Suntosh Pillay
Suntosh Pillay

Did we expect too much from Mandela?

When our Big Five were herded aside a few weeks ago to make space for the visage of our most (only?) loved politician, we began facing daily reminders at every purchase that this country truly is ubiquitously contoured by Nelson Mandela.

How will we even begin to explain who he was to future generations of unborn children? The expansive online archive in his honour, a rare museum dedicated to a living person, and the endless roads, structures, books, prizes, awards, and organisations that bear his name, serve as colossal restatements of an omnipresent brand recognition. “Brandela”, quipped someone.

How will we attempt to describe the atrocities that occurred under apartheid to children born “free” in a world predicated on equality and constitutional democracy? Surely, only a truly empathic understanding of apartheid’s perverse consequences will enable future leaders to fully appreciate Mandela’s appeal. His narrative transcends political affiliations and national boundaries; his appeal is neither narrowly ideological nor divisive. Instead, he is narrated as a reconciliatory figure who did not abuse a new position of power to seek revenge on his opponents. Yet, such revenge would have been easily justified. How does a person embody such generosity of spirit that equips one to forgive and to inspire beyond average human expectations?

As a politician he was inclusive and charismatic; never forgetting to humanise himself, downplaying claims that he’s any saint. But the smitten masses would have none of it. “Our” Madiba, warts and all, was the closest thing to a saint that South Africa could have wished for. And for all the shortcomings our formative years of democracy may have had, at the very least, we were a nation in constant conversation, not chronic civil war.

It is too easy and redundant to sing his praises, so I will stop.

But – and it’s a long, tough, critical pause – as the fault lines in our teenage democracy begin to show, there is also an emerging discourse of disillusionment with the Madiba years. Questions like, “did the black majority sacrifice too much in the name of reconciliation?” or “why hasn’t political power translated into economic power?” or “why didn’t we get education right?” or “did we act too slowly on HIV/Aids in the early years?” and “who knew about the rotten arms deal?” are being asked, loudly in some spaces and in whispers in others.

Is this unfairly bronzing the golden Mandela years? Was the monumental mess handed over by centuries of external and internal colonisation enough of an agenda to wade through?

Undeniably, there was too much to be done when Mandela took the reins; there still remains so much to do. But, almost 20 years later, how can a critical, deeper, sober analysis at the seeds planted in our post-apartheid infancy help move us forward?

Tags: , , , , ,

  • Madiba’s tears
  • Justice is fundamental in dealing with the effects of mass trauma
  • Beyond Trevor Noah and Mandela’s rainbow: Towards a politics of empathy
  • (Ir)Reconciliation Day: A call for a more sober reading of December 16
    • michael musekiwa

      i think south africa is in this mess today because of mandela.i would like to brute with the truth for the truthb is a dangerous commodity and candeur a virtue.whenever a black character is embraced by the white community,definitely there is something dangerously wrong with that character.a white man will never embrace reconciliation save when it is in his own interest.robert mugabe was the first to offer reconciliation,look what happened to zimbabwe.who was supposed to reconcile with who,the aggrieved or the murderer.i know you wont publish my piece because it touches the raw nerve of south africa’s skewed politics.

    • The Creator

      Who’s “we”? The Mandela mythos was largely constructed by and for the white minority. In reality, although Mandela played a very important role both in prison and in holding the ANC together after the unbanning, the ANC was always a collective organisation within which Mandela played a central but not dominant role.

      So the question should be, “Did we expect too much from the ANC?”. No, I don’t believe we did. In my opinion, however, we did not express our expectations effectively, and therefore right-wingers like Ramaphosa were able to sabotage the best efforts of the ANC’s social democrats.

      We did not make good use of the freedoms which we won through the ANC, and therefore we are suffering the consequences with our steadily contracting freedoms and our declining socio-economic organisation.

    • ian shaw

      I am surprised by the extreme shortsightedness by contributiors who decry the reconciliation efforts of Mandela. They say that the fact that whites have embraced him is already suspect. Well, as a white person, I embraced him becasue he clearly saw the alternative of a mass killing and, burning spree of revenge (of the kind that appears sporadically and mindlessly even now) that would have completely devastated the country and deprived from any development, let alone economic betterment of the poor.

    • Chuma

      Mandela did his best. he fought a good battle between 1991 and 1994 and the peace that was achieved.

