Reclaiming Nelson Mandela means remembering the resilient spirit of our people
It has become popular to denigrate Mandela’s role in South Africa’s liberation, but to do so risks effacing our own history
Across South Africa, many are feverishly engaged with preparations for the Madiba centenary. My fellow artist and dear comrade, the formidable Pitika Ntuli, will soon unveil a black granite sculpture, weighing 18 tonnes, which is a symbolic representation of the struggles with which Madiba came to be identified.
Former US president Barack Obama will be in town as a guest of the Nelson Mandela Foundation to deliver the annual Nelson Mandela Lecture in Johannesburg.
In their desire to pay tribute, the international community is putting the finishing touches to seminars, exhibitions, theatre performances and various manifestations designed to coincide with what would have been Madiba's centenary year.
It is not just about one man, though. All this is in recognition of the struggle of the people of South Africa. For us, it is also a moment to invoke the resilient spirit of our people.There is something momentous and urgent about the preparations, which happen at a time when our society grapples with serious questions about enduring inequality. No week passes without some incident, usually someone being caught out making a patently racist statement. There is a sense of something struggling to burst forth, something that will see the further fraying of the country's social-cohesion fabric.
This raises questions about the meaning of Mandela, a man whose long imprisonment ennobled him and armed him with the kind of moral authority usually reserved for saints and martyrs. What would he be thinking now?, the question goes.
While some wax nostalgic about the Mandela era, others see value in a deepening crisis. In truth, however, there was no one more conscious of the pitfalls of being depicted as larger than life. He was a shrewd observer of the ignominious fall that follows leaders - the Big Men - who wallow in the cult of the personality. Oftentimes he would caution against the arrogance of power, aware that he and the ANC had made mistakes. "It is not because we were infallible," he said once. "We have had difficulties in the past, like all organisations."
Unlike almost all our valuable talent whose stock appreciates with endorsement by the outside world, such as our artists, sportspeople, actors and writers, Mandela had the unusual distinction of being a figure who turned the powerful gaze of the world onto his native land. Together with the insightful leadership of the ANC and the Congress Alliance at the time of Oliver Tambo, Albertina and Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Yusuf Dadoo, Ruth First, Reggie September and many others, Mandela succeeded in forcing the world to refrain from averting its eyes from the pain of his people.HOODWINKED
With the passage of time, as we walk with our pockets full of human rights, it is all too easy to forget the pain that marked the moment of their time. That pain, which has its roots in an irretrievable past, could be found in the horror in the lives of black people the length and breadth of the country. It was in the successive states of emergency in the late 1980s, when blood flowed in the streets of town and city, and in the desperate dwellings of rural areas.
It was in the unspeakable poverty and hunger and dispossession, and the posturing of a recalcitrant regime whose leaders, to this moment, have never fully taken responsibility. The regime's foot soldiers, small men compelled to deny their own humanity, took the fall for the Big Men at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They were fated to witness their handiwork in the agony of Nomonde Calata as she broke down during the account of the assassination, mutilation and disappearance of the Cradock Four: Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkhonto and Sicelo Mhlauli.
Those charged with the duty of upholding law and order and ensuring that citizens were safe were instead busy shoring up an illegitimate state. They imprisoned Mandela, the cheeky native and so-called troublemaker, in a country that had descended into a veritable crime scene from coast to coast.
Mandela was the native who had the temerity to believe in himself to the extent that his whole instincts rebelled against any form of oppression. It was a belief - an awakening of an impulse - that energised a movement that was in its decline. The resurgence of popular protests would take a heavy toll on those manning the barricades. The more the struggle intensified, the more people bled. These were the wounds that Mandela - like Steve Biko who followed him later - sought to bind.Mandela and the leadership collective who had spent a good part of their years studying the history of conflict in other parts of the world, where transitions had claimed countless lives, needed to make decisions in this moment. Exiles and assorted émigrés, some of whom had despaired of ever going back home, suddenly saw their country in a different light after Mandela's release. Home was a possibility.
The songs that had been sung in the camps where men and women rallied one another in times of privation and pestilence - and death - were repurposed into chants of hope. Those who had had to contend with the daily possibility of arrest, dodging camouflaged security branch vehicles dotted throughout their townships, could heave a small sigh of relief. Somehow, the knowledge that Mandela was free translated itself into a conviction that some help was at hand.
