We can end this the Madiba way

27 March 2015 - 02:00 By Shaun Johnson

In 2002 Nelson Mandela made a counter-intuitive decision that took my breath away. Little did I know that it was soon to alter my own working life fundamentally. Mandela's decision was to become patron and give his full blessing to the establishment of a new charitable organisation, The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, dedicated to identifying and developing new generations of ethical young African leaders.His founding partner in this venture was to be the Rhodes Trust, responsible for Rhodes Scholarships and modern-day interpreters of the legacy of the controversial, complex historical character of Cecil John Rhodes. Mandela named eminent South African figures as his trustees on a joint board.By then Rhodes had been dead for 100 years, and that indeed was the point. The Rhodes Trustees approached Mandela and his advisers to ask for support in marking the centenary by "giving back" to the continent where Rhodes's wealth was made: Africa.Then came the counter-intuitive answer from Madiba: if by lending his support this could make a measurable positive difference to the young people of his continent, he would do it.More than once I was in the room when he said he thought there was little point in discussing history if all we did was complain about people long dead: wherever possible, we had to put history to work for a better future.In 2003 in London, Mandela said: "We have agreed to and support this joint initiative . a symbolic moment in the closing of the historic circle . And we know with confidence that the work of The Mandela Rhodes Foundation will substantively contribute to a better life for the people of South Africa and further abroad on the African continent."He also made a pointed reference to South Africa's constitutional injunction to come together across historical divides.As a Rhodes Scholar and former activist/journalist, I was (unexpectedly) tasked with setting up the foundation and getting its flagship programme going. That programme, the Mandela Rhodes Scholarships, has been an inspirational African success story, thanks to the extraordinary talent and calibre of the nearly300 young Africans from close to20 different countries who have benefited so far, and the range of wonderful people around the world who have supported the initiative.It was never going to be uncontroversial - Mandela told us to expect controversy and embrace it, while remaining certain in the knowledge that what we were actually doing was what mattered.Some people have said the nomenclature is oxymoronic: the British imperialist of the 19th century being twinned with the African liberator of the 20th. Others said the important twinning was the educational one, with what Rhodes created in death rather than in his life.From the outset the foundation encouraged Mandela Rhodes Scholars to wrestle openly with the legacy contradictions and reach their own conclusions, as part of their induction into real-life leadership. In their first essay as part of their applications, scholarship candidates are asked to grapple with the meaning of two such different legacies, and if they win the scholarship they participate in robust conversations (especially about Rhodes) in our leadership workshops.The scholarships programme is a thing of beauty and hope. This is embodied in one of our key documents, The Characteristics Sought in a Scholar: "Young African, aspire to be a Mandela Rhodes Scholar if you believe that the past, in all its imperfection, should be harnessed to benefit the present and the future."Truly, we believe that something inspiring and precious has been fashioned out of a painful and often ugly past.And so to the "statue in the room". There is such a wide range of views among our constituents that it would not be possible to express a unified position, even if it were desirable to have one.Among beneficiaries and stakeholders of the foundation there are those who feel the statue should go in its entirety; those who feel it should be moved; those who feel it should stay. No one is being asked to toe a "party line".Not unexpectedly, I am also asked for my personal view. I believe the statue is actually a fairly arbitrary trigger point within a far larger and more important debate about transformation. While in this matter my view carries no more or less weight than that of any other member of the foundation "family", I note that in my life I have seen South Africans and South Africa at their finest when they confront deeply felt historical contradictions head on, and grind out a sincere, honourable compromise. That was the Madiba way, which I was privileged to witness. I hope it can prevail again.Shaun Johnson is executive director of The Mandela Rhodes Foundation. A Rhodes Scholar, former journalist and editor, he is also an award-winning writer of fiction and non-fiction..

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