Reclaiming Mandela


Replying to the debate on the (South African) Presidency’s Budget Vote in June this year, President Jacob Zuma said something which those who are interested in a credible narrative of our past, present and future should say louder than the decibels permitted to a sitting President.

Prompted by the comments of the Democratic Alliance’s Parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, Zuma protested the distortion of President Nelson Mandela’s image and politics.

He told Mazibuko that she and her party, should also “support what he (Mandela) stood for and what he went to prison for and what he said over the years” and objected to the projection of Mandela as “the only nice ANC man,” arguing that appraisal “must not focus only on Madiba the first President of a democratic South Africa who implemented ANC policies of reconciliation and transformation”.

Instead of a disconnect, there was and is consistency between “Madiba the volunteer-in-chief of the defiance campaign, Madiba the Umkhonto weSizwe commander-in-chief, Madiba the revolutionary, Madiba the long-serving prisoner” and the post-1994 Madiba whose “rich legacy and history must not be distorted”.

The truth is that Mandela’s rich legacy of struggle has, over the years, been distorted and depoliticised by two convergent and mutually reinforcing tendencies.

The first is an overtly political tendency which is propelled by sections of professional politicians, academics, commentators, journalists – the “persuasive industries” more broadly.

The second tendency is commercial and rides on the back of the first tendency while at the same time aiding the objectives of that tendency.

The first tendency:

·         places emphasis on aspects of our politics, particularly the ANC’s policy of reconciliation;

·         contrasts reconciliation and social transformation as mutually exclusive in theory and in practice;

·         individualises reconciliation as Mandela’s private property from whence comes the notion of “the only nice ANC man”;

·         individualises the struggle for liberation from which the notion of Mandela “the only ANC man” whom it is said singlehandedly waged the struggle against apartheid; and,

·         promotes the corrosive idea that politics is a public game for private gain and that Mandela represents himself, his individual interests and family. Politics becomes a career in the labour market which has nothing to do with serving humanity. If and when it does, it is a non- conflictual affair. Measured against its benevolent rhetoric, this tendency amounts to the metaphorical adorning of the sheepskin of which the proverbial wolf is famed.

 More than a distortion, this narrative is a desecration of our history and struggle which impacts on the present and the future. (This is to say nothing of the political oxymoron of Nelson Mandela’s name cohabiting peacefully together with that of Cecil John Rhodes, a subject I do not discuss in this article.)

The result is that the revolutionary Mandela is atomised and packaged as a benign, quasi religious (a)political figure, the champion of a racially blind non-racialism, a reconciliation that is at best indifferent and at worst ambivalent to the task of redressing the legacy of colonialism and apartheid.

As a distortion, it does not reflect the reality of our history.

Mandela has always acted within the framework of agreed policy positions, including during the period when he served as President of the Republic.

Nation-building was one of the six basic principles of the Reconstruction and Development Programme.

But in ANC policy, nation-building predates 1994. It exercised the minds of its founders in 1912!

The narrative of Mandela, the “only” liberator, undermines the fact that there was Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Moses Kotane, Govan Mbeki, JB Marks, ZK Matthews, Yusuf Dadoo, Mark Shope, Thomas Nkobi and many many others. Mandela himself never saw himself in this distorted view.

When he was released from prison on February 11, 1990, he addressed a rally in Cape Town in which he said, among other things: “I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”

Mandela as the “only” ANC man is a phenomenon deeply rooted in classical liberal thought from which emerged the “cult of the individual” – the separation of the individual from community. (Needless to say that in our context, some of those who present him in this light today are the same people who previously referred to him as a “terrorist.”)

As the historian, E.H Carr wrote in his treatise, “What is History?”: “The great man is always representative either of existing forces or of forces which he helps to create by way of challenge to existing authority.

“But the higher degree of creativity may perhaps be assigned to those great men who, like Cromwell or Lenin, helped to mould the forces which carried them to greatness, rather than those who, like Napoleon or Bismark, rode to greatness on the back of already existing forces.”

Thus, in the South African case as with elsewhere, there was not only the leadership (the great men and women) who kindled the revolutionary spirit and potential of the masses but there were the masses who understood that with or without the great men and women, they were their own liberators.

In other words, the leadership as an integral part of society, as a social phenomenon, needs the masses in as much as the masses need the leadership.

The second tendency is a relatively small but lucrative industry which (ab)uses Mandela’s name in the guise of promoting “The Mandela Brand”.

It relegates Mandela to a commercial item and, like its political accomplices, devalues him.

But historical distortion is hardly surprising. It is part of the struggle between contending social forces which occurs in every society.

In our case, it is about defining the nature of post-apartheid South Africa in the image of contending national (and global) social forces.

Karl Marx wrote that: “It is not history, as if she were a person apart, who uses men as a means to work out her purposes, but history itself is nothing but the activity of men pursuing their purposes.”

The American historian, Howard Zinn, was more direct when he said: “The historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.”

If Mandela is presented only as a figure of reconciliation, one that is antithetical to social transformation, it follows that all of us too must abandon the latter for the former as Mandela is alleged to have done.

Similarly, if collective efforts come to be viewed as having no import, there will be no need for resort to collective responses to social challenges today and tomorrow.

If heroes and heroines of the struggle are reduced and repackaged as commodities to be traded, fashion symbols, and their ideas distorted, then their stature is diminished, and the history of collective struggle, to which they bear witness, and our vision of our present and future will be distorted.

The contending ideological forces in South Africa have come to understand the political and moral authority of the values and ideals on which the ANC is founded, and are determined to cash in on these while at the same time seeking to re-shape them to serve their own interests.

The kidnapping of Mandela’s image is part of this scheme.

For progressives of all hues, a credible presentation of history is a vital navigational beacon in the journey towards tomorrow.

On March 2, 1966 OR Tambo wrote to Joe Matthews, then Administrative Secretary of the ANC detailing concerns which required the collective attention of the ANC leadership.

Among other things, Tambo wrote: “the solidarity and cohesion essential in our struggle is missing.”

In his latest novel, “Rumours”, Wally Mongane agonises at length about the erosion of the social solidarity and cohesion which brought us this far: “If such weighty things as the funerals of others’ children no longer meant much, what then did matter? What meant anything?”

Add “forgetting” to the indifference which exercises Serote and you have all the hallmarks of a society literally going nowhere slowly: “If it could be forgotten that fifteen million people were enslaved so that cotton could be planted, what mattered?”

One way of recapturing the solidarity and cohesion necessary for our present and future is a credible narrative of and about our past.

It’s time to recapture Nelson Mandela. – mukoni.wordpress

• Mukoni Ratshitanga is one of Former President Thabo Mbeki’s assistants. He writes here in his personal capacity. You can follow him on Twitter handle @MukoniR

November 2013
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