Reclaiming Man­dela

It has be­come pop­u­lar to den­i­grate Man­dela’s role in South Africa’s lib­er­a­tion, but to do so risks ef­fac­ing our own his­tory

Sunday Times - - Insight - By MANDLA LANGA

Across South Africa, many are fever­ishly en­gaged with prepa­ra­tions for the Madiba cen­te­nary. My fel­low artist and dear com­rade, the for­mi­da­ble Pi­tika Ntuli, will soon un­veil a black gran­ite sculp­ture, weigh­ing 18 tonnes, which is a sym­bolic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the strug­gles with which Madiba came to be iden­ti­fied. For­mer US pres­i­dent Barack Obama will be in town as a guest of the Nel­son Man­dela Foun­da­tion to de­liver the an­nual Nel­son Man­dela Lec­ture in Jo­han­nes­burg. In their de­sire to pay trib­ute, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity is putting the fin­ish­ing touches to sem­i­nars, ex­hi­bi­tions, theatre per­for­mances and var­i­ous man­i­fes­ta­tions de­signed to co­in­cide with what would have been Madiba’s cen­te­nary year.

It is not just about one man, though. All this is in recog­ni­tion of the strug­gle of the peo­ple of South Africa. For us, it is also a mo­ment to in­voke the re­silient spirit of our peo­ple.

There is some­thing mo­men­tous and ur­gent about the prepa­ra­tions, which hap­pen at a time when our so­ci­ety grap­ples with se­ri­ous ques­tions about en­dur­ing in­equal­ity. No week passes with­out some in­ci­dent, usu­ally some­one be­ing caught out mak­ing a patently racist state­ment. There is a sense of some­thing strug­gling to burst forth, some­thing that will see the fur­ther fray­ing of the coun­try’s so­cial-co­he­sion fabric.

This raises ques­tions about the mean­ing of Man­dela, a man whose long im­pris­on­ment en­no­bled him and armed him with the kind of moral au­thor­ity usu­ally re­served for saints and mar­tyrs. What would he be think­ing now?, the ques­tion goes.

While some wax nos­tal­gic about the Man­dela era, oth­ers see value in a deep­en­ing cri­sis. In truth, how­ever, there was no one more con­scious of the pit­falls of be­ing de­picted as larger than life. He was a shrewd ob­server of the ig­no­min­ious fall that fol­lows lead­ers — the

There was no one more con­scious of the pit­falls of be­ing de­picted as larger than life. He was a shrewd ob­server of the ig­no­min­ious fall that fol­lows lead­ers — the Big Men — who wal­low in the cult of the per­son­al­ity

Big Men — who wal­low in the cult of the per­son­al­ity. Of­ten­times he would cau­tion against the ar­ro­gance of power, aware that he and the ANC had made mis­takes. “It is not be­cause we were in­fal­li­ble,” he said once. “We have had dif­fi­cul­ties in the past, like all or­gan­i­sa­tions.”

Un­like al­most all our valu­able tal­ent whose stock ap­pre­ci­ates with en­dorse­ment by the out­side world, such as our artists, sports­peo­ple, ac­tors and writ­ers, Man­dela had the un­usual dis­tinc­tion of be­ing a fig­ure who turned the pow­er­ful gaze of the world onto his na­tive land. To­gether with the in­sight­ful lead­er­ship of the ANC and the Congress Al­liance at the time of Oliver Tambo, Al­bertina and Wal­ter Sisulu, Go­van Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Yusuf Dadoo, Ruth First, Reg­gie Septem­ber and many oth­ers, Man­dela suc­ceeded in forc­ing the world to re­frain from avert­ing its eyes from the pain of his peo­ple.


