Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaking at the Nelson Mandela Tribute. Picture: Dimpho Maja/African News Agency (ANA)

Johannesburg - Renowned African author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has urged South Africans to be cognisant of the immortality of revered figures like Nelson Mandela, and understand the significant role they played in the context of the historical times in which they were thrust.

Speaking at the Nelson Mandela Tribute in Johannesburg on Thursday night, Ngozi Adichie said that the world should not have selective amnesia when it comes to remembering iconic people like Nelson Mandela because they were multi-layered and complex individuals. 

Ngozi Adichie said that memory was a complicated, "utterly subjective beast", also questioning the relationship between memory and truth.

"What I've learnt is that we do not want to hear the truths that we do not like. In Mandela's writings, he refers to himself as a sinner who keeps on trying. The premise of oppression is to dehumanise. When the response is to dehumanise back, then you go backwards," Ngozi Adichie said. 

"I think humanising him, acknowledging that he wasn't perfect, isn't denigrating him. When we do that, we realise that there's a lot that we ourselves can do. It seems like everyone tries to own him. Some have turned him into a sanitised glass urn. Others really engage with who he was and what he thought."

The Nelson Mandela Tribute: A conversation that will speak to the significance of Memory and why we remember? was hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation as part of the remembrance period to mark five years since the passing of South Africa's first democratic president. The event looked at how histories have shaped the imagination of the future.

Ngozi Adichie said that people need to engage critically against historical figures like Mandela and not be simplistic in their analysis about the roles that they played in shaping history and the future, also urging the youth to start taking ownership in shaping their own histories. 

"There are young people who say that you can't like Mandela now. He sold out. I think that's simplistic. It's important to understand that moral figures are also human. We know that humans are not perfect and yet we expect perfection. If we were perfect there would be no stories. It is our flaws, imperfections and striving to be better that gives texture to stories," she said.

"Our history was invented for us. It's time for us to reclaim it. I went to a very good school in Nigeria, but I knew very little about Nigerian history. I knew a lot more about the kings and queens of England. Who defines the ‘accepted norm’? It’s about owning who you are and knowing that who you are is enough." 

Sello Hatang, chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said memories, such as Mandela's memory, should not focus on public acts but should serve as a foundation for social justice. 

"We serve by not just thinking of the past, but of the battles that lie ahead," Hatang said.

African News Agency/ANA