Blaming Mandela is easy, but be careful

Care must be taken to avoid easy extremes, where Mandela is seen either as an unmitigated villain or a total saint. To view him thus is to pluck Mandela out of the context, the history, the experiences and the people who formed him, says the writer. Picture: Independent Archives

Care must be taken to avoid easy extremes, where Mandela is seen either as an unmitigated villain or a total saint. To view him thus is to pluck Mandela out of the context, the history, the experiences and the people who formed him, says the writer. Picture: Independent Archives

Published Mar 25, 2018


During a panel discussion on whether Mandela’s government set us for failure on Wednesday, Sello Hatang urged us to remember that Mandela and the ANC inherited a government that was akin to a “sick and dying patient”.

The chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation might as well have been talking about Cyril Ramaphosa.

Hasn’t Ramaphosa inherited a fractured ANC and a largely discredited administration? So far, he has done a great job of stitching and patching it all up. It has been suggested by some that Ramaphosa may be the most Mandela-like president the ANC has had since Madiba himself. Time will tell.

Ramaphosa must still deal with the tide of vicious criticism of Mandela that has been rising over the past few years. Those who were either too young or not yet born in 1994 have been asking difficult questions about the 1994 political settlement. And rightfully so, because they will inherit a heap of unfulfilled promises.

Similarly, those who were doubting Thomases all along and those who had reluctantly given Mandela the benefit of the doubt, have been clearing their throats, pointing a finger in the air and beginning to say: “Listen here!”

Nearly 30 years since Mandela walked out of prison, South Africans have every right to unburden themselves of everything that has happened to them and to their country.

The further we move away from December 2013 when Mandela died, it seems that more and more South Africans are feeling free to speak up without fearing the accusation of being disrespectful.

We present a sample of some of the main themes in the emerging critique of Mandela and his legacy.

Panashe Chigumadzi has written about how the “respectability politics” of her parents’ generation have been throttling the oxygen out of the younger generation, causing untold frustration.

Part of the methodology of “respectability politics” is to make the name, person and legacy of Mandela a no-go area for inquiry or critique.

She reckons that the aim of “respectability politics” is short-term self-preservation - both materially and psychologically. Proponents of this genre of politics seek to preserve the “little” they have become since 1994. Over the past few years, several South Africans have entered the fray. In his documentary, Nelson Mandela: The myth and me, Khalo Matabane seeks to deconstruct the myth of Mandela, brick by brick. To do this, he uses carefully selected commentary plus a series of hard questions contained in imaginary letters addressed to “Tata Mandela”.

Malaika Lesego Samora Mahlatsi does a similar thing in her book, Memoirs of a Born Free.

An even more scintillating and slightly more comprehensive attempt to tackle the myths upon which the new South Africa is based, beyond the personage of Mandela, is Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh’s Democracy and Delusion.

During the question-and-answer session after his (in)famous address to the Oxford Student Union in November 2015, Julius Malema launched one of the vilest critiques of Mandela in recent times. He suggested that, following his divorce from Winnie, Mandela was virtually stage-managed by rich white men so that he “compromised the fundamental principles of the revolution.”

In the middle of his rather long soliloquy, Malema suddenly seemed to recognise that he may have gone too far. So he started to publicly reprimand himself and his interlocutor, saying: “We normally don’t use those phrases like ‘Mandela sold out’, we are being too harsh, man.

“He was too old. He was tired. So he had to give in on some of the things. So, he left it to us We have to take it up where Madiba left it.” But the damage was done. Once that genie was out of the bottle, it could not be put back in. The following day, the headlines screamed: “Malema calls Mandela a sell-out.”

For all the negativity that ensued in the acrimonious debates that followed Malema’s Oxford outburst, these discussions helped to further destigmatise, albeit inadvertently, the critique of Mandela.

Panellists at the Mandela debate event at the Apartheid Museum were political economist Lebohang Pheko, journalist Karima Brown and Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh. While cautioning against a narrative of total vilification of Mandela, and while affirming that there were victories during the past 24 years, Mpofu-Walsh spoke strongly of the need to complicate “the very juvenile narratives that surround Mandela, democracy and the Mandela government”.

For her part, Brown lauded Mandela’s titanic effort in securing peace and stability. “Nelson Mandela left us with a beginning, not an end. 1994 was a beginning, what we choose to do with that beginning, is up to us,” she argued. Pheko placed and tracked the manipulation of memory and history at the centre of what she calls “the sell-out phenomenon”, conducted and performed by the Mandela government and the ANC, in cahoots with imperial and colonial powers as well as global capitalism.

Insisting that Mandela’s legacy is so formidable that it speaks for itself, Hatang nevertheless argued that like all legacies, Mandela’s was always in need of re-imagination.

In our view, the current wave of disillusionment has less to do with Mandela per se and more to do with our unhappiness with the current status quo.

We are one of the most unequal societies in the world. Our unemployment rate stands at 27%. The structure of our economy is still divided along racial lines. Violence against women remains more common than the common cold. On top of this, we have had the arms deal, the Marikana massacre, state capture, “Guptagate”, a costly and non-performing education system, more than 50% of South Africans living in poverty, a bifurcated health sector, the Life Esidimeni “massacre” and school kids dying in pit latrines - to mention but a few.

Somehow, for some people, Mandela has become the shorthand for the genesis of all of them.

We need to take responsibility for our failure to make use of the window of opportunity that was the period between 1994 and 2017.

We have squandered it, but none more so than the ANC, the party that will supposedly “rule until Jesus returns”. Blaming Mandela is easy because he can no longer defend himself or take us to court for defamation. He becomes the object upon which we can project all our fears, failures and hopes. Unfortunately, this also makes him an easy scapegoat and an easy candidate for hero-worshipping.

Mandela has become a symbol of who we once were, who we became and who we would like to become.

Every angry criticism directed at Mandela is also an inverted compliment for Mandela. Every angry word directed at him is also an angry word directed at ourselves.

He has become the ultimate proxy of the combined effort of a nation trying to emerge from a difficult past.

And yet we dare not dismiss those angry voices that shout Mandela down. We dare not ignore the voices of those who are calling for the deconstruction of some of our founding myths.

But we must be careful not to so critique Mandela as to defraud him of his humble contribution and absolve ourselves of all responsibility.

For who is Mandela if not a representation of both our suffering and our hopes? Care must be taken to avoid easy extremes, where Mandela is seen either as an unmitigated villain or a total saint. To view him thus is to pluck Mandela out of the context, the history, the experiences and the people who formed him.

Towards the end of his documentary, Khalo Matabane, reads a letter that captures part of my my main arguments about Mandela’s legacy.

In it, he says: “Tata Mandela, I am not sure that after two years of making this documentary, I understand you, or the choices you made it has occurred to me that perhaps, we will never understand you, that you are our imagination, and that the truth about you, lies in the contradictions”.

* Maluleke is a professor at the University of Pretoria. He is currently a distinguished fellow and visiting professor at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, in the US.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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