With the pas­sage of time, as we walk with our pock­ets full of hu­man rights, it is all too easy to for­get the pain that marked the mo­ment of their time. That pain, which has its roots in an ir­re­triev­able past, could be found in the hor­ror in the lives of black peo­ple the length and breadth of the coun­try. It was in the suc­ces­sive states of emer­gency in the late 1980s, when blood flowed in the streets of town and city, and in the des­per­ate dwellings of ru­ral ar­eas.

It was in the un­speak­able poverty and hunger and dis­pos­ses­sion, and the pos­tur­ing of a re­cal­ci­trant regime whose lead­ers, to this mo­ment, have never fully taken re­spon­si­bil­ity. The regime’s foot sol­diers, small men com­pelled to deny their own hu­man­ity, took the fall for the Big Men at the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion. They were fated to wit­ness their hand­i­work in the agony of Nomonde Calata as she broke down dur­ing the ac­count of the as­sas­si­na­tion, mu­ti­la­tion and dis­ap­pear­ance of the Cradock Four: Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Spar­row Mkhonto and Sicelo Mh­lauli.

Those charged with the duty of up­hold­ing law and or­der and en­sur­ing that cit­i­zens were safe were in­stead busy shoring up an il­le­git­i­mate state. They im­pris­oned Man­dela, the cheeky na­tive and so-called trou­ble­maker, in a coun­try that had de­scended into a ver­i­ta­ble crime scene from coast to coast.

Man­dela was the na­tive who had the temer­ity to be­lieve in him­self to the ex­tent that his whole in­stincts re­belled against any form of op­pres­sion. It was a be­lief — an awak­en­ing of an im­pulse — that en­er­gised a move­ment that was in its de­cline. The resur­gence of pop­u­lar protests would take a heavy toll on those man­ning the bar­ri­cades. The more the strug­gle in­ten­si­fied, the more peo­ple bled. These were the wounds that Man­dela — like Steve Biko who fol­lowed him later — sought to bind.

Man­dela and the lead­er­ship col­lec­tive who had spent a good part of their years study­ing the his­tory of con­flict in other parts of the world, where tran­si­tions had claimed count­less lives, needed to make de­ci­sions in this mo­ment. Ex­iles and as­sorted émi­grés, some of whom had de­spaired of ever go­ing back home, sud­denly saw their coun­try in a dif­fer­ent light af­ter Man­dela’s re­lease. Home was a pos­si­bil­ity.

The songs that had been sung in the camps where men and women ral­lied one an­other in times of pri­va­tion and pesti­lence — and death — were re­pur­posed into chants of hope. Those who had had to con­tend with the daily pos­si­bil­ity of ar­rest, dodg­ing cam­ou­flaged se­cu­rity branch ve­hi­cles dot­ted through­out their town­ships, could heave a small sigh of re­lief. Some­how, the knowl­edge that Man­dela was free trans­lated it­self into a con­vic­tion that some help was at hand.

The re­lief that her­alded free­dom, how­ever, meant dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple. It is up to the in­di­vid­ual to de­ter­mine what that mo­ment meant for them — and what they make of the de­ci­sions of the time. If that pe­riod was at­tended by con­fu­sion, one be­lieves, now is the time for clear think­ing.

In do­ing the think­ing, we must guard against for­get­ting, reach­ing for handy scape­goats or be­com­ing hoodwinked by the nar­ra­tive wo­ven by the lo­cal ver­sion of the Big Men who seek to deny us the mem­ory of our brave ef­forts to stare them down. In­creas­ingly to­day, Man­dela has been de­nounced as a sell­out. At lit­er­ary fairs and in univer­sity sem­i­nars, one has to coun­te­nance the loose and lazy rea­son­ing that ac­com­pa­nies this in­sult.

Af­ter the death of Win­nie Madik­izela-Man­dela, the ques­tion came up. Why, some­one asked, did Man­dela find it pos­si­ble to for­give the Bo­ers but could not for­give Win­nie?

