While every other black leader in a post-1994 South Africa has been constructed as an inferior “other” by the dominant discourse, Nelson Mandela has been deified as a saintly black and is held in high esteem by whiteness. He has been hailed as a decent and rational African by the moderate liberal white discourse and thus relegated the status of “the most like a white person” worthy of becoming a signifier for white decency and humanity. He has been acknowledged as a human being while Jacob Zuma, as an example, remains a “primitive” — often depicted as oversexed, indecent and just plain stupid.

These white constructions of blackness say more about our society than we care to admit — and the religiosity afforded Madiba by well-heeled whites speaks volumes about the morally assumed and systemic supremacy whiteness still holds in South Africa. This religiosity comes to life on Mandela Day, which takes place annually and plays out like a yearly church service in which the messianic effigy of Mandela is worshiped in a type of feel good marketing frenzy with “charitable giving” at the centre of it.

By looking back in history at the construct of whiteness we will understand how Mandela Day becomes a neocolonial exercise premised on beliefs about what white and black signifies to the larger white imaginary. In fact Mandela Day has become an exercise in white missionary saviour behaviour in which whites can showcase their “good” side for the “good” of those less fortunate than themselves. It is through the Mandela construct that whites reaffirm their transcendent selves.

Richard Dyer, in his book White, writes that Europeans developed the construct of whiteness via Christianity and spirit — “something that is not of the body”. He saw this as happening “through three elements of its constitution; Christianity, ‘race’ and enterprise/imperialism”. In his view Christianity, the dominant ideology in Europe, embraced the model of bodily transcendence as synonymous with the ideal of whiteness itself.

This became the premise of the European discourse on race during the 18th and 19th centuries. White people were thus set up as the absolute opposite of non-whites, who were considered “no more than their bodies”. Indigenous people were perceived by the European colonisers as untamed and rampantly sexual and the enslaved black person was constructed as inferior, savage and ungodly. The inferiorisation and demonisation of the black body was constructed as a way to justify the brutality of the slave system and it was upon this oppression that white supremacy was built.

This colonial fantasy still exists in the white imaginary and is palpable in majority white attitudes towards blackness and the acceptance of the state brutalisation of black body — as witnessed in the Marikana massacre. It is only in charitable exercises that whites of this ilk are able to reach out to and relate to blackness — though the inherited colonial social construct inherent in these “acts of generosity” are clear. Whiteness is transcendent and godly — and like Jesus and Mandela, they go forth to spread their kindness to the wretched of the earth, who will smile affably and accept this charity with grateful hearts. In this scenario black folk lack agency. They are reduced to child-like status and are incapable of being anything other than inadequate. If, however, they could be more like Mandela and closer to whiteness, they would be fully human — except of course, none can reach Madiba status as his godly realm is only accessible to those made in the image of god — aka whites.

Mandela, who passed away last year, was afforded this African messianic status and became a symbol of peace and reconciliation while he was still alive. His ongoing legacy, which appears to be a highly marketable commodity called Madiba Magic, has served to enrich the privileged class. His image is a highly prized commodity to this class and is bandied about as proof of their non-racism and humanity — as long as his iconic status has been stripped of a revolutionary history and sanitised so that he is palatable to the global liberal echelon. Thus a once “socialist terrorist” has miraculously been transformed, procured, capitalised, trademarked and marketed commercially for the past two decades. Not that this marketing has impacted on the lives of the marginalised as much as it has the business class or the wealthy middle class. Messianic constructs have a way of blessing some and not others in the end.

Nonetheless, Mandela’s passive, affable, smiling effigy becomes symbolic of the so-called rainbow nation, along with key catch phrases such as “transformation”, “reconciliation” and “non-racism”. He is held up as proof of white-people’s recent discourse of non-racialism and acceptance of blackness as well as their inherent decency.

All of this has culminated in Mandela Day giving many corporates and privileged citizens the opportunity to engage in marketed, branded feel-good charitable events to “help the less fortunate” in the name of social cohesion.

In this great marketing exercise Mandela Day is a typical example of Kool-Aid politics and becomes nothing more than a distraction from the larger systemic issues that plague our country — such as poverty, lack of sanitation and food security. In fact it is a distraction from the very real issue that 48% of our nation is living below the breadline, many homeless or “housed” in far-flung concentration-camp-like developments with substandard housing. How about the hard fact that the majority of black children live without adequate food and sanitation and then many black children do not live beyond the age of four because opportunistic diseases are prolific in informal settlements — or that mothers in Alex are unable to put down their sleeping babies for fear that they could be eaten alive by rats?