      Could a violently divided black South Africa had coercion enough to negotiate and make the transition that was retributive against white folk moreso at a time when the United States was the sole super power? Too much significance is put into what the one who reconciled with the whites and turned on the Ndebele did post 1999 for self preservation and last throw of the dice to re-invent his ego. Where he succeeded was in the popular culture sphere which values education as a vehicle of self-empowerment. What is evident is that South Africa unlike post independence Zimbabwe has failed dismally in human manpower and skills development. Everything the training institutes, international and local were all headquartered here, some of the best skills etc, so what happened? Our institutes have more foreign students than local. Even not so highly skilled jobs that make up the middle class by some circumstance even diffidence, seem to be occupied by foreigners some just fresh from university in their countries. The denigrating white attitude towards local blacks who carry the anger and defiance of the past in preference to foreign blacks resulting is such unhelpful terminology like xenophobia and laziness is also not helpful.

      Besides when you look at the time factor in SA versus Zim, the size, composition of the white population you see that comparison is not so easy.

    • Momma Cyndi

      What was the alternative? All out war? Even a cursory glance at the history of Africa will tell you that we don’t do short wars. If a war had erupted, it would be going still (end of sight maybe ten years from now). He did what he did to keep the country together. It was always going to be a balancing act.

      Something that is very seldom taken into account is that the ANC was unprepared to take over. More than half of them were ‘exiles’ who had no clue what was happening in SA or even who we were. With that kind of learning curve, they did spectacularly well in the beginning. It was only after the greed took over that the bell curve dipped.

      20/20 hindsight is a marvelous thing. We know that many mistakes were made but it is the fact that those ‘mistakes’ were ignored and became huge millstones. Partly that is the SA curse – we are never wrong – and partly that was the apathy that set in. ‘I wasn’t in the struggle to be poor’ and all that.

    • Wildcat

      Michael Musekiwa, your comment makes me sad :( Not only because it is mostly untrue but also because you must have been a victim of some form of racial cruelty. Please know that the whites who want reconciliation among races far outnumber the ones who don’t! Can we say the same about blacks? Just asking….

    • Richard

      I am interested to know: what do you make of the fact that more people died in South Africa from disease after the change in government in 1994 than during the past hundred years from state violence. Or that more people died in the Mfecane than during the Anglo-Zulu War? What do you make of the notion that for the average person in, say, Zimbabwe or Kenya life was better (in economic terms) during the colonial era than afterwards? I am not favouring any position, simply asking for your opinion. I was also carried along and energised by prevailing notions of “freedom” but am also aware that one can be held captive by ideological propaganda. No doubt protestantism was seen as “freedom” from Roman Catholicism in its day, or communism from capitalism. In South Africa, was the National Party victory seen as “freedom”? From whom? From what? But what does one make of, say, the Roman departure from Britain in 410AD? Was that seen as “freedom” or simply the beginning of the decay of the Dark Ages?

      I think the only way we can speak of “better” or “worse” or “oppression” or “freedom” is by the effect it has on “ordinary” people, and not the fulfilment of some ideology. Are Indians better off in modern-day India than pre-independence India? There are more poor in India than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.

      It is complex, and I am not convinced by labels and ideological brainwashing.

      Can you shed any light as a psychologist?

    • chris

      Have you actually looked at the new bank notes?? The Big 5 are still there (albeit demoted to the unsigned side of the note). It is the innocuous landscapes that have given way.

    • Thandinkosi Sibisi

      Mandela only served one term in the transition from apartheid to democracy. What more could he have done really?As “Creator” puts it “Did we expect too much from the ANC”?

      Mbeki served 2 terms . We should be addressing questions of : “why has political power not changef intoe onomic power” ? As well as ” Why have we not got education right” ? to Mbeki and his former cabinet. Zuma looks likely to get a second term . What has he and his cabinet got to say?

      Of course we know the answers; blame it all on the succesive racist (apartheid) regimes and their legacy! Some will argue that they cannot undo generations of racist practises and their effect in 18 years.All this while some people became billionaires in far less than 18 years!

      If we take the argument ” it takes more than 18 years to undo a racist legacy” to its logical conclusion we can also argue that “It takes more than a generation to become a billionaire in a ” normal society” , unless, of course you are one of the rare individuals like Bill Gates or the late Steve Jobs What has the BEE answer to Gates and Jobs done to warrant accumulating billions in less than 18 years, let alone generations ( the Motsepes and Ramaphosas of this world!)

      How long does (real) transformation take. one term? 18 years? A generation? Did we expect too much from the ANC ( or Mandela if you will)?

    • michael musekiwa

      wild cat seems you benefited from dont really appreciate the suffering and humiliation the black man went through. what gave whitey the selfish arrogance to subjugate whole clans [black]to slavery,forced labour to improve land which they had forcibly taken from the blacks. a black may forgive,but not forget.while we may talk of reconciliation,has the white man embraced it when that farmer from the western cape talks of giving his workers 80rand per day as enough.this is slave this the reconciliation you are clamouring about. south africa is the most unequal society in the world,yet from mandela,mbeki and now zuma its business as usual.