There is a ten­dency among Big Men — whether the pa­trons of apartheid plun­der in Strat­com or the lat­ter­day spon­sors of the Bell Pot­tingers of this world — to cre­ate bi­na­ries and try to force us to be­come com­plicit in their re­vi­sion­ism. Or they pre­fer us dis­tracted by shal­low, race-based de­bates, a sleight-of-hand ma­noeu­vre to blind us to their loot­ing. Part of their strat­egy is to ef­fec­tively set the cat among the po­lit­i­cal pi­geons, en­sur­ing that dis­unity pre­vails where a new brand of in­tra-black ha­tred in the form of nar­row na­tion­al­ism fer­ments.

The por­trayal of Man­dela as an in­vet­er­ate rec­on­cil­i­a­tion junkie helps them iso­late him from the broader col­lec­tive of brave men and women and down­play their ef­forts. In the snarling lone­li­ness of the mid­night hour, these Big Men can­not, on pain of death, ac­cept that they were bested by the ge­nius of peo­ple they deemed in­fe­rior in ev­ery re­spect. There­fore, in their haste to fit Man­dela in the frame of their imag­i­na­tion, the Big Men of the old or­der and the “new” de­trac­tors dis­count the im­ages of Win­nie Madik­izela-Man­dela’s pres­ence at Man­dela’s birthdays and by his bed­side when­ever he was ill. They con­tinue to punt their spin de­spite glar­ing in­di­ca­tions of peo­ple that had reached some de­gree of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

Fur­ther­more, it is im­pos­si­ble, with the best will in the world, to divine the go­ings on in that in­ti­mate space and sec­ond-guess their dis­cus­sions, or pre­scribe a course of be­hav­iour that could sat­isfy us as out­siders. The pre­sump­tive voyeurism does not take into ac­count the cou­ple’s shared his­tory; it at­tempts to el­e­vate them — or per­haps us — to su­per­hu­man sta­tus.

In Ze­nani Man­dela’s words at her mother’s fu­neral: “Un­like many of those who imag­ine a con­tested legacy be­tween my fa­ther and my mother, we do not have the lux­ury of such a choice. The two of them were our par­ents. And all we ask is: no mat­ter how tempt­ing it may be to com­pare and con­trast them, just know that some­times it is enough to con­tem­plate two his­tor­i­cal fig­ures and ac­cept that they com­ple­mented each other, far more than any pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive might sug­gest.”

The term “sell­out”, which is dis­pensed with atavis­tic glee by peo­ple with a dim take on his­tory, sim­ply needs to be ex­punged from the po­lit­i­cal lex­i­con of this coun­try, along with the harm­ful ep­i­thets that hark back to a re­pu­di­ated past. It is a term that has led to un­told mis­ery, where peo­ple have been la­belled and sum­mar­ily ex­e­cuted, some­times in the gris­li­est of ways. For it to be used against Man­dela sim­ply means we, South Africans, are com­plicit in the era­sure of our own his­tor­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual con­tri­bu­tion. At­tend­ing this mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion is in­tol­er­ance in de­bate and rea­son­ing, grav­i­ta­tion to­wards the pol­i­tics of ges­ture where the loud­est wins the day.

Supreme sac­ri­fice

In this charged at­mos­phere, op­po­nents of progress try to erase or di­lute the record of his­tory. They blanch at the knowl­edge that be­nighted na­tives, sec­ond-class cit­i­zens, ne­go­ti­ated their free­dom with a regime equipped with a far more so­phis­ti­cated arse­nal. These un­ex­pected he­roes and hero­ines stared down the pow­er­ful of the land and, with no gov­er­nance ex­pe­ri­ence to speak of and armed sim­ply with in­tel­lect, they charted a route to­wards gov­er­nance di­rected at dis­man­tling a com­plex sys­tem of dis­en­fran­chise­ment.

