The Mandela Legacy
Harare – “Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.”
This is a famous quote uttered by one of the most popular statesmen in the world, Nelson Mandela, in 1985 when the then South Africa president PW Botha offered Mandela's release from prison in exchange for renouncing the armed struggle.
Such was the powerful character of the man popularly known as Madiba or by the majority of South Africans.
Nelson Mandela is a global brand. And this is in no small part due to the fact that the people directly and indirectly responsible for his 27-year incarceration have promoted him as such.
Brand Mandela is a powerful one, both politically and financially.
And while there has been a flurry of media reports of relatives battling to gain control of the brand from a financial perspective, perhaps the greater concern should be about the brand from a political viewpoint.
No one questions Mandela’s contribution to the political freedoms that South Africans enjoy today.
However, the glorification and elevation that Mandela has received has made it virtually impossible for anyone to criticise what he actually did as Head of State and in his actions – or non-actions – after leaving office.
But South Africans, and indeed all Africans, need to ask some fundamental questions concerning the Mandela legacy: is Nelson Mandela a hero or a villain; a saint or a sellout?
And then after that there is need to ask: if he is a hero, whose hero is he?
It is a question worth asking considering that in the last days of his Presidency, Mandela overflew an OAU Summit in Egypt to instead attend farewell galas thrown for him in European capitals.
The Mandela legacy has been well-institutionalised; a kid can now grow up in Mandela Park, go across Nelson Mandela Bridge on the way to Mandela Drive in Pretoria. They can attend Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, and win the Nelson Mandela-Rhodes Scholarship and be invited over for lunch at the Nelson Mandela Foundation on Nelson Mandela International Day.
It is such branding as the “Nelson Mandela-Rhodes Scholarship” that give rise to the uneasy questions above: whose hero is Mandela? And what does lionising every single thing he has done mean for the ANC, South Africa and Africans in general?
Lukhona Mnguni, writing for Times Live, argues that Nelson Mandela's legacy is overblown and the country and the world have failed to recognise the contributions of the ANC's founders and other liberation leaders such as Steve Biko.
Says Mnguni, “The lack of recognising the role played by the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and its leaders such as Biko, Tsietsi Mashinini, and many others, sticks out like a sore thumb.
“Oliver Reginald Tambo is a hero compared to Mandela because had ORT failed to keep the ANC alive in exile, there would have been no advocates for the Mandela brand, there would have been any existence of vast networks that ensured some resistance and pressure against the apartheid regime.”
In Mnguni’s view, Mandela is not in the league of men like Robert Mugabe, Samora Machel, Fidel Castro and others who spent their entire lives fighting imperialism, rather than negotiating with it.
“Mandela, unlike revolutionary political leaders such as Nkwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara and Julius Nyerere who were seeking self-reliance for their nations and Africa at large, Madiba was more inclined towards reconciliation and compromising the future welfare of the natives.
“When he was released from Robben Island in March 1982 to Pollsmoor Prison from where he was transferred to Victor Verster Prison where only he had first class treatment, he was living in a large warden’s three bed-roomed house with a swimming pool and a big garden and he also had a private chef,” Mnguni reminds the world.
“Why didn’t he negotiate better conditions for other prisoners? Today the South Africa negotiated for by Mandela prior his release from prison and even during Codesa talks is so skewed in the favour of whites, it is a disguised apartheid. The compromises Mandela made still haunt South Africa today.”
FW de Klerk once remarked, “I am not negotiating myself out of power.” And he was true to his word.
De Klerk managed to protect the interests of the white minority and leave intact the broad structures of apartheid and, in return, he gave Mandela a flag and an anthem (the latter which contained elements of the apartheid national song).
The apartheid superstructure remains in place to a great extent, and even Mandela and the ANC remained classified as “terrorists” by the US government until a few years ago.
Not a new allegation
The claim that Mandela “sold out” is nothing new.
In fact, it stems from a confession he made in his celebrated book, “The Long Walk to Freedom”.
Mandela says he initiated secret talks with the National Party that ruled apartheid way back in 1986, and he did this without consulting his colleagues in the ANC.
By his own admission, Mandela initiated the dialogue with apartheid and entered those negotiations alone, interacting with Kobie Coetzee, a National Party MP and lawyer who subsequently played a key role in the transition leading to the 1994 elections.
