As former president Nelson Mandela lies sick in hospital the narrative of what he will represent to future generations will, without a doubt, take a pendulum swing between two opposing sides. As we have all come to accept his inevitable departure, we find ourselves asking what we shall tell our kids about Mandela. Will whites talk of Mandela as blacks do?
I argue that the Mandela of the black community is and will be different to the Mandela of white society. To the black majority, he is a fighter and a radical militant who refused to be broken down even by jail. To them he is a reminder that in order to get justice you must fight because there is honour in struggle. To the white liberal community, he represents reconciliation, forgiveness and peaceful coexistence. Yes, he represents all this and more but there is a fundamental departure between blacks and whites on what takes precedence in all the things that makes up this icon called Mandela.
The white community wants us to believe that the story of Nelson Mandela starts and ends when he came out of jail. It is seldom mentioned that Mandela speared-headed the formation of Umkhonto weSizwe and what this means in the context of a party that had previously adopted peaceful resistance as a method of struggle. It must never be forgotten that at the time of the formation of MK even leaders of the ANC were against the idea. Mandela was therefore part of a generation of radicals that saw an armed struggle succeeding where peaceful resistance had failed. Mandela went against the views of leaders like Albert Luthuli, who had himself won a Nobel Peace Prize for believing in non-violence. Imagine the embarrassment Luthuli must have felt when Mandela went for military training much against the party blessing and at a time when the world had just celebrated his non-violent struggle.
Mandela was a stubborn believer of freedom; he was prepared to do anything to achieve it. Together with his contemporaries like OR Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki etc, they built the ANC into a strong force, capable of mounting a sustained resistance against apartheid. Even after being found guilty of treason, he refused to appeal his sentence. This again gives us a cameo peek into his life and character. When black people read this they see a man whose dedication to justice was not going to be stopped by death or a lengthy stay in prison. They feel inspired to fight for whatever struggles they believe are correct. When they fight in Khayelitsha for proper toilets, for example, they look at Mandela as their inspiration. They do not think he would disapprove of their actions.
However, the white community thinks differently of Mandela. They marvel at a man who came out of prison and assured his former oppressors of peaceful co-existence. They make this look like it was Mandela’s benevolence and saintly status and not a policy of his party. They look at how he served only one term in office and get mesmerised in a context where liberation heroes become dictators who turn their countries into personal property. They track back how he reconciled a nation divided along racial lines and conclude he surely must be a god. It is for that reason that we are reminded all the time about how Mandela believed in reconciliation. Forcing a “white Mandela” down the throats of poor black South Africans who are yet to enjoy materially the fruits of freedom has the danger of setting him against his own people.
The Nelson Mandela that is today commoditised believed that the ultimate goal of the liberation struggle was political freedom and economic justice. When many poor South Africans talk of still being in struggle they are shouted down and told that the struggle ended in 1994. The black poor majority rejects this farcical democracy and believes the struggle must be taken “to its logical conclusion (read democratisation of the economy)” and believes Nelson Mandela would agree. The more Mandela becomes the hero of white community the more the space for a new Mandela of a black community opens up.
However, there are those who go to the extreme by desecrating the Mandela legacy and imputing that he sold blacks out. I reject this postulation as infantile. Mandela delivered on a generational mandate and where his generations failed others must take over and not blame him. He did well to stop this country from descending to a costly civil war and excelled in dispelling the visceral fears for change within a small wealthy coterie of whites who were worried of a political apocalypse should a black government take over.
Those who say that there has been a “Mandelanisation” of South Africa forget that this is not peculiar to South Africa. Mandela did not decree that the struggle be personalised around him or that he be deified post-liberation. A friend of mine reminded me recently that the personalisation of a heroic struggle is not a peculiarity of South Africa. He said Mahatma Gandhi or Bapu (father of the nation) was not the only leader of Indian nationalism in colonial India. Millions of Indians, literally, were involved in the struggle for independence but they are not revered.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk did not found the modern state of Turkey on his own but he alone is known as father of the Turks. The same goes for Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the case of Pakistan. The British to this day revere Winston Churchill for leading them through World War II. He didn’t do it alone, but try telling that to the Poms. Aung San Suu Kyi is not the sole proponent of democracy in Burma. The point is that all people are entitled to give a pre-eminent position to any one of their leaders. In South Africa that person happens to be Mandela. Having said this, let us be wary of how we celebrate Mandela in a country considered the most unequal in the world.