These messy social and systemic issues are glossed over and airbrushed on days like today — where the focus seems to be on which celebrities are getting their hands slightly dirty as they engage the less fortunate while having a whale of time themselves. It is televised and beamed into our hearts in some feel-good splurge of annual compassion.

In my view corporatised activism is insulting and meaningless. Creating messianic constructs is a dangerous exercise too. These iconic mythologies seem only to serve the privileged and while claiming lip-service to political awareness, the day highlights a lack of awareness of those living on the wealthy side of the big divide.

The default seems to be that everyone in South Africa is on board with Mandela Day and that the “have-nots” will show polite gratitude while receiving tidbits from the “haves” once a year. While on the surface it speaks of social cohesion and nation building — when one digs a bit deeper it is clear that on this day the great divide is even greater — though intrepid do-gooders will put on their missionary shoes and trudge where no rich man dares to tread every other day of the year.

They go to schools and feed “starving” children. They paint classrooms and hand out food packs and other goodies. They join in the knitting of blankets and wax lyrical about the great man and how they want to live up to his example. Yet none of them speaks of grass-roots politics and structural racism, which is still very much an issue in today’s South Africa.

In fact it can be concluded that Mandela Day is counter-revolutionary in many ways as it fosters Band-Aid attitudes and shallow interventions into social problems. There is no focus on the history of struggle, the socialism the ANC once strived for or the ethos of revolution. Rather it packages kindness fallacies that only serve the privileged class and add insult to injury for the masses who are expected to play along and be grateful that Madiba Magic Santa Clause Charity comes their way once a year.

The many responses to a question I posted on Facebook have made it clear that not all South Africans buy into this Madiba madness.

Question: “Since South Africans were forced to swallow the ‘electric-rainbow-kool-aid- reconciliation-liberal-coporatised-mandela-marketing pill’ in 1994, have we perchance become a nation of political pushovers?”

Milisuthando Bongela: That’s exactly what the purpose of feeding us the narrative of a holy messiah was meant to do. To confuse, placate, absolve the perpetrators and redirect us from the real issue of inequality and racism so that we would instead be forced to grapple with the moral issue. Suddenly morality is a big deal, a burden placed on the blacks to do the right thing. It worked and now we are putty in the hands of evil once again.

Fusi Motaung: We care more about the magnified and corporatised Mandela than we do about the living souls he initially believed he was helping to emancipate.

Mogosi Lawrence Magabe: Self-gratification through graffiti when pertinent issues still sticks out like a sore thumb. The lopsided reconciliation efforts served only to embolden intransigents and to make sure that much time is spent allaying white fears than expediting on black aspirations.

Karolina O’Donoghue: Here in London the media barrage when Mandela died was deafening, at these very small points indeed someone would mention he’d had some kind of connection to armed struggle, or that he used to be a boxer, or that he’d had more than one wife … and very quickly back again the coverage would go to the whole Morgan Freeman Uncle Tom Rainbow Granddad stuff which was what was wanted.

Thembi Mogala: PR and publicity stunts all round today, tomorrow those suffering will be forgotten only to be remembered again next in July 18.

It is hard to say whether Mandela needs to be rescued from a corporatist stranglehold and reclaimed by the people’s discourse and given his rightful status as the revolutionary father of Africa — or whether the commodification and whitewashing of his iconic status is an accurate one and he himself played into the hands of whiteness willingly. After all he was at the helm of the compromised takeover and sat around the table with white business while the sunset clauses were devised in the name of appeasing the white business class.

I think that is a question that can only be answered by the people themselves.


  • Feminist, filmmaker, writer, poet, activist and author, Gillian Schutte has a degree in African politics, an MA in Creative Writing and a Film Director's qualification from the Binger Institute, Netherlands. Winner of the Award of Excellence for her documentary entry to the Society for Visual Anthropology Festival in Washington, 2005, and author of the novel After Just Now -- Schutte fearlessly and creatively tackles issues of race, identity, sexuality and social justice in her multimedia work. She is founding member of Media for Justice co-owner of handHeld Films. and co producer of the online Reality TV series The Schutte Singiswas'.


Gillian Schutte

Feminist, filmmaker, writer, poet, activist and author, Gillian Schutte has a degree in African politics, an MA in Creative Writing and a Film Director's qualification from the Binger Institute, Netherlands....

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