of society.

    • Rory Short

      My understanding of Madiba was that he was first and foremost for humanity. When we allow lesser human characteristics such gender, race, culture etc, etc, to determine outcomes we are, in my view, fatally deviating from the Mandela ideal.