Well-re­sourced, the co­terie of en­e­mies of de­vel­op­ment tries to deny the sig­nif­i­cance of Man­dela’s lead­er­ship. This was a man who ac­cepted the re­spon­si­bil­ity from the ANC to be the vol­un­teerin-chief to chal­lenge un­just laws in June 26 1952, four years af­ter the Na­tional Party came to power. It takes guts to face down an en­emy that pos­sesses the where­withal to cut you down.

In these days of rewrit­ing his­tory, de­trac­tors tend to min­imise the price Man­dela and his fam­ily paid. In Man­dela’s own re­cently re­leased let­ters, we come closer to learn­ing of his agony at not be­ing able to pro­tect his wife and his chil­dren from the tor­ment in­flicted on them by the regime that had him im­pris­oned. In a let­ter to Win­nie dated Au­gust 1970, he wrote: “I feel as if I have been soaked in gall, ev­ery part of me, my flesh, blood­stream, bone and soul, so bit­ter am I to be com­pletely pow­er­less to help you in the rough and fierce or­deals you’re go­ing through.”

A per­son who elects to sac­ri­fice hearth and home, leav­ing a young wife and small chil­dren, to em­brace an ideal that could end in prison or death, is no sell­out. Man­dela was com­mit­ted to mak­ing the supreme sac­ri­fice be­cause he be­lieved in a dif­fer­ent des­tiny for black peo­ple. Pos­si­bly the fact that this suf­fi­ciently self-ev­i­dent ar­gu­ment has to be made sim­ply points to the hard road ahead.

Mem­ory is a weapon against for­get­ting.

We dare not for­get Ahmed Ti­mol’s bro­ken limbs and the hor­rific last min­utes of his life be­fore he was hurled out of the 10th-floor win­dow of the John Vorster Square tor­ture cham­bers. This — and many such deaths — was at the fore­front of the mind of the ne­go­tia­tors. They could not for­get the struc­tural vi­o­lence. Nor could they for­get the dis­pos­ses­sion man­i­fested in suc­ces­sive Land Acts.

On this, Man­dela has said: “I know some­thing about the strug­gle to en­sure the pri­macy of hu­man rights. I know some­thing about mount­ing re­sis­tance and us­ing civil disobedience against a sys­tem that treats you as less than a per­son. I know about the im­po­tent rage that rises when your house is razed, your neigh­bour­hood up­rooted, your fam­ily forced to live else­where be­cause the state has de­cided.”

Wher­ever they were, then, they could not help hear­ing the voices of wi­d­ows keen­ing at the lips of open graves be­fore the in­ter­ment of a loved one. The thou­sands re­moved from an­ces­tral places were a fur­ther demon­stra­tion of how thor­oughly the apartheid state held them in con­tempt.

What was clear was that the ne­go­ti­a­tions would not be a cure for all the ills of the past. Theirs was just one phase of the long jour­ney. This was ev­i­denced by Man­dela’s clos­ing ad­dress at the 50th con­fer­ence of the ANC in Mafikeng in 1997, when he sig­nalled that he was step­ping down as pres­i­dent of the ANC. He said: “The time has come to hand over the ba­ton in a re­lay that started more than 85 years ago in Man­gaung; nay, more, cen­turies ago, when the war­riors of Aut­shu­mayo, Makanda, Mzi­likazi, Moshoeshoe, Kgama, Sekhukhune, Lo­bat­si­beng, Cetshwayo, Nghunghun­yane, Uithalder and Ram­ab­u­lana laid down their lives to de­fend the dig­nity and in­tegrity of their be­ing as a peo­ple. And so the time has come to make way for a new gen­er­a­tion, se­cure in the knowl­edge that de­spite our nu­mer­ous mis­takes, we sought to serve the cause of free­dom.”

He spoke also of how that day marked “the com­ple­tion of one more lap in that re­lay race — still to con­tinue for many more decades — when we take leave so that the com­pe­tent gen­er­a­tion of lawyers, com­puter ex­perts, economists, fi­nanciers, in­dus­tri­al­ists, doc­tors, en­gi­neers, and above all or­di­nary work­ers and peas­ants, could con­tinue to the next phase”.

