Beyond the figurehead

It was bound to happen and, thankfully, it has. The sanctity of former president Nelson Mandela and his legacy has been shattered and perhaps now we have the opportunity to critically evaluate this legacy.

In a dynamic democracy, few things should be sacred and certainly none should be so sacred that they suppress robust debate. Yet, there is a sense that there are those who wish to keep any debate about the Mandela years safely locked away in a hallowed hall, beyond the questions and probing of the mere mortals he dedicated his life to.

The first serious cracks were comments by economist, black economic empowerment consultant and sometime journalist Duma Gqubule, who blamed Mandela for ”creating a false sense of reconciliation between blacks and whites”, which was making economic transfer more difficult.

Another journalist, Abdul Milazi, suggested Mandela had ”created the impression that black people had to adapt and forget the past, but whites could go on as if nothing changed”.

Financial Mail columnist Peter Honey responded to these remarks by asking, ”Why Blame Mandela?” Honey implies that those who criticise Mandela fail to see the importance of reconciliation. They are one-dimensional hotheads who want to stand victoriously, one foot astride a vanquished white, while failing to take personal responsibility for the shortfalls of the democracy they now control. In the eyes of those who see only a halo, these people blame Mandela and reconciliation for their own failings and the failure of the nation to deliver to the poor.

But, for too long we have accepted as gospel that Mandela’s legacy was fruitful reconciliation. Is this true?

Perhaps we should first answer the question, what is reconciliation?

Former Fulbright professor Ann L Phillips suggests that a growing number of scholars working on the issue have identified two thresholds of reconciliation. The less exacting one is essentially pragmatic. It focuses on cooperation driven by common, contemporary interests. The second demands much more than accommodation; it requires the development of sympathy and empathy that shared interests alone cannot generate.

Few people could honestly argue against the idea that what Mandela achieved was the first. Yet, even in that area there are questions. From our views on foreign policy to the economic transformation, it is clear that South Africans hold little racial common ground.

As to the second threshold, only a fool could argue that we came even close to achieving that. The fault for that lies equally with the African National Congress, the country and Mandela, because we all allowed him to become a larger-than-life symbol.

True, later, when he felt his work was done, Mandela rejected that symbolism, but there is no question that when he had a mission, he embraced it and used it.

Mandela did not ever see the need for that second threshold of reconciliation: the sympathy and empathy apartheid’s victims understandably craved. Yet, by the very virtue of martyring himself for the sake of reconciliation, he received that sympathy, in bucket loads. Accordingly, for Mandela reconciliation was full.

The rest of the country’s blacks simply got the pragmatic reconciliation, the promise of stability and future material prosperity (or rather improvement) without open atonement, contrition or at least the comfort of empathy from those they considered their former oppressors.

The irony is that this happened even as other blacks were denied their grief. The most arrogant perhaps was a question posed in The Star, asking: ”If Nelson Mandela can forgive, who is Ntsiki Biko not to forgive?” — in reference to Biko’s decision to contest the amnesty of her husband’s killers. Thus, in the new moral lexi-con of South Africa, no murders, prison terms and other exploits of the apartheid regime, were nearly as awful as the suffering of Mandela. The consequences extend beyond the personal feelings of blacks.

The impact of Mandela’s pursuit of pragmatic reconciliation means that whites bear no responsibility — that the past can be relegated to the dustbin of history and thereby immediately absolve whites of any responsibility in the maintenance of a system held together by white electoral democracy.

Whites have gone further, quick to attack any attempt to quantify current problems within the context of our very immediate history. For in their understanding of this reconciliation, the duty of blacks is not only to forgive but also to forget. The combination of these factors has helped almost to wipe out of existence any concept of South Africa pre-1994. That country is an illusion, a memory that the black ANC government dreams up to justify their failures. This obsession with erasing the past, except as an amorphous concept, meant that black South Africa, the victims, automatically also became solely responsible for the success of the country. Whites, on the other hand, are responsible neither for the past nor the future. Perhaps the real legacy of Mandela is this incidental sleight of hand; in a blink the benefactors and enforcers are the victims and moral avatars.

So much for the idea of reconciliation; when the chips are down we point out that it is the black government that is failing. Of course, blacks are also quick to cry racism at the slightest grievance, without care for the sensitivities of whites and the scars of guilt they bear, particularly, those who in their own way tried to fight for a different country. Still, this simply reinforces the idea that reconciliation is false, a sham. For even at the pragmatic level, we appear to be bonded to no common cause and thus find it easy to tear into each other without pause for the cost to any unified nation we try to create.

For many whites, the failure of reconciliation lies with President Thabo Mbeki, who strayed from Mandela’s path of forging a unified nation and chose instead to remind us of the differences between us. It does not occur to them that reconciliation simply driven by common, contemporary interests will unravel unless you deal with the differences first so that you might arrive at what the common interests really are.

Of course, many whites will probably see it differently and this is all the more crucial that we talk and celebrate debate. For the greatest obstacle to reconciliation is silence, the silence many blacks believe they were forced to endure under Mandela and the silence some whites feel they are expected to adopt now. That is why it is important that people are willing to talk openly about the Mandela years. Of course, it is talk and debate we need, not shouting and accusation.

There is nothing wrong with a little pain. In fact, it is abnormal for us to assume that we can be a society without pain. Perhaps if we are a little less afraid of scrapping our respective scabs, we can quickly move to mutual understanding and begin the true path to reconciliation.

Itumeleng Mahabane is senior editor at the Financial Mail

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