The relief that heralded freedom, however, meant different things to different people. It is up to the individual to determine what that moment meant for them - and what they make of the decisions of the time. If that period was attended by confusion, one believes, now is the time for clear thinking.
In doing the thinking, we must guard against forgetting, reaching for handy scapegoats or becoming hoodwinked by the narrative woven by the local version of the Big Men who seek to deny us the memory of our brave efforts to stare them down. Increasingly today, Mandela has been denounced as a sellout. At literary fairs and in university seminars, one has to countenance the loose and lazy reasoning that accompanies this insult.
After the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the question came up. Why, someone asked, did Mandela find it possible to forgive the Boers but could not forgive Winnie?There is a tendency among Big Men - whether the patrons of apartheid plunder in Stratcom or the latter-day sponsors of the Bell Pottingers of this world - to create binaries and try to force us to become complicit in their revisionism. Or they prefer us distracted by shallow, race-based debates, a sleight-of-hand manoeuvre to blind us to their looting. Part of their strategy is to effectively set the cat among the political pigeons, ensuring that disunity prevails where a new brand of intra-black hatred in the form of narrow nationalism ferments.
The portrayal of Mandela as an inveterate reconciliation junkie helps them isolate him from the broader collective of brave men and women and downplay their efforts. In the snarling loneliness of the midnight hour, these Big Men cannot, on pain of death, accept that they were bested by the genius of people they deemed inferior in every respect. Therefore, in their haste to fit Mandela in the frame of their imagination, the Big Men of the old order and the "new" detractors discount the images of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's presence at Mandela's birthdays and by his bedside whenever he was ill. They continue to punt their spin despite glaring indications of people that had reached some degree of reconciliation.
Furthermore, it is impossible, with the best will in the world, to divine the goings on in that intimate space and second-guess their discussions, or prescribe a course of behaviour that could satisfy us as outsiders. The presumptive voyeurism does not take into account the couple's shared history; it attempts to elevate them - or perhaps us - to superhuman status.
In Zenani Mandela's words at her mother's funeral: "Unlike many of those who imagine a contested legacy between my father and my mother, we do not have the luxury of such a choice. The two of them were our parents. And all we ask is: no matter how tempting it may be to compare and contrast them, just know that sometimes it is enough to contemplate two historical figures and accept that they complemented each other, far more than any popular narrative might suggest."
The term "sellout", which is dispensed with atavistic glee by people with a dim take on history, simply needs to be expunged from the political lexicon of this country, along with the harmful epithets that hark back to a repudiated past. It is a term that has led to untold misery, where people have been labelled and summarily executed, sometimes in the grisliest of ways. For it to be used against Mandela simply means we, South Africans, are complicit in the erasure of our own historical and intellectual contribution. Attending this misrepresentation is intolerance in debate and reasoning, gravitation towards the politics of gesture where the loudest wins the day.
In this charged atmosphere, opponents of progress try to erase or dilute the record of history. They blanch at the knowledge that benighted natives, second-class citizens, negotiated their freedom with a regime equipped with a far more sophisticated arsenal. These unexpected heroes and heroines stared down the powerful of the land and, with no governance experience to speak of and armed simply with intellect, they charted a route towards governance directed at dismantling a complex system of disenfranchisement.
Well-resourced, the coterie of enemies of development tries to deny the significance of Mandela's leadership. This was a man who accepted the responsibility from the ANC to be the volunteer-in-chief to challenge unjust laws in June 26 1952, four years after the National Party came to power. It takes guts to face down an enemy that possesses the wherewithal to cut you down.
In these days of rewriting history, detractors tend to minimise the price Mandela and his family paid. In Mandela's own recently released letters, we come closer to learning of his agony at not being able to protect his wife and his children from the torment inflicted on them by the regime that had him imprisoned. In a letter to Winnie dated August 1970, he wrote: "I feel as if I have been soaked in gall, every part of me, my flesh, bloodstream, bone and soul, so bitter am I to be completely powerless to help you in the rough and fierce ordeals you're going through."A person who elects to sacrifice hearth and home, leaving a young wife and small children, to embrace an ideal that could end in prison or death, is no sellout. Mandela was committed to making the supreme sacrifice because he believed in a different destiny for black people. Possibly the fact that this sufficiently self-evident argument has to be made simply points to the hard road ahead.