    • Richard

      Michael Musekiwa, this is how the wealthy control the poor. They make them vote against their own interests, as you’re doing now. Zim is incredibly weak, but all Mugabe has to do is raise the issue of Britain and how whites are so terrible, and people will continue to vote him into power. They’re not free – they’re a wreck and their people come to our country to get jobs and food.

      If it was such an excellent place, we’d be going over the border to live in their land of milk and honey.

      Still, you make it too easy for the government to continue taking what is due to you. Nkandla wasn’t stolen from me – the money should have been spent on you. The bad education in our country isn’t hurting my kids – it’s hurting yours. Mbeki hurt so many black people with his HIV/AIDS policies. But still, you’ll blame me, and hate me, and continue being stolen from.

      Please re-look at the issue. Look at what your government is doing for you now and will do for you in 20 years. Look for integrity, and real caring for your children, a real willingness to grow the economy and make us stronger. There are real dangers in the world – other economies that are hungrier. While we fight each other, they’ll take our jobs and our investments and our economy.

    • Hugh Robinson

      What is with you people perpetuating a Myths. Who are you trying to impress or from whom gain trust ?

      1] Mandela was a puppet of the ANC made to be an ICON. He was loyal disciplined cadre who refused to leave his jail until the ANC got their own way. Never has he stood firm on any of the things that have occurred under this current lot. Never did he stand and be counted when the ANC denied AIDS existed. That resulted in 300,000 more deaths that the UN found under apartheid.

      2] The another myth is the gross exaggeration of blacks mistreatment. If that was the case why was the death age under apartheid at near 60 now under the FREEDOM banner 55. People did not die in the streets of starvation unlike it is seen in many other countries.

      Learn your history from both ends of the spectrum.

    • michael musekiwa

      richard i think you are greatly misinformed about about zimbabwe.up until 1998 mugabe was the darling of the west.the only sin he comitted was the land revolution and the west were quick to impose sanctions on zim.zimbabweans are a resilient lot.they went through that storm and now the fruits of that resilience are beginning to bear fruit.if you want to meet free blacks in africa[politically and economically]go to a few years time zimbabwe will be the envy of many in africa whilst we black south africans wallop in our poverty because our leaders dont want to be seen to rock the can not make an omellette without breaking an are blaming our kids for not being educated.wasnt this occassioned by your apartheid policies.whitey or whatever you are,i dont hate you.i dislike your arrogance.

    • Belle

      I find this article bittersweet. Mandela was a true humanitarian, a real legend around the world. He could see the big picture and he took the first steps toward painting it. Of course he made mistakes, he is human afterall – he had flaws. But the point is, he did the best he could with what he had, and he did a really fine job. What’s sad now, is that others are not following in his footsteps, They aren’t building on his actions or his intentions.They look to the past and justify their present mistakes. They judge Madiba for his faults, they say he could have done better, as if he is some kind of fairy that didn’t wave his wand high enough.

      I think we need to acknowledge Madiba as a shining example we can live up to and better, someone whose expectations we can exceed.

    • Bikoan Thinker

      Did we expect too much from Ourselves?

    • Momma Cyndi

      Hugh Robinson,

      I’m afraid that some of your information is very incorrect.

      There was an awful big fuss when Mandela was insulted during a meeting regarding the HIV/AIDS issue. That fight is what is seen as the beginning of the split in the ANC.

      The exaggeration is a reality but so is the denial of the abuse. Don’t forget that our media was muzzled and the government of the time was very fond of the ‘mushroom management’ principle. I’ve heard some shocking stories about what was going on whilst we were all watching Noot vir Noot in blissful ignorance.

    • The Critical Cynic

      Spot on with point 1 Hugh
      Nelson Mandela has proved himself a puppet of the ANC & not the strong-minded humanitarian and independent minded character that history paints him to be. If he were he’d have had the courage to speak out against the mistakes his successors were making, chastise them for their self-enrichment and arrogance etc, but instead not a peep from the ‘great’ man. Nope, he was a man who served his purpose superbly. Whether he did his best or not is a moot point. If you want a shining example though, look to Christ or Ghandi for real greatness Neither of them would have sat back and said nothing while the poor of this country continue to be neglected. Strangely enough it is Desmond Tutu who turned out to be brave enough to stand by his principles while he watches the ANC that he assisted morph into a monster.

      However, your second point is way off the mark – the mistreatement and inhumanity of apartheid cannot be denied, and many, many black people bear scars of multiple injustices. As insiduous as the current government machinations & wheeler-dealing cronyism are, & they are insiduous, apartheid was an evil system that had to go. Quoting life expectancy figures, as with most statistical quotes, is to infer the wrong conclusions, such as apartheid was preferable to the present as you seem to be saying. Comparing apartheid government mistreatment to the ineptness of and neglect by the ANC government is pointless and distracting.

