Less than a year after his death, it would seem that international icon and the first president of a democratic South Africa, Nelson Mandela, is neither a saint nor a much-loved hero.
There are an increasing number of voices and social-media posts, especially, that assert he was not a genuine hero and condemn him as a sell-out. No doubt some African people, including some “born-frees”, have deep seated issues with the Mandela legacy and what he represents.
It will be correct to say these people are dragging a suitcase of unresolved issues — especially economic control, monopolisation of wealth, land loss, prejudice and racist discrimination — from one decade to another ever since Mandela was released from prison in 1990.
What makes this an old question is perhaps a continuity of the controversy and acrimony that goes back to the breakaway of the Pan-Africanist Congress around the Freedom Charter and how it was drawn.
Today, the disenchantment with Mandela’s legacy revolves around the perceived failure to implement the “redistribution of wealth” policy at a subtle level. This is, largely, seen as having resulted in the creation of a tiny self-serving black elite with political connection.
Every time you raise a point about Mandela’s legacy among the political conscious, you are most likely to generate a backlash that leaves no room for discussion except to dismiss him as “a tool of white capitalism” and to condemn you as an apologist for white economic domination and control.
Those with ears to hear will tell you that this view of Mandela is a rising political crescendo, especially from self-styled new age radical leftists. But what is the meaning of openly condemning Mandela 20 years into democracy and freedom?
After all we have been through in this country — especially from the moment Mandela walked out of prison in 1990 to when he was inaugurated as the first president of a democratically elected president — it is foolish and, in any case, useless to accuse a dead man of being a sell-out.
Obviously when he was alive this was a whisper in the deep with some doubting Thomases questioning that he was still the same man who was sentenced to life imprisonment in the early 1963.
But we should be concerned at these self-appointed, new-age revolutionaries with the impulse to make old and tired allegations.
This business of banding insults and hatred for Mandela’s legacy for the results of what happened in Kempton Park poisons and threatens to destroy a proud heritage.
Perhaps with hindsight we can acknowledge that some of the decisions taken then, especially regarding the economy and land, were ill-advised and decidedly short-changed African aspirations for justice, at the time.
But there is no doubt that when Mandela made these concessions, he was not working alone but with a group of leaders guided by collective decision-making and responsibility.
Presumably, they not only had to take stock of the state of the economy and fragile race relations but consider global power shifts that saw the ascendancy of capitalist power as epitomised by the Washington Consensus following the collapse of communism.
Significantly, there is no doubt that through Mandela’s “imperfect” economic decisions taken then, we avoided a self-destructive blood bath that would have reduced this country to a wasteland.
There are no winners in war.
Instead we emerged as the toast of the world.
There is no reason for any rational person to believe that the Kempton Park compromise was an end in itself. That would have meant perpetuating economic inequality, dispossession, land loss and anti-black racial prejudice. Much as he was out of touch for 27 years in prison, Mandela should have been aware of that.
Rather, his approach was a means to an end.
What he envisaged was inheriting an unjust and unequal society that would, ultimately, transform itself into a nation that could resolve its differences through sober and matured discussions. It would be a society committed to equality and justice!
After 20 years, this democracy has enough wise citizens in politics, business, religion and the non-governmental sector for it to correct its wrongs.
Above all, free and fair elections were held and the voice of the people carried the day. We are who we are and where we are because, largely, it is the people themselves who choose their leadership through freedom of political choice.
Thus it is disturbing to find 20, 30 and 40-something year olds who, today, harshly condemn Mandela for being a sell-out. In fact, this is useless and unhelpful to chart the way to a brighter future.
If these negative and self-destructive utterances that parade as new-age radicalism are all we have been teaching and imparted in the last 24 years since Mandela’s release then we are caught in a predictable, immature and monotonous pseudo-revolutionary politics that does nothing for African advancement and development.
Throwing stones at the legacy of dead men is not a revolutionary act, especially when you too benefit and are part of the same establishment of economic inequality, dispossession and land loss.
The predictable pattern of reasoning is for these new-age, self-styled revolutionaries to compare Mandela’s legacy to the presumed integrity of Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko.
In principle, it will always be odious to compare any two people. Worse, much as we appreciate Sobukwe and Biko for their revolutionary insight we don’t know how they would have dealt with the Kempton Park talks or fared in the elections of April 27.
Nobody knows and the dead cannot speak for themselves.
But judging by the behaviour and attitude of some of their peers and contemporaries, certain deductions can be made.
It must be noted and acknowledged that everyone is working within the system, now.
After all, who has innocent hands in this country? Everything that happens here, especially NOW, is a direct result of what citizens do or don’t do. In a stolen land ravaged by injustice and inequality, the onlooker is as equally guilty as the thief, robber barons and politically connected corrupt elite.
There are men who should be hated and condemned but I don’t think rubbishing the legacy of Mandela helps the African struggle for self-determination in any way.
Let us learn to respect the dead for in Africa the dead are not dead. In fact they live in what we, the living, do or don’t do.
Twenty years of democracy and freedom is a watershed moment.
It’s time for everyone, including these self-appointed custodians of the African revolution, to change attitude to our history and heritage and commit to taking collective responsibility for the state of this country with its inherent injustice and inequality.
It is unfair to blame and castigate one man called Mandela for everything.
The challenge, especially for those under 35 years, is to garner the courage to look at the last 25 years with fresh eyes and show their imagination by creating the future they want for their country, for their people, for their children and, above all, for their legacy.
Also, those who have publicly castigated Mandela need to ask forgiveness as we observe the first anniversary of his death.
Perhaps the best way forward is to recognise the interconnecting thread between Sobukwe, Biko and Mandela: African autonomy through self-determination!
It is not enough to shout that Mandela was a sell-out and refuse to engage or open your mind to a new and fresh way of looking at our contemporary history.
Frankly, name-calling and finger-pointing are nothing new nor do they take us forward towards forging African unity.
In fact, anyone who sees economic injustice, dispossession, land loss and racial prejudice sees Mandela’s unfinished business.
The question is: what are you doing to take the struggle for justice and equality forward.
Much as he was not a saint or a perfect man, Mandela played his part. As he said, “the power is in your hands” now.