When Mandela finally decided to tell his comrades – Govan Mbeki and Ahmed Kathrada – in 1987, the accusations of selling out started.
Oliver Tambo, it is said, was so hard-done by Mandela’s actions that his first stroke is attributed to the shock of that revelation.
All we know of those talks is what Mandela chose to tell us.
The largest shadow looming over the Mandela legacy is the fact that South Africa has made extremely little headway in delivering the non-racial, non-sexist, egalitarian society that the ANC promised.
Not much came of that in the negotiations leading to 1994, and not much has been seen to that end either in the years since that election.
The main contention is that while Mandela did much to bring political freedoms and civil liberties – and this is a contribution that can never be under-estimated – not much was done by way of dismantling the economic and financial infrastructure of apartheid that made a few people extremely rich (and still makes them quite wealthy) on the back of the labour of millions of poor non-white people.
It is a view held by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the great man’s ex-wife.
While it is easy to dismiss her views as those of an estranged spouse, she raises key issues about the Mandela legacy.
In an interview with Nadira Naipaul, wife of critically-acclaimed novelist VS Naipaul, ahead of Mandela Day 2012, Madikizela-Mandela said: “Look what they make him do? The great Mandela: he has no control or say any more.
“They put that huge statue of him right in the middle of the most affluent white area of Johannesburg. Not here (in Soweto) where we spilled our blood.
“Mandela is now like a corporate foundation. He is wheeled out globally to collect the money.
“Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside. The economy is very much white.
“I cannot forgive him for going to receive the Nobel (Peace Prize) with his jailer De Klerk. Hand-in-hand they went. Do you think De Klerk released him from the goodness of his heart? He had to. The times dictated it, the world had changed.”
An Empty Rainbow-ism
Artist William Kentridge told a writer for The New Yorker a few years ago: “The main beneficiaries since the ending of apartheid are white South Africans. No sacrifices have been required. No one’s lost their beautiful house.”
The criticism is that Mandela aided creation of an empty “rainbow-ism” in the Rainbow Nation, which draws on sports victories with the millions of poor blacks cheering the national teams on.
The inequality in South Africa remains very much defined by race, although inequality among blacks has also expanded.
The median annual income of black working adults aged 15-65 is R12 073, compared to the R65 000 that whites earn.
Douglas Foster, in his article “Mandela's mortality is South Africa's fear”, says: “South Africa, for all its progress, remains a quite un-miraculous place. Its modern cities are bordered by sprawling slums, and the rural areas, where a significant percentage of the population lives, are mired in poverty and often lack the most basic infrastructure.
“The country endures sky-high unemployment among the young, devastating levels of crime and millions needlessly dead of AIDS.
“Some of the problems were almost inevitable, the result of post-apartheid hopes colliding with an economy that had been structured for the benefit of a few at the expense of everyone else.
“To complicate things further, democratisation arrived in the newly liberated nation more or less concurrently with rapid globalisation and the AIDS plague.”
Coming to power in such turbulent circumstances, Mandela fumbled on several significant respects.
He never drew a clear enough line between party prerogatives and the use of state power. He also missed the chance, as President, to launch a much-needed massive public health campaign, policies to ensure a more equal society grows, and improve people’s general security.
Davidson Kaiyo, another analyst, argues that Mandela is celebrated today because he did not rock the boat. Whites still control the media, judiciary, the economy and virtually everything of value in South Africa.
“… this explains why singing ‘dubul’ibhunu’ is considered racist and painting ‘The Spear’ is considered ‘freedom of artistic expression’.
“Many people today can never identify a city called eThekwini or another, Tshwane, yet these are two of the most populous cities in South Africa.
“Names in ‘independent’ South Africa are still very much like during the apartheid era. The whites fought hard to protect their heritage.
“So when the United Kingdom recently ‘mistakenly’ played the national anthem of apartheid South Africa, we were not surprised. We are talking of 18 years after the fall of apartheid.”
The world still sees apartheid flags at South African rugby matches! Even the attempt to change the springbok symbol for the rugby team caused a ruckus.
So the question should be asked once more: whose hero is Mandela?