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Stop invoking Mandela’s legacy to advocate respectability

Recently, I saw a Facebook post about an event where the keynote speech was titled “What would Mandela do?” The speech, unsurprisingly, criticised the recent student protests.

For the love of intellectual discourse, can we please retire this phrase?

Don’t misunderstand me. I have nothing but respect and admiration — and gratitude — for Nelson Mandela and his legacy. But for various reasons, asking what he would do in any particular situation is a terrible argument.

To begin with, I have only ever seen it applied to black people, urging them to be less angry and less radical, as if Mandela was neither angry nor radical. For example, when Solidariteit announced their “Plan B” or Steve Hofmeyr sang Die Stem (again), they were criticised but I saw no invocation of Mandela’s legacy.

No, it is used to plead respectability politics. Do not be angry, lest you betray the sanitised legacy of the man we’ve come to view as a kindly grandfather. Be one of the good blacks, so that white people can respect you.

Have you heard of Umkhonto weSizwe? In case a reminder is needed: The ANC’s armed wing was co-founded by Mandela, following a long period of non-violent protest.

Gallo Images
Gallo Images

Of course I am not advocating violence, not remotely, but anger I can respect.

Do you really believe that a man who stated in the dock that he would be prepared to die for freedom, would look down on students for protesting for the education they were promised in 1994?

In the midst of the #RhodesMustFall protests, the DA issued a statement saying that students should “emulate Mandela’s values”. At the time, I wrote that using this argument dismisses legitimate anger and quashes debate, and I still stand by my point: invoking the name of Mandela is a cheap way to end a debate without making a real argument.

It is absolutely possible to argue that the students should have approached things differently, even though this does not reflect my own views. However, I am shocked by the lazy, intellectually dishonest arguments I’ve seen being used to support this point.

Finally, asking “What would Mandela do?” suggests that he was infallible, that he embodied the apex of moral conduct, and that we are incapable of adapting our own values to a changing society.

We are in the middle of great social upheaval. People are becoming more aware of concepts like white privilege. Victims of social and economic oppression are making their voices heard. The narrative is changing, and we have to navigate that change. Tired arguments will not help us.

Mandela is a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation. But do not forget that before the forgiveness, there was anger.