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Put in context, Mandela did what he could with what he had

July 18 marked what would have been the 102nd birthday of Tata Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Nelson Mandela International Day was unanimously resolved upon by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 2009 and on this day since, many people around the world give 67 minutes of their time in aid of the marginalised and in his honour. 

This was an unprecedented decision by the UN because for the first time, one of its international days was named after an individual. There are numerous days named in relation to certain events. For instance, the International Day of Non-violence on October 2, is linked to Mahatma Gandhi, but not named after him. An exception, however, was made for Mandela.

According to the UN: “Resolution A/RES/64/13 recognises Mandela’s values and his dedication to the service of humanity in: conflict resolution; race relations; promotion and protection of human rights; reconciliation; gender equality and the rights of children and other vulnerable groups; the fight against poverty; the promotion of social justice. The resolution acknowledges his contribution to the struggle for democracy internationally and the promotion of a culture of peace throughout the world.”

Yet, as many celebrate Madiba’s legacy and his life, a small fraction of dissenting voices is hellbent on going in the opposite direction. They argue that Mandela “sold out” by agreeing to negotiate instead of opting for armed struggle, that he became president but never returned the land to the black majority, that he is also loved by white people. Some attack the speech he made during the Rivonia Trial, especially the part where he said: “…and I have fought against black domination”. 

The forces attacking what Mandela stood for choose to ignore the context of the period leading up to negotiations, in which Mandela operated. It is a fact that if black people opted for an armed struggle, chances were close to none of securing victory against the then apartheid regime. The collapse of the Soviet Union and Cuba‘s economic crisis of the 1990s is evidence enough that war would not have been the most desirable option. The two countries had supported our struggle with resources. Therefore, to have these countries undergoing their own challenges greatly affected our militant approach. 

Negotiations gave us the country’s administration and reduced the blood spilled for transition from apartheid to the democratic dispensation. This we should appreciate. 

On the question of land redistribution, Thabo Mbeki and his administration are better placed to take all the punches. Mandela secured 62.25% victory in the 1994 general elections and came up with the government of national unity. This demanded that he should tread carefully since he had no absolute power when it came to amending the Constitution.  Mbeki obtained a two-thirds majority in the 2004 elections which gave him and his administration the power to change the Constitution for the return of the land and the economy. He never did, yet people seek to place blame on Mandela who led under the most difficult times.

To attack Mandela’s assertion: “… I have fought against black domination” is not only senseless but disingenuous too. I mean, before you can level any critique to that position, you have to consider the context.

Mandela appeared in the Rivonia Trial for “crimes” committed during the struggle against white domination, perpetuated by the state against African people. The state, through its power structures and propaganda machinery, tried to propagate the idea that Mandela and his comrades were saboteurs, terrorists and racial extremists. They painted them as people fighting for the substitution of white domination by black domination. They were projected as being individuals struggling to gain racial superiority. To dispel all these lies and the propaganda levelled against them, Mandela stated that he did not represent the racial superiority of black people (black domination). 

His words, too, need to be read in context of the whole speech. He said: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

He made this heroic declaration before the court, asserting his readiness to receive the maximum sentence — death by hanging. 

Having said all this is by no means to suggest that Madiba had no flaws or weaknesses in relation to how he conducted the struggle. But, it is to say we ought not to dispel him as a sell-out and put him in the enemy camp.

In fact, his generation fought a good fight. Ours is to continue where they left off. It is unfair to have Mandela attacked by individuals who have surrendered to becoming social media revolutionaries. Individuals who are even scared to hold the country’s leadership and the powers that be accountable because they are still queueing for possible deployments. Individuals who cannot sacrifice the small comforts that come with being a tenant under a neo-colonial setup. 

While we point a finger towards Mandela, three fingers are pointing back at each of us. What are we doing as the oppressed majority, especially the youth, as the country’s unemployment is skyrocketing? What are we doing to hold our leaders accountable as they continue to live flamboyant lifestyles while our people are languishing in poverty? What are we doing when our leaders can ban alcohol and cigarettes and parliamentarians can work from home but force teachers and children to go to school when Covid-19 cases are spreading out of control? What are we doing to change the status quo in a country wherein the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? 

Nelson Mandela sacrificed a booming legal career. He sacrificed a beautiful, talented wife. He sacrificed his family, personal liberty and comfort. He chose a life of struggle in the best interests of the African people. 

What have you sacrificed in pursuit of the society you so desire and imagine? 

The life of Mandela should challenge us to participate in the revolution. It should ultimately put us in a position to be willing to sacrifice all for common objectives and greater good. Mandela’s name will and must live long. Aaah! Dalibhunga