Memory is a weapon against forgetting.
We dare not forget Ahmed Timol's broken limbs and the horrific last minutes of his life before he was hurled out of the 10th-floor window of the John Vorster Square torture chambers. This - and many such deaths - was at the forefront of the mind of the negotiators. They could not forget the structural violence. Nor could they forget the dispossession manifested in successive Land Acts.
On this, Mandela has said: "I know something about the struggle to ensure the primacy of human rights. I know something about mounting resistance and using civil disobedience against a system that treats you as less than a person. I know about the impotent rage that rises when your house is razed, your neighbourhood uprooted, your family forced to live elsewhere because the state has decided."Wherever they were, then, they could not help hearing the voices of widows keening at the lips of open graves before the interment of a loved one. The thousands removed from ancestral places were a further demonstration of how thoroughly the apartheid state held them in contempt.
What was clear was that the negotiations would not be a cure for all the ills of the past. Theirs was just one phase of the long journey. This was evidenced by Mandela's closing address at the 50th conference of the ANC in Mafikeng in 1997, when he signalled that he was stepping down as president of the ANC.
He said: "The time has come to hand over the baton in a relay that started more than 85 years ago in Mangaung; nay, more, centuries ago, when the warriors of Autshumayo, Makanda, Mzilikazi, Moshoeshoe, Kgama, Sekhukhune, Lobatsibeng, Cetshwayo, Nghunghunyane, Uithalder and Ramabulana laid down their lives to defend the dignity and integrity of their being as a people. And so the time has come to make way for a new generation, secure in the knowledge that despite our numerous mistakes, we sought to serve the cause of freedom."
He spoke also of how that day marked "the completion of one more lap in that relay race - still to continue for many more decades - when we take leave so that the competent generation of lawyers, computer experts, economists, financiers, industrialists, doctors, engineers, and above all ordinary workers and peasants, could continue to the next phase".
That means us.
What we must do is to build on what Mandela sought to achieve. The project is indeed incomplete.
THE BEST IN OURSELVES
The inequality that exists in our country is the result of the dispossession of our people for decades at the hands of the Big Men. To lump all of this on the shoulders of one man is wrong. As part of the ANC's leadership collective, Mandela sought to stave off a bloodbath and succeeded in that. What is misguided, in the narrative of apportioning blame to people who struggled, is a concomitant absolution of the apartheid butchers. They are let off the hook.
Some of them - and their children - in their political parties are claiming Mandela while we are busy forfeiting him as we straddle platforms of warped revolutionary zeal, and they may succeed in wresting him from our collective memory.
When that has happened, the architects of our ruin will rub their hands with glee for they would have achieved a truly strategic coup. A people without memory is a people on the verge of extinction. We will be driven into the belief that apartheid never existed.Our children will be convinced that there was no such thing as the Cradock Four, the Gugulethu Eight, Ahmed Timol, Neil Aggett, Victoria and Griffiths Mxenge, cross-border raids and massacres such as Maseru, Botswana, Boipatong, or even that women were tortured until they urinated on themselves.
In effacing the role of others, we will be culpable in the repudiation of everyone's history. I believe that we need to honour Mandela and all those men and women of his time who stood steadfast and committed themselves to the struggle against all odds. These include Mama Albertina Nontsikelelo Sisulu, who was a leader of unquestionable integrity. This is also her centenary.
We must be robust in our critique of the past, and in taking on even the Big Men among us who rob our people of their destiny to live fully autonomous lives. The Sisulus and Mandelas have handed the baton to our generation. As we grapple with the next phase, where there is a need to address land dispossession, fee-free education and a more equal participation in the economy, let us be bold in the knowledge that we stand on their shoulders. They had the consciousness, in the face of extreme oppression, to reject the notion that our people deserved any less.
To honour them is to honour the best in ourselves. It is an act of self-love.
• Langa is the author of Dare Not Linger - The Presidential Years (Pan Macmillan), the sequel to Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom