For the past two weeks, the nation has been mourning the death of its first democratically elected president and one of the most respected global icons, Nelson Mandela, a man fondly referred to as Tata, father of the nation. The grief that penetrates the atmosphere, like a coiling miasma, has suffocated the life out of a country known for its perpetual jovial mood. It has been a very difficult time.
The death of Madiba, much like his life, impacted greatly on the lives of the ordinary people of South Africa. Streets were congested with traffic as scores of mourners made their way to various points of convergence to pay their final respects to a man (falsely) credited with liberating South Africa from the clutches of apartheid. But Madiba’s death did more than create a nationwide wave of grief; it also exposed the opportunism of the white population of South Africa.
Since his death, newspapers, radio and television stations have been airing documentaries about the life and times of Madiba, never-before seen footages of his life in and out of prisons. Article after article has been a tribute to the life of the former president. Ordinary South Africans and leaders of opposition parties have come out to narrate their experiences of working with a man that is clearly respected and admired by many. Among these narratives has been the narrative of white South Africans, a narrative that borders on the fanatic.
There is a problematic narrative that is largely perpetuated by the white population in our country, a narrative that seeks to divorce Nelson Mandela from the African National Congress. Whenever people, whites in particular, speak about Madiba, they make it a point to exclude the ANC from the conversation, to focus only on this one man who they want to portray as the messiah of the South African liberation struggle. Madiba is spoken about as if he has no relationship with the ANC, as if everything he did was done out of his own directive as opposed to that of the national liberation movement. He is spoken about as if he was a lone warrior who fought against apartheid without having a political home.
Why is this done? Well, quite simply, it serves a liberal and particularly white agenda to have Mandela’s legacy divorced from that of the ANC, because to attach it to his political home would compel people to begin to have an appreciation for the ANC. And white people in particular do not want to acknowledge the ANC, because that would tear away at their incessant narrative about the incapacity of the organisation and indeed, the entire Mass Democratic Movement, to lead the country. In very many ways, distancing Mandela from the ANC gives legitimacy to the distortion of history, because it makes allowance for the ANC to still be painted as a terrorist organisation of hateful blacks, and elevates Madiba to the voice of reason within such a movement.
The opportunism of white people is also exposed in how this section of the populace wants to remember Madiba. The only Madiba that is spoken about is the post-1994 Madiba, the one who was conciliatory and championed national unity. But the problem with this narrative is that it literally annihilates the largest part of the man’s history and struggle. Madiba’s post-1994 politics cannot be understood in isolation to the politics of the ANC pre-1994, and his legacy of being in prison for 27 years and coming out determined to foster unity cannot be understood in isolation to understanding why he went to prison for that long in the very first place! Nelson Mandela and indeed, all other Rivonia trialists, went to Robben Island for a particular reason, and that reason is their defiance and resistance not merely against apartheid, but against the entire logic of settler colonialism.
To study the legacy of this man so dearly loved by our people, we must study the legacy of the ANC. There is no Mandela legacy without an ANC legacy and if we are not careful, this popular white narrative will redefine our story. The formation of the ANC in 1912 was not an accident of history, but an evolution of struggles from the wars of resistance against colonialism. Not only had the Mfecane wars in the previous century divided the people of South Africa along tribal lines, but also, the advent of settler colonialism had created fertile ground for what would become one of the bloodiest and longest resistance struggles in history. The logic of establishing the ANC was thus premised on the need for creating unity among black people, a necessary prerequisite for waging a meaningful struggle against settlers who had arrogated themselves the right not only to have possession and ownership of our land, but to also impose laws that were of their own design. The popular argument, albeit false, that seeks to suggest that the ANC was established to fight against apartheid when in fact, the struggle has always been fundamentally, a struggle against colonialism and all its devastations, in particular, the devastation of the dispossession of land from natives.
The opportunism of whites is seen in the deliberate failure to include facts in the Mandela legacy narrative that they passionately celebrate. They fear that by including it, they will be forced to confront a historical injustice that they are collectively responsible for, an injustice that in post-1994 South Africa, they are beneficiaries of. They want to paint Mandela as a peaceful man, merely to blackmail black people into being peaceful in honour of his legacy. They want to force-feed us the post-1994 Mandela legacy and not the ANC legacy, because the ANC legacy has traces of decisiveness on the land question.
Frankly, tears that we saw on our screens these past few days mean NOTHING if they don’t inspire consciousness within the white community; consciousness to honour the Mandela legacy correctly: by doing justice to black natives!