    • Vijay

      Mandela will be remembered as a saviour of humanity, and an inspiring soul for freedom and liberation. He helped create the mould for our democratic society – how can we ask more of him? We should simply say “thank you”.

    • Thandinkosi Sibisi (Mr)

      @ Hugh Robinson
      While I agree at least partly that Mandela was elevated to the level of an Icon I find the statement about a “gross exageration of black mistreatment” somewhat unfortunate and in fact amounts to ” apartheid denialism”.Suntosh Pillay did not give a litany of how “non-whites” suffered under apartheid but made a very oblique reference “how will we describe the atrocities that occured under apartheid”. Presumably “atrocities” is a” gross exageration”?.

      I grew up under apartheid however I shall not recount atrocities but realities
      (1) My late mother had a PhD from Cambridge .She began her studies at the University of Natal but was forced to discontinueas Bantu were no longer allowed…….fortunately for her a visiting professor from Cambridge in the UK saw her potential and organised a scholarship…….
      (2) My elder brother is a psychiatrist who lives in the UK.When he passed matric in 1966 he wanted to do engineering but was told that “engineering was not for the Bantu.He then opted for medicine , his second choice , graduated at the top of his class, went on to study psychiatry and never came back to this country.
      (3) My daughter, a researcher in space physics has a PhD in ionospheric phsics from the university of Bath in the UK having started her studies at the University of cape Town (BSc honours)and Rhodes(Masters in Astrophysics cum laude).In my days in the 1970s Bantus could only go to Bantu universities with no decent research…

    • Thandinkosi Sibisi (Mr)

      @ Hugh Robisson (Continued)
      : “Bantus” could only go to “Bantu universities” with no decent research programmes. They were not meant to be “educated above a certain level” according to Verwoerd’s famous words
      (4) My son just wrote his final Board exam towards qualifying as a Chartered accountant.. In my time, a “Bantu” could not study to become a chartered accountant. (The first black chartered accountant qualified in 1977.

      Is this an “exaggeration” by a black person who failed to achieve his goals or merely a statement of realities under apartheid

      Apartheid is now behind us and is now history.I also get irritated when the ANC invokes the “legacy of apartheid” to justify its failures. However , for people of my generation apartheid is “living memory” and I get irritated when denialists claim that the atrocities of apartheid” are “an exaggeration”

    • Tofolux

      @Suntosh, wow you guys are really running out of ideas. In fact, lets be brutal, you guys are bankrupt when it comes to ideas. What is obvious though, is that the Anti-Anc campaign is in full swing. The litany of bad debates has been quite shocking. I am aware that all of these are aimed at a certain audience and that they must be salivating at the thought of the demise of the ruling party. But clearly, you like others are all sitting on Kilimanjaro, daydreaming. In fact, we should call you back from that mountain and make sure that you guys are admitted into the ICU of any hospital for ”foot and mouth disease”. Also let me say that you and others have no credentails to criticise Madiba or any other person who brought freedom to our country. They are our freedom fighters. But noting that you are such ”experts” at assessing contributions to our SA, pray tell what has been your contribution to our society or better still explain your role and relevance to our society other than being a ”patient” waiting to be admitted.

    • Mr. Direct

      I think Nelson Mandela was the right person in the right place at the right time. I think that without Mr. Mandela, we may have been in a far worse state now,

      Not necessarily because his term in office was the best, but he was a figurehead that every faction was willing to accept, and the International community could rally around.

      Now, were all the policies put in place then, no, but one step at a time. Transition needed to take place first – this was the most critical task of the time.

      The next terms after Mr. Mandela should have been where all the work was actually done. I am not sure this happened because the ANC underestimated the effort and skill required to govern a country.

      I think more time is spent these days protecting the party than governing the country. And that is even worse…

    • DeeGee

      @Thandinkosi. Wow. What an amazing story. Our country lost great skills and talent in your elder brother. What a shame.

    • Jack Sparrow

      @Thandinkosi; an interesting tale. I wonder how many whites can currently give very close parallels for your family’s exclusions. Food for thought?

    • Lennon

      @DeeGee: I’d label that a tragedy.

      A person could go insane wondering how much talent has been lost as a result of this.

    • Sankara

      Yes, we did expect too much from Mandela. He is a very old man, but he is not senile and he still has his faculties about him. As a revered global icon, it is remarkable that he has nothing at all to say about the descent of the ANC, and with it SA, into a gang of criminals, thieves, dictators and organised crime ganglords. He may say he is out of politics. But if he still has his moral authority, then his silence is not pardonable. It simply seems impossible that such a great leader should have become so intellectually calcified as to be unable to see beyond the ANC brand, and to not openly announce his horror. Because that horror is being visited upon the people of SA daily.