Faith in democracy is lower among men aged 16-24, at 56 percent, than it is among older men, with 72 percent of those older than 65 believing its the best system, a survey found. File photo: Finbarr O'Reilly

Young radicals should worry less about calling Mandela a sell-out and more about generating their own ideas for the future of SA, writes Xolela Mangcu.

Cape Town - I get very upset when young people castigate Nelson Mandela as a sellout. Last week I gave a talk at the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education on the history of democratic authority under presidents Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, and what it might take to re-imagine authority in local communities.

This was based on a sociology honours course I taught a couple of years ago in which I used Max Weber’s tripartite concept of authority to analyze these three leaders as preponderantly charismatic, rational-legal and praebendal.

What concerned me is how some of the younger more radical participants kept on describing Mandela as a sell-out.

Forgive me but I just do not understand how a man who gave up a successful legal practice and left his beautiful wife and two young girls to spend 27 years in a jail cell gets to be called a sell-out.

I attribute this to a lack of empathy for past struggles. It is also the result of a failure to properly narrate our struggle as part of our collective identity.

It is ironic that it was under a black government that the teaching of history was disallowed in our schools, even as the president, Thabo Mbeki, trumpeted an African renaissance.

My advice to those who call Mandela a sellout is similar to the one Chinua Achebe gave us when he came to deliver the Steve Biko Memorial Lecture in 2002. Achebe implored South Africans not to worry too much about Biko.

“Biko is alright where he is, it is yourselves you must worry about.” Similarly, young radicals should worry less about Mandela and more about generating their own ideas for the future of this country. You may disagree with Mandela, as I did, but to call him a sellout is to call him an askari, and that is a cruel thing to do.

And that brings me to the last part of my medley. In this past week I also participated in a discussion on democracy hosted by the Brenthurst Foundation in Cape Town.

I submitted that the post-1994 advent of political parties have colonised black communities and in the process led to what organisational theorists call institutional isomorphism.

As Robert Michels observed 100 years ago, political parties of whatever stripe have an in-built tendency to become oligarchies.

In our case party oligarchs have also become community oligarchs. Hence the violence between different types of oligarchs vying to capture whatever remains of the state, or to protect whatever they have already cornered for themselves.

Student movements such as #RhodesMustFall have broken the mould but it remains to be seen how long they will be harbingers of a new institutional life, in the way that the Black Consciousness movement did in the 1970s. In order to do so they will have to study different models of institution building in the black community.

Listening to political parties you would be forgiven for thinking black political constitutionalism started only in 1994, when in fact it goes as far back as 1850. By expanding the horizon of what we know about black constitutional thought, we can also expand our institutional imagination.

Like Walter Rubusana and Pixley Seme we could have a national convention of like-minded people across the party political divide to address the one problem that is common to all of us - the education of our children.

The students of these movements could be troopers in such an initiative, just like Biko did and he was only 21 years old when he started these processes.

By the end of it he had changed the imagination of an entire generation.

He did this by putting his ideas down on paper and institutionalising them through various research institutes and community projects.

Most importantly, he realised that the life of any community rests beyond its political formations.

The movement even published a document called Creativity and Development to bring this point.

It is indeed a pity that the institutions that have played this intellectual midwifery have been found lacking in this regard.

Where they were once a staging platform for rebels with a cause, their senses are deadened by a technocratic managerialism that has failed to capture the promise of the new student movements.

The great historian, Eric Hobsbawm, characterised the relationship between the past, the present and the future as follows: what I have just said belongs in the past, what I am about to say belongs in the future.

Between those two points is the notional point we call the present.

Making sense of our present requires the kind of institutions that will enable us to remember the past but also imagine the future.

That is what I took from the Firebird.

* Mangcu is Professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town and 2015 Harry Oppenheimer Fellow

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

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