Embracing Nelson Mandela’s contested legacy

The global peacemaker’s reputation has taken a knock among young South Africans who believe he chose unity over justice.

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On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was freed from detention after 27 years as a political prisoner [File: Ulli Michel/Reuters]

Thirty years ago this week, I sat in front of a television, waiting for Nelson Mandela to walk through the gates of Cape Town’s Victor Verster Prison, wondering what he would look like.

I was living in Nairobi at the time, part of a community of South Africans in exile. For weeks there were rumours swirling that Mandela would be out soon. I heard the adults whispering but dared not believe it could be true. On the day it finally happened I sat with my aunt and uncle. We sat with the television on, tuned to CNN, waiting. Like my parents, they had also left South Africa decades ago. They too had spent their time raising funds and sheltering comrades and smuggling letters for the African National Congress (ANC).

Mandela was not just any leader – he was our commander in chief.

I had not been born when he was sent to Robben Island but he had shaped my whole life. Apart from my parents, no one had done more to determine where I went and what I hoped for in life. By the time I turned five I knew how to raise my fist in the air and shout: “Amandla! Long live the spirit of Nelson Mandela!”

It is strange to think we did not know what he would look like given the fact that today he is easily one of the most recognisable political figures of the last century. In fact, as recently as last year, in a poll run by the BBC, Mandela was selected as the 20th century’s greatest leader. He beat Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill for the top spot.

Mandela’s reputation as a peacemaker was built in the decade that followed his triumphant release. In the years that followed, he would oversee a tricky negotiation process as he tried to steer a path towards the 1994 election – the first free and fair vote for all the country’s citizens. In the process, he would mourn the assassination of Chris Hani, a trusted comrade and protege. After Hani’s brutal murder, Mandela calmed the nation, bringing the country back from the brink of civil war.

Less than two years later, as the 1995 Rugby World Cup kicked off, Mandela would don the Springboks jersey and walk onto the field to shake the hand of captain Francoise Pienaar. This act of friendship made global headlines, burnishing his image as a man of extraordinary kindness and grace. Before this point, rugby had been seen as an Afrikaner sport and black South Africans had often cheered for the opposition. Pienaar noted that: “when the final whistle blew [at the end of that match] South Africa changed forever”.

Mandela was a consummate politician. These acts were not spontaneous. They were well planned and carefully calculated. He understood the power of symbolism and knew that his country would need the support of the international community as it sought to build an inclusive economy, one that worked for black workers as well as whites. Mandela’s global engagements were partly motivated by an understanding that the country’s economic success would, in part, rely on its global image.

At home, Mandela had his eye firmly on unity. Again, he understood that this was the key to social and economic progress for black South Africans. Forgiveness was a crucial tactic, but it was not a stand-alone vision. Mandela was convinced black and white South Africans would need to trust one another in order to move into a shared future.

It has become popular to criticise Mandela by suggesting that he advocated forgiveness because he was desperate for white approval, or because he was naive. There is little evidence to back these assertions. 

Mandela made a political calculation, convinced that forgiveness was important in its own right, but that it would help to push the country forward. Bitterness and vengeance had no economic future. To make this idea practical, one of his first acts as president was to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), appointing fellow Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its chairperson.

The TRC was a global hit. The two men were powerful ambassadors. Around the world, it was heralded as an international example of a new form of conflict resolution. At home, it was more complicated. For many, the TRC stirred up old wounds but provided no answers. In the end, only one man – Eugene De Kock – ever served time for crimes committed during the apartheid era. The rest of the apartheid generals, politicians and intelligence agency heads walked away scot-free.

By the end of Mandela’s presidential term in 1999, South Africa’s glorious transition was showing cracks. Less than five years after he left office, Mandela’s party was facing a serious crisis. As the AIDS epidemic tore through the nation, the ANC seemed out of touch with those it had always represented. Thabo Mbeki’s denialist stance was bad for the ANC but it did not seem to affect Mandela’s standing. He remained popular, in part because he was able to speak out against Mbeki’s views, in spite of remaining a loyal member of the party.

Over the last few years, however, as a vociferous debate emerged about land and economic justice, Mandela’s reputation has taken a knock. In 2016 Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of a new political party called the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) said: “The Nelson we are celebrating now is not the Nelson we celebrated before prison and during prison. It’s a stage-managed Nelson Mandela.”

This sort of blustery talk is part of Malema’s trademark. Yet it gets to the core of the debate about Mandela’s legacy. Many young, black people think Mandela’s Rainbow Nation rhetoric was designed to appease white people. As far as they are concerned, the idea has passed its sell-by date.

Many of these younger critics are only interested in unity if it can help them to find jobs and feed their families. For them, the question of South Africa’s future does not hinge on friendship across the races, it is dependent on economic justice.

Having studied Mandela and his legacy for many years, I imagine he would welcome this debate as a healthy sign of a nation grappling with its past in order to work out its future. I suspect that were he still active in politics today, Mandela would not cling to the conciliatory stance for which he is now so widely respected around the world and for which he has been so roundly attacked at home.

Mandela was the ultimate tactician. He lasted on the political scene because time and again over the course of his political career, when he met with changed circumstances, he recalibrated his approach to suit the times. In the 1950s, when nonviolent protesters were met with the guns of apartheid police in Sharpeville, Mandela took up arms and accepted that armed struggle was a necessity. When he emerged from prison and it was time to negotiate, he took off his militant hat and became a negotiator. Once that phase was over and he believed unity was required, Mandela turned himself into a spokesman for peace and reconciliation.

Mandela refused to be tied down by dogma – he did what he believed was best for his people. If he were alive today, Mandela would probably have been at the forefront of the debate, insisting that the only secure future is one in which there are greater rights for the poorest and most vulnerable. Mandela’s ability to change his tactics to suit his context was his greatest attribute. In this sense, his embrace of forgiveness could never be seen as selling out. His decision to privilege unity did not represent the end game. Instead, it was an important pit-stop on the road to justice. If there have been failures, they cannot be ascribed to Mandela alone. Mandela handed the baton to others and it is our responsibility to finish the race.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.