Mandela’s legacy is intact
Last Saturday’s Cosatu rally in Durban was supposed to have been about celebrating the federation’s 30th year of existence. It was meant to be about saluting the organisation’s founding generation and paying tribute to the achievements it had chalked up.
But perhaps as a sign of the times, things got derailed. It became a platform to defend the legacy of a 95-year-old icon who had departed from our planet two years ago and to trash the behaviour of a 34-year-old leader who is still very much with us.
Leaders of the ANC alliance took turns to harangue Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema for questioning Nelson Mandela’s legacy on a recent lecture tour in London.
Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini wagged a finger at naughty Malema and said: “Shame on these children that do not respect the elders ... Shame on these children that can undermine all of us in this country and call him [Mandela] a sellout. Shame on you, Julius.”
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa castigated “peacetime revolutionaries” who “know nothing about the struggle”.
“Nelson Mandela was not a sellout. He never sold out. Nelson Mandela stayed in prison for 27 painful years because he wouldn’t sell out. Nelson Mandela was a hero of our revolution,” a reportedly angry Ramaphosa told the crowd.
The SA Communist Party’s Blade Nzimande chimed in, accusing the EFF of populism and gambling with the revolution.
The three leaders were adding to a chorus of condemnation of Malema since he made the remarks three weeks ago. Politicians, family members and friends have been climbing on their soapboxes to pronounce that Mandela was not a sellout.
It is the strangest thing, this clamour to defend the legacy of a man who needs no defending. No amount of invective aimed at Mandela can tarnish his record or overwhelm the deluge of tributes he received in life and at the time of his death. His is not a contested legacy.
All the same, we should not shy away from questioning some decisions he took, omissions he made and the policy directions he took us in.
Let’s take the fight against HIV/Aids, for instance. By his own admission, Mandela’s administration woke up late to the enormity of the Aids scourge that was already facing the country when the ANC took power in 1994.
Mostly focused on establishing a new state and rolling out services the majority had been deprived of in the past, Mandela’s government failed to apply an urgency to the pandemic and slow it down. It received attention, but not quite the priority status it deserved.
By the time South Africa embarked on massive prevention programmes in the early 2000s, much damage had been done. Mandela, who had left office in 1999, had by now made HIV/Aids one of his biggest post-presidency campaigns. He never shied away from saying “we could have done more” in his years in office.
And what of the “sellout” label that is being bandied about? What of the notion gaining currency that the agreement that brought about the 1994 democracy was a sellout deal and is responsible for racially defined economic inequality and largely unchained economic structure. It is obviously silly and ahistorical.
The deal, which was sealed in the dying days of 1993, was largely a political deal. It paved the way for black people to wield political power and made transformation a constitutional imperative.
The Constitution, which was finalised by a constitutional assembly that had a 63% ANC majority, is an empowering one. Much of the transformative legislation enacted after the adoption of the Constitution gives whichever administration in office the power to effect change rapidly or over time. There is no need to overturn the 1994 settlement to effect change in South Africa. What is required is political will, something that has been sorely lacking.
So those who want to defend Mandela against the sellout labels can pull the carpet out from under his critics by using the instruments at their disposal to effect change.
They should go beyond rambling about “radical economic transformation” and use the power they possess to achieve it. Sitting around and sucking their thumbs – presumably because they do not want to rock the boat – perpetuates inequality and does a disservice not only to the Mandela legacy, but to the work done by those who crafted the 1994 deal.
Those who did not criticise Mandela while he lived – something he encouraged citizens to do – and now find it easy to take potshots at him should note the words of the great Julius Nyerere: “It would be both wrong, certainly unnecessary, to feel we must wait until the leaders are dead before we criticise them.”
Every imaginable racist trope has been used under the banner of ‘criticism’ and/or ‘satire’