Government to blame for youth criticism of Mandela’s legacy, says Stellenbosch University academic
SA's youth and university students are critical of former president Nelson Mandela’s legacy mainly due to the government's failure to improve their lives.
This is according to Leslie van Rooi, a senior social impact and transformation director at Stellenbosch University.
“My remarks on the challenges linked to Madiba’s legacy are based on past conversations and engagements with students at Stellenbosch University,” he said.
The critique from younger generations became clear during debates and discussions just before the start of the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement which led to the “Fees Must Fall protests”.
“From my perspective, the critique, especially as it plays out among young South Africans, is mostly due to the perceived limited effect of the ‘truth and reconciliation' project in the Mandela era, our country’s failure to lessen the unfathomable income gap among our peoples, and the fact that future opportunities for a growlingly large proportion of our youth remain extremely limited. Last mentioned is in sharp contrast with the dream that the so-called born free generation, born in the Mandela era, would live in a SA very different from that of their foremothers and fathers.
“Even if one disagrees with the critique against Madiba, you must agree that the aforementioned realities are painful reminders of our failures as a nation.”
Van Rooi said the failures were attributed to Mandela because “from my perspective, this is mostly because in the years of Mandela’s presidency, we inherently believed that things would be demonstrably different within a significantly short period after the [end] of apartheid. Of course, we did not define what ‘different’ should mean. But we sensed and hoped that it would entail ‘a better life for all' — as the election manifesto of the ANC read in the 1990s.”
Van Rooi said it was believed that the depressed situation faced by millions of South Africans daily is due to structural reforms that could have taken place in the Mandela era .
“This, it is believed, is due to the fact that the late president prioritised other matters, such as nation-building, during his presidential term.
“We know that Mandela was not perfect. This is something he personally acknowledged. We also know that the SA of the late 1980s and the early 1990s cannot be compared to the country we live in now.
“But why is it then that we still have this critique against the farther of our democratic nation? This, I believe, is because we inherently know that our country and the lives of millions of South Africans should’ve been better off. This is made even more visible by our daily experience of the failure of the government to provide for the basic needs of millions around our beautiful country. Whether our current realities should be attributed to Mandela’s failures remains a contentious question.”
He participated in a management course in France with students from 30 countries.
“Given the rich diversity in the class, the conversations inside and outside the classroom have been deeply enlightening and challenging.
“It so happened that one of the first individuals who I’d met in class hails from India. He is a young entrepreneur who started a very impactful online university in his country. He clearly is one of India’s bright young minds and, with others, is shaping the future of online higher education in this country.
“Given our interest and direct involvement in higher education, we have had a number of conversations. These include conversations about our countries’ past and future legacies and opportunities. As such we’ve entered into a conversation about Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela — two very prominent lawyers and international figures the rest of the world associates with our two countries of birth.”
He could not but ask his friend how Gandhi's legacy is viewed by the current generation of young citizens.
“His response was clear and without hesitation — Ghandi remains a hero and role model for many a generation. He is revered and respected also by the current generation of young people from India. The critique that might exist in certain circles, according to him, is easily overshadowed by the reverence for this late Indian statesman,” said Van Rooi.
“As the conversation continued, I indicated to him that indeed a section of the SA youth stand very critical towards the legacy of Mandela. For him, like many outside SA, this is unthinkable. My remarks clearly came as a surprise to him and both of us struggled to comprehend just how to take this part of the conversation forward.
“But we could not end our conversation and as such I continued to share some of my perspectives on Mandela and Ghandi, including some thoughts on Ghandi’s formative and impactful years in SA. And then we discussed the so-called post-Mandela era in the context of SA. I struggled to strike a balance between my own, relatively positive views on Mandela and the often very harsh critique against him and what he stood for. Last mentioned is from varying perspectives and as such often have contrasting but equally critical views.”
Van Rooi said questions matter and often it was more important to ask the correct questions than to provide perfect answers, but he added that: “Better questions lead to even better answers, after all. It is true of my questions to my friend from India and it is true of our questions about Madiba.
“When it comes to our critique towards our perceptions about Mandela’s legacy, we could also ask the question, namely, if we should direct our justified anger to the person of Madiba or at ourselves (including our government).
“We can only judge our past from the perspective of our current and future realities. This is our vantage point. But before we judge too harshly, we must understand that our actions will also be judged by future generations. The best that we can do is to try to ensure that our actions are judged to be on the right side of history. As such, Madiba’s legacy is partially in our hands. We have the opportunity to do differently. It is now in our joint hands to ensure a better life for future generations of South Africans.”
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