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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.


  • Louise is a freelance journalist and writer living in Johannesburg. She is particularly interested in topics surrounding social justice and gender rights. She's on Twitter as @frrlou.


  1. Willem De Jager Willem De Jager 30 October 2015

    I fully agree. The spirit of Mandela invoked by some whites in order to tell black protesters how to behave, is one that mainly existed in the American mainstream media thousands of miles removed from reality. Mandela after all did what Mandela would do, which is to quietly condone the actions during the two presidential terms subsequent to his, that paved the way for the current era.

  2. MrK001 MrK001 31 October 2015

    When is anyone at MnG or Thoughtleader going to report that this week over 40,000 people in red berets and red shirts showed up at the nation’s biggest financial institutions – the Reserve Bank, the Chamber of the Mines and the JSE.

    This is the list of demands they presented:

    To the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, we demand the following:

    1. All companies in the JSE should move towards socialization of their ownership,
    meaning that they should give real and meaningful shares to their
    employees, who will in turn receive dividends at the end of each
    financial year. A minimum of 51% of all JSE companies should be owned and controlled by workers. This is different from the BEE schemes which empower fewer individuals.

    2. All companies represented in the JSE must introduce a minimum wage of R4500 for all their workers, and taking into consideration the sectoral minimum wages contained in the EFF Elections Manifesto, which are: Mineworkers: R12 500 per month, Farm workers: R5000 per month, Manufacturing workers: R6500, Retail Workers (Cashiers and Retail Store Assistants): R5000, Builders: R7000, Petrol Attendants: R5000, Cleaners: R4500, Domestic Workers: R4500, Private Security Guards: R7500, Full time Waiters and Waitresses: R4500

    3. All companies in the JSE should ban labour brokers, and permanently employ their workers with proper medical aid and retirement benefits.

    4. All JSE companies and all companies in South Africa should implement the principle of equal work for equal pay for all workers irrespective of race, class and background.

    5. All companies and corporations that have majority of its businesses in South Africa should have the primary listing in the JSE and their Head Offices in South Africa.

    6. All companies in the JSE must procure the upstream and downstream goods and services from township and rural based economic role players owned by historically disadvantaged individuals.

    7. All the retail stores in the JSE should source a minimum of 70% of their goods and services from South African producers,
    particularly food, confectionery, beverages, textile, leather,
    furniture, plastic, and many other basic products that are traded in
    South Africa.

    8. Urgent action plans and programmes from all companies and corporations in the JSE on how to increase and sustain the labour-absorptive capacity
    of their companies. Thoroughly drafted human resources, skills
    transfer, and training and education provision with sustainable care
    programmes should accompany this.

    9. Each and every company in the JSE should adopt a minimum of 5 schools
    in townships and rural areas and make that each adopted school has
    access to quality services, including computer labs, laboratories,
    libraries and access to high speed internet.

    10. Each and every listed company with the total turnover of R1 billion and above should adopt one of the Technical, Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Colleges and assist with all the basic necessities of a TVET college.

    11. Each and every company in the JSE should adopt a minimum of 100 students
    and assist with their higher education and training programmes and
    bursaries from registration, tuition, residence, food, books, and
    transport money for their adopted students.

    12. All companies in the JSE should make massive investments in all parts of South Africa with the aim of decentralizing economic activities and industrial programmes to all parts of the country.

    13. Urgent action plans on how to decentralize South Africa’s economic development from the existing centers of economic development to other parts of the country.

    14. Urgent development and implementation of Corporate Social Investment Plans, which will bring real value and benefits to communities where business operations happen.

    15. All JSE companies should have all their trading bank accounts with South African banks and should be willing to be subjected to scrutiny on illicit financial flows, transfer pricing and profit shifting.

    16. End to expatriation of profits to developed countries, and mandate all companies and corporations to declare publicly transactions between subsidiaries in details for the tax authorities to access necessary information to collect maximum tax due to public purse.

    17. All JSE companies should commit to usage of South African based professional services, such as those for auditing, accounting, legal, marketing and all other basic services.

  3. Too Black Too Black 3 November 2015

    Many people will say the EFF has shifted from reality, but what the EFF is saying is the reality. This is one of the ways we can ensure a maximum participation of all citizens of the country, an economy centralized only in SANDTON, Midrand and PTA is exclusive to some people and that needs to be corrected.

  4. Elizabeth Nel Elizabeth Nel 3 November 2015

    And what is the government going to do? Are we all going to pay zero tax now that all the listed companies have become welfare organisations? This is all very well in Lala Land, but in the real world, the money has to come from somewhere. If the anc were not so completely corrupt and manic in their greed and incompetence, we would not be in the mess we are in. There is more than enough money from our income tax to make things happen. Destroying the private sector will only aggravate a very dismal situation. Disinvestment will rocket, as will unemployment. Anyone with a half a brain cell can figure that these lofty ideals will never work. The masses will fall for it though, and therein lies the tragedy.

  5. TerminalA TerminalA 16 November 2015

    have you driven around sandton and midrand lately….have a little drive around there and let me know how many black people in luxury german cars you spot….i lost count the last time i was in JHB on holiday…

  6. Too Black Too Black 19 November 2015

    Have you driven around alex, diepsloot, emalahleni etc? Have a little drive there and tell me how many black people do you see unemployed, living in shacks with no sanitation and no opportunities. I lost count, and i travel there everyday, as much as i drive through sandton and midrand trust me the luxury cars are a small number compared to the hungry stomachs.

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