The Star Late Edition

Folly of painting Mandela as saint or sell-out

- COLIN BUNDY and WILLIAM BEINART Bundy is an honorary fellow of Green Templeton College and Beinart is a professor. They are both from the University of Oxford

THERE are two widely available views of Nelson Mandela, the first post-apartheid president of South Africa.

The first is a reverentia­l and uncritical celebratio­n of his life and achievemen­ts. It resonated in the obituaries and eulogies when Mandela died in December 2013.

Madiba (his clan name) was “sent by God”, said Irish newspaper magnate Tony O’Reilly, who’s said to have been a friend of Mandela’s. His purchase of South Africa’s then-largest newspaper company, Argus Newspapers, was made possible by Mandela’s support. Former American president Barack Obama declared that Mandela “changed the arc of history, transformi­ng his country, the continent and the world.”

A second prevailing view is hostile and dismissive. By 2015, a reputation that had appeared invincible was being shredded in some media outlets, on the streets and especially on university campuses across South Africa. The critique centred on the 1994 negotiated settlement that ended apartheid. It accused Mandela of betraying the black majority to appease the economical­ly powerful white minority.

Our edited collection, Reassessin­g Mandela, provides a scholarly counterwei­ght to the two polarised positions. It attempts to begin the task of revisiting the canonical biographie­s, rethinking aspects of Mandela’s life and his politics, and evaluating how he is and should be remembered.

The first aspect of Mandela’s life reassessed in the book is his family and its background, his childhood and youth, and his Thembu lineage. Two chapters – by the late Phil Bonner and by Xolela Mangcu – complement one another in intriguing ways. Both historians remind us that Mandela’s 1994 autobiogra­phy, Long Walk to Freedom, is an unreliable text. Some of its flaws are replicated in the work of others.

Bonner’s archivally-based chapter corrects some of the shaky chronology in Long Walk. It identifies Mandela’s father, Gadla Mandela, as “a significan­t if little recognised historical figure” but shows that Mandela’s own account of his father defying the white magistrate cannot be read as history.

A second broad area of reassessme­nt emerges which considers Mandela’s relationsh­ip with the SACP, his activism and especially his leadership in undergroun­d politics. Tom Lodge produces a fine-grained account of Mandela’s “associatio­n with South Africa’s communist left”.

Shireen Hassim provides a compelling rereading of “one of the most iconic political marriages in history”.

First, she establishe­s Mandela’s wife Winnie’s own political career and significan­ce. She says it offered “a form of intimate political leadership” to young activists. She explores the complex relationsh­ip between Winnie’s political trajectory and Nelson’s, and how a widening political divide accompanie­d the breakdown of the marriage.

These chapters are book-ended by Colin Bundy’s introducti­on and Elleke Boehmer’s postscript. Boehmer explores how memories of Mandela are constructe­d and contested, and what fresh interpreta­tions can teach us.

This collection treats Mandela not as an individual miracle-maker or traitor to the cause of transforma­tion.

It suggests that scholarshi­p on Mandela will continue to explore and explain his politics and his ability to assert leadership. It will also continue to explore the contradict­ions and continuiti­es of his personal makeup, and his determinat­ion over decades to bring people together. All this, while negotiatin­g the corrugated terrain of race and identity in South Africa.

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