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One of the most disturbing aspects of how South Africans perceive Nelson Mandela and his role in bringing democracy to this country is the way he is crassly misinterpreted, leading to the serious blemishing of his legacy. It does not matter whether this is done deliberately, unwittingly or merely as a result of deep naivety. The damage continues and it needs to be arrested.

On the one hand we have a significant section of the South African public — mainly white — that has mythologised the image of Mandela, to his chagrin. In this perspective, Mandela is cloaked in all sorts of super-human abilities that have no relevance to reality. Basically, in this view Mandela is the only black South African political leader that needs to be respected and trusted.

This is based on his major and very public role in forging the negotiations that led to democracy. It is futile even to ponder whether Mandela played a critical role in this regard — this is indisputably so. But this overlording of his persona embodies serious problems. For one, it is incredulous and indicative of the shocking reality that many South Africans are just plain ignorant about the history of their own country — especially one that is so contemporary in terms of dealing with issues of merely a decade and a half ago.

It is patently wrong to believe that Mandela invented the notion of “negotiations”. This idea has existed within the black community for decades. The contestation around apartheid was not that black people were hell-bent on destroying and killing whites. In fact, it was the apartheid state that was refusing to negotiate a democratic dispensation. Thus it is a serious fallacy to assert that Mandela uniquely crafted this idea and convinced black people that the path to democracy was through negotiation.

His critical role in that era must not be confused with the genesis of the idea. The problematic fallout from this view of history is that Mandela, the man, is separated from the political ideas of his time and, most ironically, from his own constituency and party. Thus we had the confused view around 1999 that hinged on asking the question “what will happen when Mandela goes?”. This view is even present today and the question posed is “what will happen when Mandela dies?”. Clearly this is a very nebulous understanding of this country.

Mandela led and channelled existing views that already had a very fertile ground within the black community. This is simply because championing negotiations could never have worked if this idea was not already present in society. Thus, the sooner this view is discarded, the better for the whole of society.

The converse view that is ironically related to the one above but is at the extreme end of the spectrum is the notion that Mandela “sold out” black people, which is held by some black people. This crass distortion is also borne out of the serious misperception about his role especially after 1994. Mandela’s role was actually to tread a very thin line between managing the fears of whites and the huge and legitimate expectations of black people, otherwise the country could have imploded.

Granted, one can credibly advance the argument that some segments of the black community feel that Mandela has focused too much on appeasing white opinion at the expense of black needs. But to then move from this premise and claim that he duped black people is seriously unfair and is a very irrational response.

Indeed, one criticism against Mandela that must not be exaggerated is that in his focus on reconciliation he did not effectively manage to link it with the demands of black people. That led to a situation where today this ideas are seen to be totally separate, whereas they feed on each other — no true reconciliation can ever succeed without uprooting the problems of the past. Thus we have many South Africans who think that all that matters in this country is the so-called rainbow nation that does not even pretend to understand the problems of this country and the equally strange reaction that asserts that nothing has changed since 1994.

In summary, both views — the uncritical consideration of Mandela that construes him as a unique human being almost saint-like, and the equally problematic dismissal of Mandela as a Judas who betrayed the black community — must be resolutely refuted for this society to being to engage his true worth to South Africa.


  • Dr Thabisi Hoeane is a lecturer at the Rhodes University Department of Political and International Studies. His research interests include African and South African politics, democratisation, ethinicity and identity politics, politics of emerging democracies.


Thabisi Hoeane

Dr Thabisi Hoeane is a lecturer at the Rhodes University Department of Political and International Studies. His research interests include African and South African politics, democratisation, ethinicity...

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