Johannesburg - When the Democratic Alliance recently revealed an image of Nelson Mandela and activist Helen Suzman embracing, with a tag line “we played our part in opposing apartheid,” the ANC turned on Helen Zille.
Leaders of the ANC and its alliance partners Cosatu and the SA Communist Party used this year’s Workers Day to strongly rebuke the DA for its “Know your DA” election campaign.
Deputy Public Works Minister Jeremy Cronin, who is also an SACP leader, went so far as accusing the DA of trying to “steal” their heroes.
Zille responded by saying that Mandela belonged to all South Africans, irrespective of their political persuasions.
So important was the Mandela brand, even in retirement, that the opposition party was accused of trying to appropriate struggle credentials to attract black voters.
The ANC knows too well the political capital and mileage that an organisation can get using the name Mandela.
After all, it was the “Free Mandela” campaign, started in the 1960s, that laid the foundation for the democratic breakthrough in 1994.
The campaign, conceived by Mandela’s friend, Ahmed Kathrada, made Mandela the world’s most popular political prisoner.
As we laid Mandela to rest last week, the question that arises is how far political parties, in particular the ANC and DA, will use the Mandela name to stay relevant to citizens in the run up to the elections next year and beyond.
And, how will the ANC now survive without Mandela?
Some have suggested that Mandela’s death has left an emotional residue that could trigger voters’ nostalgic attachment to Africa’s oldest liberation movement.
Although he withdrew from public life in June 2004, the ANC continued to enjoy legitimacy through the global icon’s work and endorsement. When the ruling party was faced with the biggest threat to its power and hegemony post 1994 with the formation of the splinter group Cope, it unleashed Mandela.
A frail Mandela attended an ANC election rally in his home province of the Eastern Cape in February 2009, in a move criticised by the party’s opponents as dragging an aged statesman into its electioneering.
The opposition knew the value of Mandela’s appearance at that rally, during a time when the ANC was scared of losing power.
It was to be expected that the ANC would get a lot of attention from Madiba’s death.
The former statesman rightfully remains the product of the ANC, the political force that dismantled apartheid and brought the people of South Africa freedom.
In his mid-twenties in the 1940s, Mandela was one of the founding members of the ANC Youth League, an organisation that made the ANC radical in its campaign against the apartheid government.
Thanks to his prowess in organising, he was appointed the volunteer-in-chief of the Defiance Campaign, which planted the seed for the destruction of the separatist regime.
It was therefore no accident of history that Mandela was elected the ANC president in 1991.
His consciousness was shaped by the ANC and the SACP.
He belongs to the ANC, although he endeared himself to billions of people around the world.
The SACP has already condemned what it calls a deliberate attempt to alienate Mandela from it and the ANC.
“It is this movement that fought for the release and liberation of Madiba and many others from jail, defeated apartheid, and campaigned for Madiba to become the founding president of our democratic transition,” SACP spokesman Alex Mashilo and party members Bhekithemba Mbatha and Tom Mhlanga wrote this week in Umsebenzi, the party’s online newsletter.
“The agenda not to recognise and profile Madiba as a product of the ANC, the alliance and indeed our broader national liberation movement, and provide these formations a well-deserved, sufficient space in the media on the life and times of Madiba, is not innocent,” they added.
But in using Madiba’s name for whatever purpose, including for electioneering, the ANC and the DA ought to represent what he stood for.
Former president Thabo Mbeki warned against political parties using Mandela’s name for narrow partisan objectives.
In an interview with The Sunday Independent, Mbeki said those who used Mandela’s name should also emulate his principles and values.
“But it shouldn’t be so much the person that the people should want to own as what the person stood for. So I think once you do that, you say, this belongs to me,” he said.
“It must therefore also be a commitment, if you make a claim like that, this must also be a commitment to do the things that you admire so much, as a result of which you claim to own the person.
“You also must say his policies are ours, and answer the question what are we doing to pursue those policies,” he added.
Already, some ANC members were told to vote for the ANC to honour Mandela. The ANC in the North West drew from the power of the Mandela name to win back the troubled Tlokwe council during by-elections this week. Its campaign theme was “do it for Mandela.”
But will it work everywhere?
Political analyst Somadoda Fikeni says the ANC of today will have to do things differently to walk in Mandela’s footsteps.
“Advantage will not just fall on them because Mandela has died precisely because in some instances people will read and be reminded of Madiba and the values he led. If they don’t reflect on the current leadership then the very legacy will haunt them instead of assisting them,” he said.
“They will have to do something to approximate Madiba’s legacy rather than to sit and hope that his death will automatically rub off on them,” he added.
Fikeni said the ANC should use Mandela’s death to do serious introspection or “it could be worse if the trend continues as it is”.
He said the ANC, admittedly, had lost its moral authority due to factionalism and allegations of corruption against some of its leaders.
President Jacob Zuma got a taste of the internal strife when he was booed and jeered in front of more than 90 heads of state during Mandela’s memorial service, an event billed as the biggest in the history of mankind.
Zuma’s spokesman, Mac Maharaj, dismissed it as a minor incident. But the ANC was livid about the booing. Its spokesman, Jackson Mthembu, told local and international media how some rogue elements in the crowd had disrespected Zuma.
“We have not seen this kind of disrespect for Zuma. It was not only for Zuma but also Madiba. You can’t hijack such a sombre activity. You can’t use this platform to politicise it,” he said.
Mthembu said the party did not mind people expressing their unhappiness with the ANC.
“What we are worried about is a deliberate plan to embarrass the president of the ANC,” he said.
The ANC couldn’t have expected to be embarrassed at a Mandela event, a send-off of a man who has brought so much shine to it.
Now ANC leaders in Gauteng, who are the prime suspects behind the booing, want the incident to be investigated.
An event like Mandela’s memorial service was suppose to give the ANC mileage, especially going to the elections.
But as things turned out, Zuma’s booing, notwithstanding the fact that he was not drowned out, became a major story.
As Mbeki observed, Mandela’s death represents the end of an era “represented by the heroic deeds of his generation”.
The challenge to leadership of the ANC is to see whether they will be able to nudge South Africa closer to achieving Mandela’s ideal of a “democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities”.
Failure to do this could see other parties, as Cronin put it, “steal” Mandela’s ideal to remove the ANC from power for the former president “now belongs to the ages”.