THAT Nelson Mandela was a towering historical figure because of his struggle for the liberation of South Africa and service to humanity is not in doubt.
Editor’s Memo with Dumisani Muleya
The global following and affection as well as hagiographical encomiums he commanded in life and death across the world bear witness to this.
The presence of African, Western and former communist bloc leaders in large numbers at his memorial at FNB stadium on Wednesday, including the shaking of hands between United States President Barack Obama, by far the most popular man at the event, and Cuban leader Raul Castro, said it all.
In fact, the spectacle of an imam, a rabbi and a priest giving prayers on the same platform –– which is unprecedented –– at the memorial dramatically underscored what Mandela symbolised: an embodiment of tolerance and diversity. As widely acknowledged, he was a universal symbol of freedom and reconciliation, an icon representing the triumph of the human spirit.
Yet he insisted he was a mere mortal, not a saint, showing his extraordinary character and career were complex, something which defies one-dimensional and simplistic interpretations.
But how can this be explained?
The straightforward answer is Mandela was a good person, a galactic leader with a capacity to inspire public hope and social solidarity. This is all true but it’s just a part of the narrative.
Despite his heroics, Mandela was a product of his historical and social circumstances. A confluence of events helped to make him. So many people played a role in making him such an epic figure.
The ANC and its other luminaries, and the anti-apartheid movement worldwide laboured to internationalise Mandela and make him the face of the struggle, eventually creating a cosmic and magnetic personality, especially to the media.
Mandela inspired millions but this must be tempered by the reality that his vision of a “rainbow nation” largely stalled, almost inevitably, failing to meet the heady mass expectations propelling the country two decades ago.
He rescued South Africa from the brink of a civil war, steered it through a delicate transition and ensured peaceful elections and relatively harmonious race relations –– and this defines South Africa today –– but so do deeply entrenched inequalities, poverty, crime, corruption and social unrest.
Even though Mandela came up with massive projects to address social problems and inequalities, he simply could not redress disparities entrenched over nearly 350 years of colonial and apartheid rule during his short five-year tenure. So South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world but the truth is transformation is a process, not an event. It takes a long time to change entrenched economic and property relations.
After 1994, the ANC government was clear on the need to address the imbalances of the past by substantially restructuring ownership, management and control of the economy, hence its empowerment policy which however didn’t deliver much.
Part of the problem was South Africa, like Zimbabwe at Lancaster, secured its freedom through a negotiated settlement. Even though Mandela fought for a good deal, the power relations or balance of forces were heavily weighed against him.
South Africa was locked in a cycle of resistance, repression and brutality. Violence swept through the volatile townships, sucking everyone into its vortex.
In the meantime, the state appeared unable or unwilling to take action, pushing the country to the brink as violence and massacres spiralled. It was against the backdrop of this reality that negotiations occurred and a compromise was reached.
Despite his flaws and shortcomings, Mandela’s legacy will survive revisionist deconstructions by his largely dishonest critics, especially those attacking his record as part of a self-serving campaign to defend failed dictators with delusions of grandeur and their corrupt and incompetent regimes.