Suntosh Pillay
Suntosh Pillay

Did we expect too much from Mandela?

When our Big Five were herded aside a few weeks ago to make space for the visage of our most (only?) loved politician, we began facing daily reminders at every purchase that this country truly is ubiquitously contoured by Nelson Mandela.

How will we even begin to explain who he was to future generations of unborn children? The expansive online archive in his honour, a rare museum dedicated to a living person, and the endless roads, structures, books, prizes, awards, and organisations that bear his name, serve as colossal restatements of an omnipresent brand recognition. “Brandela”, quipped someone.

How will we attempt to describe the atrocities that occurred under apartheid to children born “free” in a world predicated on equality and constitutional democracy? Surely, only a truly empathic understanding of apartheid’s perverse consequences will enable future leaders to fully appreciate Mandela’s appeal. His narrative transcends political affiliations and national boundaries; his appeal is neither narrowly ideological nor divisive. Instead, he is narrated as a reconciliatory figure who did not abuse a new position of power to seek revenge on his opponents. Yet, such revenge would have been easily justified. How does a person embody such generosity of spirit that equips one to forgive and to inspire beyond average human expectations?

As a politician he was inclusive and charismatic; never forgetting to humanise himself, downplaying claims that he’s any saint. But the smitten masses would have none of it. “Our” Madiba, warts and all, was the closest thing to a saint that South Africa could have wished for. And for all the shortcomings our formative years of democracy may have had, at the very least, we were a nation in constant conversation, not chronic civil war.

It is too easy and redundant to sing his praises, so I will stop.

But – and it’s a long, tough, critical pause – as the fault lines in our teenage democracy begin to show, there is also an emerging discourse of disillusionment with the Madiba years. Questions like, “did the black majority sacrifice too much in the name of reconciliation?” or “why hasn’t political power translated into economic power?” or “why didn’t we get education right?” or “did we act too slowly on HIV/Aids in the early years?” and “who knew about the rotten arms deal?” are being asked, loudly in some spaces and in whispers in others.

Is this unfairly bronzing the golden Mandela years? Was the monumental mess handed over by centuries of external and internal colonisation enough of an agenda to wade through?

Undeniably, there was too much to be done when Mandela took the reins; there still remains so much to do. But, almost 20 years later, how can a critical, deeper, sober analysis at the seeds planted in our post-apartheid infancy help move us forward?

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