Noth­ing in the ar­ti­fi­cial world that Madiba cre­ated gave whites who were close to him the abil­ity to ex­plore the

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L et me be­gin by way of full dis­clo­sure.

This is one of the most chal­leng­ing pieces I have had to write. That is what hap­pens when one’s duty to a broader pub­lic tran­scends per­sonal bonds.

This is not the first time I re­luc­tantly write to crit­i­cise a friend, or some­one with whom I have some kind of per­sonal con­nec­tion.

One of the most dif­fi­cult ar­ti­cles of my ca­reer was penned when Steve Tsh­wete ac­cused Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa of plot­ting to over­throw Pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki. I had grown up know­ing and ad­mir­ing Tsh­wete in King Wil­liam’s Town, East­ern Cape.

I had to do the same with Smuts Ngonyama, whose rugby kit­bag I car­ried as a boy in Gins­berg. So, thank you, Zelda la Grange, for putting me on the spot, my friend.

Oh no, I am not run­ning away from you be­cause of your ill-con­sid­ered rant. I be­lieve your re­marks speak to some­thing that I of­ten com­plained about when Nel­son Man­dela was alive. In a cou­ple of ar­ti­cles, which were put on the Nel­son Man­dela web­site, I wrote that in his de­sire to bring about a sta­ble tran­si­tion to democ­racy, Madiba pre­sented an “overly gen­er­ous read­ing of the racial sit­u­a­tion in this coun­try”.

As part of his sym­bolic lead­er­ship, he cre­ated around him­self a model of black-white re­la­tions that was far from the re­al­ity of race re­la­tions in broader so­ci­ety. In that re­spect, he may have over­es­ti­mated his ca­pac­ity to change at­ti­tudes that have been con­cre­tised over cen­turies. No sin­gle in­di­vid­ual could achieve such a feat – not even Man­dela.

He also cre­ated an ar­ti­fi­cial world for the hand­ful of whites in his cir­cle. And that is the bub­ble in which in­di­vid­u­als such as Zelda op­er­ated.

It would not be sur­pris­ing that those whites close to him never de­vel­oped the dis­cur­sive and id­iomatic ca­pac­ity to en­gage in the rough and tum­ble of racial pol­i­tics out­side of the bub­ble, and ex­plore the com­plex­i­ties of race in every­day life. When she tried to weigh in on the most net­tle­some topic in the his­tory of our coun­try – race – Zelda fell short be­cause noth­ing in the ar­ti­fi­cial world that Madiba cre­ated pre­pared her for this.

But Zelda is not alone. Not long ago the jour­nal­ist and pro­ducer of the movie In­vic­tus, John Car­lin, wrote that the

com­plex­i­ties of race black ex­pe­ri­ence un­der apartheid was not that dis­tinct after all, and that as a poor white, he “en­dured much the same hard­ship and dis­crim­i­na­tion as the most un­for­tu­nate of his com­pa­tri­ots”. I sup­pose that is what hav­ing the rights to Man­dela’s story gave him – a sense of en­ti­tle­ment to an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the en­tire black ex­pe­ri­ence. Ques­tion him about the racism in all of that, and he will tell you Man­dela was his friend.

This is the new cho­rus among many white South Africans for whom his­tory and pol­i­tics are writ­ten in short­hand. The short­hand is that black peo­ple should stop talk­ing about race be­cause Nel­son Man­dela told them to. In this, they for­get that Madiba was not a god who had the fi­nal word on in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the racial ex­pe­ri­ence in this coun­try.

De­bates about race are not new in the black com­mu­nity, and Madiba rep­re­sented only one side of them. The his­to­rian Phil Bon­ner de­scribes the his­tory of th­ese de­bates as “a re­cur­rent trope in South African re­sis­tance his­tory ... This ten­sion will prob­a­bly al­ways be with us: even when the one po­lit­i­cal tra­di­tion gains the as­cen­dancy, the other lurks with less pub­lic pro­file be­low.”

At one point, Madiba him­self was not to the lik­ing of many white peo­ple in this coun­try. Dis­tin­guished an­thro­pol­o­gist Archie Mafeje de­scribed the young Man­dela as “u-nkomo iyahlaba” (a rag­ing bull) be­cause of his mil­i­tancy. It was only much later in the 1950s that Man­dela came to ac­cept col­lab­o­rat­ing with mem­bers of other groups, par­tic­u­larly white com­mu­nists and In­di­ans, and it was much later still that he be­came the face of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

In short, those of us who do not have short mem­o­ries re­mem­ber that he was bran­dished as evil in­car­nate in white so­ci­ety. And now, rather mirac­u­lously, he is uni­ver­sally loved be­cause his mes­sage of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion could be twisted into an in­stru­ment of si­lenc­ing black peo­ple from speak­ing about their racial ex­pe­ri­ences.

Thus the irony of a Man­dela who is loved more than the black peo­ple for whom he spent all those years in prison.

Un­less and un­til white South Africans are ex­posed to the di­ver­sity of the nar­ra­tives of race out­side those of­fered by Madiba, they will con­tinue with the short­hand of racial pol­i­tics that con­tin­ues to of­fend black peo­ple. In so do­ing, they will stoke the fires of what James Bald­win called “the fire next time”.

The chal­lenge is to en­gage with the other ways of think­ing about race that “lurk with less pub­lic pro­file be­low”. Th­ese ways of think­ing can be help­ful in build­ing mu­tu­ally re­spect­ful re­la­tion­ships be­tween black and white peo­ple.

But I am also afraid that th­ese ten­sions will blow up in our faces sooner than we think. Be­cause I live and work in white spa­ces, I feel the resur­gence of white supremacy daily. I also feel the anger welling up with a fright­en­ing in­ten­sity in the black com­mu­nity with each racist ut­ter­ance and slight.

We owe it to all of our chil­dren to fore­stall those out­comes by ques­tion­ing the ef­fect of our words. Iron­i­cally, we do well to re­mem­ber Madiba’s own ob­ser­va­tion that words can be just as deadly as guns.

As your friend, Zel­d­ina, I would be the first one to for­give you. But mine would not be Madiba’s kind of for­give­ness. It would be Steve Biko’s kind. Biko’s friend Aelred Stubbs de­scribed it as fol­lows: “And at the very heart of this man’s life was the qual­ity of com­pas­sion – not the emas­cu­lated word of white so­ci­ety with its pa­ter­nal­is­tic con­no­ta­tion of ‘feel­ing sorry’ for some­one in a worse sit­u­a­tion than your­self, but the ‘suf­fer­ing with’ that is the word’s true mean­ing. Steve ex­tended this com­pas­sion not only to his fel­low blacks, but also to whites whom he came to know.”

This is not for­give­ness as carte blanche, but for­give­ness that asks the ques­tion Madiba never asked: how will you re­cip­ro­cate my com­pas­sion to you? And if black peo­ple ex­tend their com­pas­sion as they have done all th­ese years, what will white South Africans give back?

If the an­swer is noth­ing, then I am afraid there will be no way of dous­ing the flames of “the fire next time”.

In short, we can all ei­ther be stupid and think about our short-term in­ter­ests or treat Zelda’s outburst as a teach­able mo­ment that takes us beyond the fa­mil­iar short­hand to en­gage se­ri­ously with each other about what it will take to build a col­lec­tive fu­ture for all our chil­dren. And that will be­gin with ex­plor­ing the black world beyond the bub­ble cre­ated by our beloved Madiba.

Mangcu is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cape Town

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