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Don’t buy ‘safe’ version of Mandela

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Copy of IOL Mandela and winnie freedom

AP

In this Feb. 11, 1990, file photo Nelson Mandela and his then wife Winnie, walking hand in hand, raise clenched fists upon his release from prison in Cape Town.

Some prefer the image of Mandela, the peacemaker without engaging with why there was no peace in the first place, says Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.

Pretoria - Like lovers in the throes of passion, given to making declarations that they might want to revisit once the momentary fire has died down, South Africans have been repeating as though on autocue, how a wonderful country it would be if everyone followed Nelson Mandela’s example.

As we edge closer to Madiba’s final resting place and come to terms with the loss, it is best that we become honest about why Madiba was so loved by millions and so disappointing to many others in the end.

Mandela became an icon to all those committed to political and social justice because he was prepared to stand up to a wrong even to die “if needs be” as he famously told the judge in the Rivonia Treason Trial.

His was a struggle for basic human rights, not just civil liberties such as where on a bus you can choose to sit.

The trouble with many of those wishing for more Madibas is that they are choosing their own “safe” version of the global icon. They are hoping for the image of a harmless Teddy Bear who just wants everybody to play nicely with other children in the sandpit regardless of the colour of their skin.

They are choosing the image of the reconciler and peacemaker without engaging with why there was no peace in the first place, to say nothing about whether the conditions that prevail today are a guarantee of lasting peace.

Those who paint the picture of Mandela as someone who just wanted people to live together in peace and harmony but leave it there, are implicitly suggesting that Mandela was prepared to die so that he could sit on the same bench or relax on the same beach with whites.

The 67 minutes that businesses and communities spend on the less fortunate than themselves every year on his birthday have contributed to this washed- down version of Mandela.

It is a version aided by those too uncomfortable with the real reasons why Madiba ended spending 67 years in public life and abetted by those who know the truth but choose not to tell it to their children because they want to “leave the past in the past”.

We know though that his struggle was against and for something much more substantial than racial prejudice.

Madiba was not for our comfort.

Black or white.

If we are sincere about wishing to emulate Madiba, we have to ask ourselves some tough questions, the answers to which might just make one not sleep comfortably again.

Lest we forget, Mandela was, before his arrest and incarceration, what today would be called a “black diamond” – a member of the black middle class.

Unlike many of his fellow “clever blacks” then and now, he was prepared to forgo the trappings of that life and take up the cudgels on behalf of his neighbours and millions he did not know.

How many of us – black or white – who enjoy the benefits that he did, can honestly say we would be prepared to, like him, sacrifice our comforts for the greater good of the greatest number?

The denialism that leads to the overcompensation of Mandela as a man who would not hurt a fly also serves to discredit any conversation about how we can resolve the deep-seated inequalities that existed when he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1963 and continued when he left office in 1999.

As Mandela lies in state at the Union Buildings, poverty, disease and ignorance have not caught up with the rainbow nation he cherished. The face of these triple evils continue to be black, particularly rural and female.

To feel inspired by Mandela’s example we must first ask the source of these and then the more difficult question: what we are willing to do about it?

That question invariably demands that we ask ourselves what it is we are willing to give up to correct that injustice, if we indeed see it as such.

The watered-down image of Mandela is an affront to memory.

It demands that we unknow what we know that when it was necessary Madiba enlisted his name as volunteer-in-chief in the Defiance Campaign of 1952 and again put his name first when it was resolved the armed struggle would be the principal form of resistance to apartheid after the mowing down of the people of Sharpeville in 1960.

Those who believe Mandela sold out by negotiating an end to apartheid rule instead of a shoot-out on the stairs of the Union Buildings, must consider these facts. They must also ask themselves whether the route South Africa was on, of bloodletting and routinely sacrificing the lives of young people, was sustainable.

If we are serious about Mandela’s example we must not pick and choose versions of him that appeal to our sensibilities and pretend everything else does not exist.

By ignoring or downplaying the real Mandela in return for the Disneyworld version, we run the risk of not only distorting and dishonouring his memory, but also making naught of his struggle and sacrifice.

* Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is executive editor of Pretoria News.

Pretoria News


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