That means us.

What we must do is to build on what Man­dela sought to achieve. The project is in­deed in­com­plete.

The best in our­selves

The in­equal­ity that ex­ists in our coun­try is the re­sult of the dis­pos­ses­sion of our peo­ple for decades at the hands of the Big Men. To lump all of this on the shoul­ders of one man is wrong. As part of the ANC’s lead­er­ship col­lec­tive, Man­dela sought to stave off a blood­bath and suc­ceeded in that. What is mis­guided, in the nar­ra­tive of ap­por­tion­ing blame to peo­ple who strug­gled, is a con­comi­tant ab­so­lu­tion of the apartheid butch­ers. They are let off the hook.

Some of them — and their chil­dren — in their po­lit­i­cal par­ties are claim­ing Man­dela while we are busy for­feit­ing him as we strad­dle plat­forms of warped rev­o­lu­tion­ary zeal, and they may suc­ceed in wrest­ing him from our col­lec­tive mem­ory.

When that has hap­pened, the ar­chi­tects of our ruin will rub their hands with glee for they would have achieved a truly strate­gic coup. A peo­ple with­out mem­ory is a peo­ple on the verge of ex­tinc­tion. We will be driven into the be­lief that apartheid never ex­isted.

Our chil­dren will be con­vinced that there was no such thing as the Cradock Four, the Gugulethu Eight, Ahmed Ti­mol, Neil Aggett, Vic­to­ria and Grif­fiths Mx­enge, cross-border raids and mas­sacres such as Maseru, Botswana, Boipa­tong, or even that women were tor­tured un­til they uri­nated on them­selves.

In ef­fac­ing the role of oth­ers, we will be cul­pa­ble in the re­pu­di­a­tion of ev­ery­one’s his­tory. I be­lieve that we need to hon­our Man­dela and all those men and women of his time who stood stead­fast and com­mit­ted them­selves to the strug­gle against all odds. These in­clude Mama Al­bertina Nontsikelelo Sisulu, who was a leader of un­ques­tion­able in­tegrity. This is also her cen­te­nary.

We must be ro­bust in our cri­tique of the past, and in tak­ing on even the Big Men among us who rob our peo­ple of their des­tiny to live fully au­ton­o­mous lives. The Sisu­lus and Man­de­las have handed the ba­ton to our gen­er­a­tion. As we grap­ple with the next phase, where there is a need to ad­dress land dis­pos­ses­sion, fee-free ed­u­ca­tion and a more equal par­tic­i­pa­tion in the econ­omy, let us be bold in the knowl­edge that we stand on their shoul­ders. They had the con­scious­ness, in the face of ex­treme op­pres­sion, to re­ject the no­tion that our peo­ple de­served any less.

To hon­our them is to hon­our the best in our­selves. It is an act of self-love.

✼ Langa is the au­thor of Dare Not Linger — The Pres­i­den­tial

Years (Pan Macmillan), the se­quel to Nel­son Man­dela’s Long

Walk to Free­dom

Some Big Men and their chil­dren in their po­lit­i­cal par­ties are claim­ing Man­dela while we are busy for­feit­ing him as we strad­dle plat­forms of warped rev­o­lu­tion­ary zeal

For the term ‘sell­out’ to be used against Man­dela sim­ply means we, South Africans, are com­plicit in the era­sure of our own his­tor­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual con­tri­bu­tion

Il­lus­tra­tion: Car­los Amato, based on a pho­to­graph by Steven Siew­ert

Pic­ture: Tiso Black­star Group

FREE MAN­DELA Nel­son Man­dela in Or­lando, Soweto, on Fe­bru­ary 15 1990, shortly af­ter his re­lease from prison, where he spent 27 years for op­pos­ing white supremacy.

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