Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive Sello Hatang. File picture: Chris Collingridge

Durban –  The head of the Nelson Mandela Foundation has spoken out against the dangers of hagiography –  the uncritical remembering of the lives of leaders.

Sello Hatang, chief executive of the foundation, was speaking at the annual Mahatma Gandhi Media Lecture at the Durban University of Technology on Wednesday night. The event  also served as a tribute to the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

“Sometimes in freezing history we lose it. We must be nuanced in trying to tell the real and complex story,” he said, referring to Madikizela-Mandela, a woman widely regarded as the Mother of the Nation in South Africa, but also a divisive figure in some quarters.

Madikizela-Mandela’s April 2 death has reginitied old debates in the media about her life and legacy, with some commentators sparking anger by focusing on her links to human rights violations in Soweto in the 1980s and sometimes incendiary statements during the height of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

Hatang, who has headed the foundation since 2013, remarked on how the history of the American civil rights movement had in part come to be been as sanitised. He said its leaders, like Martin Luther King, were now sometimes wrongly been portrayed as appeasers. That distorted history was then used against the current activist movement, Black Lives Matter, he said.

Similarly, said Hatang, his personal memories of Madikizela-Mandela were not only of a fighter and a revolutionary, but of a deeply compassionate woman, a mother, a wife.

He told of her heartfelt and unheralded efforts to help the parents of a Wits University student who went missing.

Hatang reminded an audience of more than 200 that Madikizela-Mandela was tortured and kept in solitary confinement for 491 days, yet remained courageous. She was tossed into a rough life by the husband she chose as well as her commitment to the liberation struggle, he said, quoting from prison letters exchanged between Nelson Mandela and Madikizela-Mandela.

“I want her to be remembered as human being,” he said.

Hatang noted that some like to portray Mandela as a pacifist, but that was not borne out by history.

In a similar vein he reminded the audience that although Mandela was remembered for quotes like “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”, his cabinet did serious harm to the country’s education system.

He warned against simplifying history. “Judge the person as a whole. All of us are complicated human beings,” said Hatang.

The lecture, which was co-hosted by the Durban University of Technology and the Gandhi Development Trust, also touched on Gandhi and some of the racist views the Indian icon expressed in his earlier days as a lawyer in South Africa. But Gandhi emerged from his time in the country – thanks to black South Africans – as the great activist, said Hatang.

In turn, Gandhi would influence the thinking of Mandela and King Junior.

Filmmaker Anant Singh, who was also at the lecture, spoke about how he had gotten to know Madikizela-Mandela over the years, including during the making of the Mandela biopic and love story, Long Walk to Freedom.

Singh, who remembered Madikizela-Mandela as “hugely inspirational” and having an “amazing sense of humour”, showed a short film on Madikizela-Mandela’s life.

The film was the product of a recent interview.” She had a remarkable memory,” said Singh.

The short film was screened for the first time on Constitutional Hill on Monday.

Madikizela-Mandela's official memorial service was held at Soweto’s Orlando Stadium on Wednesday. 

African News Agency/ANA