While not perfect, Madiba no sell-out
Throwing stones at the legacy of dead men is not a revolutionary act, writes Sandile Memela.
A year after his death, it would seem international icon and first president of a democratic South Africa, Nelson Mandela, is neither a saint nor a much-loved hero.
There is an increasing number of voices – and social media posts, especially – asserting that he was not a genuine hero, and condemning him as a “sell-out”.
No doubt some African people, including some “born frees”, have deep-seated issues with the Mandela legacy and what he represents. It will be correct to say these people have been dragging a suitcase of unresolved issues – especially economic control, monopolisation of wealth, land loss, prejudice and racist discrimination – from one decade to another ever since Mandela was released from prison in 1990.
What makes this an old question is perhaps a continuity of the controversy and acrimony that goes back to the breakaway of the Pan Africanist Congress around the Freedom Charter and how it was drawn.
Today, the disenchantment with Mandela’s legacy revolves around the perceived failure to implement a thorough “redistribution of wealth”. This is largely seen as having resulted in the creation of a tiny, self-serving black elite with political connections.
Every time you raise a point about Mandela’s legacy among the politically conscious, you are likely to generate a backlash that leaves no room for discussion except to dismiss him as “a tool of white capitalism” and to condemn you as an apologist for white economic domination. This view of Mandela, we are told, is a rising political crescendo, especially from self-styled New Age radical leftists.
But what is the meaning of openly condemning Mandela 20 years into democracy and freedom? After all we have been through in this country – especially from the moment Mandela walked out of prison in 1990 to become the first president of a democratically elected government – it is foolish and useless to accuse a dead man of being a sell-out.
While he was still alive,
some doubting Thomases wondered if he was the same man who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964.
But we should be concerned at these self-appointed New Age revolutionaries whose insults threaten to destroy a proud heritage.
Perhaps with hindsight we can acknowledge that some of the decisions taken at Kempton Park, especially on the economy and land, were ill-advised and decidedly short-changed African aspirations for justice.
But there is no doubt that when Mandela made these concessions, he was not working alone, but with a group of leaders guided by collective decision-making and responsibility.
Presumably, they not only had to take stock of the state of the economy and fragile race relations, but also consider global power shifts that saw the ascendancy of capitalist power as epitomised by the Washington Consensus after the collapse of communism.
There is no doubt that through Mandela’s “imperfect” economic decisions taken then, we avoided a bloodbath that would have reduced this country to a wasteland. Instead, we emerged as the toast of the world.
There is no reason for any rational person to believe that the Kempton Park compromise was an end in itself. That would have meant perpetuating economic inequality, dispossession, land loss and anti-black racial prejudice. Much as he was out of touch for 27 years in prison, Mandela would have been aware of that.
Rather, his approach was a means to an end.
What he envisaged was inheriting an unjust and unequal society that would, ultimately, transform itself into a nation that could resolve its differences through sober and mature discussion.
It would be a society committed to equality and justice. After 20 years, this democracy has enough wise citizens in politics, business, religion and the non-governmental sector for it to correct its own wrongs. Above all, free and fair elections were held and the voice of the people carried the day. We are who we are and where we are because, largely, it is the people themselves who have chosen their leadership freely.
Thus it is disturbing to find 20-, 30- and 40-something-year-olds harshly condemning Mandela as a sell-out.
If this is the sum of our discourse, then we are caught in a predictable, immature and monotonous pseudo-revolutionary politics that will do nothing for African advancement and development. Throwing stones at the legacy of dead men is not a revolutionary act, especially when you, too, benefit and are part of the same establishment of economic inequality, dispossession and land loss.
The predictable pattern of reasoning is for these New Age self-styled revolutionaries to contrast Mandela’s legacy to the presumed integrity of Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko, particularly.
In principle, it will always be odious to compare any two people. Beyond that, much as we appreciate Sobukwe and Biko for their revolutionary insight, we don’t know how they would have dealt with the Kempton Park talks or fared in the elections of April 27.
Certainly, judging by the behaviour and attitude of some of their peers and contemporaries, certain deductions can be made.
It must be noted and acknowledged that everyone is working within the system, now. None is innocent, and everything that’s happening in the country today is a direct consequence of what citizens do or don’t do.
There are men who should be condemned, but I don’t think rubbishing the legacy of Mandela helps the African struggle for self-determination Let us learn to respect the dead, for in Africa the dead are not dead. In fact, they live in what we, the living, do or don’t do.
The 20 years of democracy and freedom are a watershed. It is time for everyone, including those self-appointed custodians of the African revolution, to change their attitude to our history and heritage and commit to taking collective responsibility for the state of this country with its inherent injustice and inequality.
The challenge, especially for those younger than 35, is to summon the courage to look at the past 25 years with fresh eyes and show their imagination by forging the future they want for their country, their people, their children and, above all, for their own legacy. It is not enough to shout that Mandela was a sell-out and refuse to engage or open your mind to a new and fresh way of looking at our contemporary history.
Name-calling and finger-pointing do not take us forward towards forging African unity. Anyone who sees economic injustice, dispossession, land loss and racial prejudice sees Mandela’s unfinished business. The question is: what are we doing to take the struggle forward?
He may not have been a saint or a perfect man, but Mandela played his part. As he himself put it, “the power is in your hands”.
* Sandile Memela is a writer and public servant.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.