The Mandela legacy

The South African leader found himself compelled to live up to the image that had been built around him while in prison.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95, on December 5, 2013 [EPA]

Story of all stories
Story to outlast all storytellers
Son of Africa’s orphans
do not leave –
the Festival is not finished…

You who have offended hyenas
and the hyenas’ mentors
You who said I am the spirit
of transformation:

Now I am rain
Now I am shield
Now I am seed
Now I am spear
Now I am tear
Now I am laughter
Now I am man
Now I am Africa’s anger

You were bolted and chained
and stacked
in a desert armoured by sharks
with Makana’s skin in their teeth

Now I am shamed
and speechless
they chained you and I
was cowered….

I heard story of stories
that you were Hurricane Demona
the kraals of the Boer were too weak
for your anger
so I broke them

I saw that you made a storm
of your wife
raining kindly on the shacks
raining paraffin and fire on apartheid’s mansion
so I ululated
and burnt them

I heard the talk
that you were the Brew
that years had made Bitter
You were the tip that each Spear
yearned for
so I waited

You were the voice
calling for our response…
So I chanted

You did not bring the hatred
of years and the knife
Story of stories

You did not ask us to gather our tears
I was speechless…

Turner of the other cheek
and when that finished
turner of the other

Labourer, you
who returned Golgotha’s crosses
to the carpenters

Thatcher of the roof of the home we never had
Where are the homes you shouted
I am the Thatcher

Eyes that smile
Index finger of justice
hand that holds the hands of children

Our Father
Our Mother
do not leave
the Festival is about to come.

Your story
outlasts its teller

    – Moses Masakhane Mdlovu, Durban, 1999

There is much to be said about Mandela’s style of leadership and his ability to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable. To focus on his charisma alone, however, is to miss the enormous feat that kept the diverse pressures within the ANC at bay, on target and disciplined enough to achieve a negotiated revolution. Yet, not to focus on his manner of leading, that is, not to focus on his charisma and its tricky consequences, would miss something about the character of the transition itself.

There is no space here to present a complex picture of the qualities ascribed by competing constituencies to his status from the field to the factory, from the rural homestead to the township house – suffice to say that a complex mythology surrounded the apocalyptic moment of his release from prison. The charisma ascribed to him was a result of a complex creation, a construction, an invention – both necessary and accidental in the anti-apartheid struggle.

Of course, the individual concerned had to be in some way an exemplary candidate to qualify for such figuration in the first place. On that, the biographical details of a Mandela provided ample booty: born of chiefly lines in the Transkei, one of the first black lawyers educated at Fort Hare and already by 1949 a leading voice in the ANC’s youth league and its radical challenges to the movement; one of the few black professionals and a member of the new African middle-class in Johannesburg which was to re-define mass defiance and African nationalism in the 1950s; one of the leading voices in establishing the armed struggle and, not least, the de jure leader of the ANC; a martyr sentenced to life imprisonment, spending 27 years in prison.

Mandela left very little print behind too: various publications were compiled around the Rivonia trial with his famous address from the dock, at once defiant, republican and humanist.

Its text has remained crucial in understanding the ANC’s “open” and non-racial version of nationalism. As a text, it functioned to inspire, but it was hardly its intention to be a call to action, a revolutionary tract or a programmatic statement at all.

Instead, it explained to the hostile court, a court that could have hung him, that his was an African Nationalism pushed to violence and sabotage by the white regime.

This shift in the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress, from defiance to the armed struggle, has met some social and historical scrutiny and critique. It has been argued that such a move was not necessary, and that the seeming closure and the belief that all legal avenues were exhausted was a political mistake that helped usher in the harshest of Apartheid’s years

It was only in the late 1970s to mid-1980s that the African National Congress solidified around a process – enthusiastically supported by the international anti-apartheid movement – that elevated Mandela to a special status as the apex and the medium of South Africa’s liberation, through the famous “Release Mandela Campaign”.

Personalising the movement, at a time of social insurrection in the country, with mass strikes and boycotts underway, with untold deaths, detentions and imprisonment, was met with a lot of critical comment inside South Africa.

