Time to retire that calling card of African self-hatred, 'sellout'
It's not only ignorance of our history that informs the slur. The problem is that if you don't value yourself, you do your utmost to devalue others
The lumpen vulgarity that has taken over our political culture makes one yearn for the aristocratic gentility of the older generation of Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Lilian Ngoyi, Robert Sobukwe, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Steve Biko and many others. It was a gentility that elevated us without being supercilious or vain. It commanded our respect without demanding it, and brought forth the better angels of our nature without being angelic. Self-composure was its mark of self-respect.
When I was a little boy growing up in King William's Town, Eastern Cape, there was a gentleman I often saw in town. He was tall, bespectacled, long-haired, and always carried a newspaper under his arm. People whispered that he came from "e-Siqithini" - Robben Island. Only much later did I learn that his name was Steve Tshwete. I also learnt that, among friends, he could be the most garrulous and cantankerous person in the room. In short, he knew how a leader should comport himself with dignity in public.
Another example comes from Steve Biko, whose next-door neighbour was a feared policeman in our township. Biko always treated the man with courtesy and respect, even as he castigated black policemen as "non-whites" who were collaborating with "the system". He did not allow his political radicalism to violate an ethical principle he was taught by his mother. As he put it in one of his essays: "Lack of respect for the elders, in the African tradition, is an unforgivable and cardinal sin." It is a cruel irony that some of the people who perpetrate this disrespect claim to be Biko's disciples.
In their hands, "sellout" is used willy-nilly to disparage political opponents, and to substitute insult for thought. It is as if the nation has run out of ideas. Young people who were born into the very freedom Nelson Mandela co-authored call him a sellout - and worse. Now it's Robert Sobukwe's turn to be burnt at the stake. The SACP's Solly Mapaila described him as a favoured son of the very racists who tortured him for six long years on Robben Island.
I know Mr Mapaila has apologised and I accept his apology. But who shall it be next? Biko perhaps? Or Chris Hani? Or Albertina Sisulu? When is the madness going to stop?
The other day, Terror Lekota accused the president of the country of having been a sellout. The allegation invited counter-accusations about Lekota himself. Do not be surprised if there are allegations about whoever points the finger at Lekota. And on and on it goes.
The gods truly make crazy those they seek to destroy. Apartheid did many things to us. Its most enduring legacy may well be that it left us with an infantile rage that will not be satisfied until it has robbed others of their dignity. That is how self-hate works - if you don't value yourself, you must perforce do the utmost to devalue others by calling them hateful names.
Instead of running away from "sellout", maybe we should own it. Why should we be safe from the insult if Mandela, after all his sacrifice, cannot be safe from it?
We should also drop all the pretence about the liberation struggle as one uninterrupted history of revolution. African people adopted various forms of pragmatic adaptation, accommodation and compromise after they were defeated in the wars of the 19th century. For eight decades, between 1853 and 1936, Africans in the Cape accepted the qualified franchise on an equal basis with whites.
After 1936 debate ensued about whether Africans should participate in the Native Representative Council. Most African leaders opted to do so. This was not because they were sellouts. They were seeking to make "a way out of no way" - out of the darkness of white rule.
For decades, Africans in the Transkei participated in the quasi-parliamentary body known as the Bhunga as another form of pragmatic adaptation, until African leaders rejected the body in the 1940s, only after it became apparent that the apartheid government sought to use it as the basis of the homeland system.
Romantic stories of the struggle as revolution contribute to the ill-informed, Manichean division of people into "revolutionaries" and "sellouts". Yes, there were sellouts in the sense of those people who actively participated in enforcing apartheid and spied on us. But in the main, and for the longest time, African people occupied that liminal space of ambiguity between rebellion and compromise.
It is absurd to extend the concept of sellout, even metaphorically, to members of different political movements simply because they did not belong to our particular camp. It cannot be the case that our ancestors are condemned as sellouts for compromising in order to survive the brutality of colonial and apartheid rule - not least by people who have known nothing but freedom.
The truth is that it was only in the 1970s that we clearly and unequivocally rejected participation in colonial and apartheid structures. This was in large part because of the Black Consciousness movement's rejection of rumours that the ANC was considering working within the homelands, and of rumours that Mandela might be released into the Transkei.
In his wisdom, Mandela rejected such offers. He wrote a stern letter to his relative, Bantustan leader KD Matanzima, telling him to stop using their blood relation for political purposes. But even then, Mandela signed off with courtesy: "I need hardly remind you that our political beliefs differ most radically, and it is my duty to remind you of this fact whenever you tend to ignore it." He then assured Matanzima that "I will not consciously insult or belittle you, or any other person for that matter. Fondest regards, and best wishes to you." Is that civility too much to ask from today's political leaders?
As EM Forster put it in Two Cheers for Democracy, "I believe in aristocracy, though not an aristocracy of rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky." The tragedy, Forster noted, was that "no device has been found by which these private decencies can be transmitted to public affairs. As soon as people have power they go crooked and sometimes dotty as well, because the possession of power lifts them into a region where normal honesty never pays."
Forster might as well have had our political classes in mind and, sadly, our parliament.
• Mangcu is professor of sociology at George Washington University in the US