The global icon

The international focus and literature on the incarcerated leader of the African National Congress provided safer narratives for the growing black press in the country: they started using the stories about Mandela reported in the international anti-apartheid campaign as indirect and objective reports.

Once the global establishment press in New York, Washington and London started featuring Mandela as a martyr and a potential problem-solver, the work of local journalists became easier.

The stories published in the local black press were read in the homes of the relatively small black readership in the country, which was made up of a deeply concerned and frustrated African petit-bourgeoisie, and by the more skilled and literate sections of the black working class. The importance of this in the 1980s is undoubted. Though awareness of the ANC was commonplace, any awareness of a symbolic hierarchy was absent.

Mandela entered the vocabulary of the oral poets, the izibongi of the trade union movement in the late 1980s. In two years from a metaphoric concept, it emerged, by 1990, in direct ways in public gatherings – there, Mandela was the undoubted “avenger”; by 1993, Mandela poems were everywhere. The Mandela “quality index” was being, to use computer terminology, downloaded and uploaded, upgraded and projected.

Crucial here in the popular constructions were the elements of exile, imprisonment and return, of homecoming, of the avenger in popular narratives, of the hoped-for “festival”, of ideas of martyrdom that proliferated in popular culture – and how the Mandela story captured the hopes of ordinary people.

Mandela shares his wisdom with the young

All the popular songs in public gatherings referred to a plethora of leaders – but as the 1980s progressed, and the popularity of Mandela increased, so his story gained in prowess and his name made solo appearances in the verses.

When Mandela was released, he was astounded by his own supposed superhuman qualities, and by popular expectations. He made haste to explain that he was a disciplined member of the ANC’s National Executive Committee, “a servant to the people” and accountable to a movement. Such sentiments were brushed away by the restless, chanting crowd. He said so in his farewell speech to parliament in April 1999. The “other” Mandela, however, was at work – despite him – heads of state, big business and white-interest groups all started amassing and posing themselves around his aura and his charisma.

The two Mandelas

In short, the homecoming did not unveil a heroic avenger – but a practical, humanist negotiator and homemaker.

To find in a social system so built and sustained by hatred and violence such as Apartheid such a humanism in Mandela was surprising: that 27 years in prison left not one iota of vengefulness; that the man who argued that it was time to pick up arms against the Apartheid state and to form Umkhonto we Sizwe , could be arguing for throwing guns into the sea, befriending whites and pardoning everyone; that the man, whose own family drama was bitter and the final estrangement from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela harsh, could keep a loyalty to her to the bitter end; that the man who instead of using the messianic power ascribed to him whilst in prison chose to call himself a leader accountable to a disciplined organisation.

Mandela negotiated subtly between his two selves: the leader and the legend.

World leaders mourn for Mandela

He insisted throughout the escalation of conflict that “the struggle” had to be disciplined and co-ordinated. Weary of spontaneous outbursts of youth action in the townships, he tried to rein them in: “It is only through disciplined mass action that our victory can be assured. We call on our white compatriots to join us in the shaping of a new South Africa.”

There was very little of the “avenger” or the “hurricane” in Mandela’s public appearances; there was neither bitterness nor calls to arms – his were the words of a concerned leader, deeply concerned about the “slow walk to freedom”.

On February 25, 1990, two weeks after his release, at a rally involving close to 200,000 people in Durban, Mandela was adamant and provocative: “In Natal, Apartheid is a deadly cancer in our midst, setting house against house, and eating away at the precious ties that bound us together… My message to those of you involved in this battle of brother against brother is this: take your guns, your knives, and your pangas, and throw them into the sea. Close down the death factories. End this war now.”

There was a murmur through the masses of youth from the war zones of KwaZulu Natal. They were angry and devastated by what they were hearing; instead of emotional support, a celebration of their tenacity and prowess, a public naming of the root cause of this mess, a castigation of Inkatha and its leader, a call to co-ordinated resistance, a list of devastations, they were being given a lecture by an out-of touch patriarch.

This was a line of argument that he kept consistently throughout the decade – no matter how obvious the mass democratic movement was under violent siege. As he argued: “The greatest enemy of the people of KwaZulu-Natal is political violence. There are too many orphans and widows. Fresh graves litter the hills and valleys. Families are torn apart. Now is the time to change all this. Nothing, absolutely nothing, must be spared to ensure that life, limb and property are protected.”

The Mandela decade

He will not be remembered as a very powerful oral speaker or platform politician; nor will the sociological record have him “the deliverer” of democracy. The “grand compromise” that allowed for the democratic transition will detain us later, it took more than Mandela, and more than the political and social leadership in the country to usher in the democratic transition. Mandela, rather, during “The Mandela Decade”, using the real and symbolic space afforded to him, his authoritative presence, the space offered to him by the respect he enjoyed among a younger cadre of leaders – this “relative autonomy” based on the mythology woven around him, sometimes using his patriarchal charm or anger, has given the ANC’s achievement a unique character in three ways:

First, he insisted on a humanism animated by a libertarian idea of justice and backed by law, an idea weaned through the Robben Island experience – justice, a constitution and the courts would provide for an alternative to the noose and the prison. Mandela ensured, therefore, a bias towards progressive and democratic jurisprudence and towards the intellectuals pioneering it in the country.

Second, the philosophical and moral grounding of the country’s development would be one based on an African republicanism.

Third, he insisted that his moral authority to lead was part of a broader tradition of deeds, actions, and practices that demanded a culture of respect and self-discipline.

The rest of the vision, outlook and approaches he left to others in the mass democratic movement.

It is imperative to take these points in turn:

The class and race compromise that characterised the transition had to be bounded by a just constitution that guided law-making, guided the state’s work and entrenched rights.

Mandela’s insistence that the ANC brought together many strands in its tradition of resistance – the Zulu anti-colonial struggles of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Gandhian tradition that spilled over into the broader African National Congress defiance campaigns; the struggles of trade unions all the way up to the 1970s and 1980s and finally the contribution from white humanists, democrats and socialists from Bishop Colenso’s ordeals during the late 19th century to the present.

For the broader world community, despite stories of crime, corruption and a pathological kleptocracy in the new bureaucracy, “Mandela’s Decade” will be remembered as one where morality was brought back into politics. As the world’s most adored “home-maker”, he raised the moral stakes of peace everywhere.

Yet, the Mandela Decade failed to achieve many of its ambitions, The idea of “forgiveness and reconciliation” was for Mandela a correct and irreversible step. This was also the conviction of church leaders who, together with exponents of a long standing tradition of Cape White Liberalism, argued that nation-building could not occur until the ghosts of the past were settled.

Such arguments resulted in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was both a process of confession and a dramatic staging of reconciliation that would release forgiveness, toleration and reconstruction. It was to be the grand, sorrowful performance and ritual of a society re-making itself. It was to be one of the most compromised, yet significant pieces of nation-building ever imagined.

In turn, the idea of the rainbow as a narrative for nation-building and unity has proven to be a disappointment. For many younger people in South Africa, black and white, especially from the middle-classes, the concept found an easy-go-lucky resonance. But it is fair to say that its failure was extensive. The straps of racism were too close to white hearts. The refusal of the white population to own the past frightened and angered Mandela. The backlash from the African intelligentsia and the emerging black middle classes brought back the rain clouds; there was no space in their status scripts for such a notion.

Future historians will have to bring their own factual scales – from the perspective inside this unfolding transition, the hope for a nonracial and diverse culture of tolerance seems to have failed. South Africa is not a society of shared norms and ideas; it is, rather, a social formation still bound by need and greed and held together by new regulatory social institutions. The factual scales will have to decide on a more nuanced judgment, but they will have to weigh too the feeling that, alongside a remarkable transition, the Mandela decade left behind a profound sense of failure felt by the very people who struggled to create a nonracial and diverse nation.


Ari Sitas is a sociologist, poet based at the University of Cape Town. He is also author of The Mandela Decade and Theoretical parables: Voices that reason

Source: Al Jazeera