/ 13 December 2013

Mandela: An African icon above all else

African giant: A poster with ­messages of support at Nelson Mandela’s former Soweto home.
African giant: A poster with ­messages of support at Nelson Mandela’s former Soweto home.

In mourning former South African president Nelson Mandela, all will want to claim him for their own. And that is good. 

Some will want to claim him as part of their confessions about their own countries' complicity in aiding apartheid; others as participants in the domestic, continental and global struggles that brought down the last bastion of colonialism in Africa; and others still because of their own failures and fervent desire to be judged as better players in the struggles against colonialism and imperialism.

Like everyone else, I join the queue. I claim Nelson Mandela as an African icon before being held in awe by his global reach. Before we were enamoured of Mandela as a global brand, he was an African leader faced with decisions as tough as those that faced other African icons of his and later times.

He was never a leader to be deemed the "acceptable type", otherwise the apartheid regime would not have imprisoned him. Neither was he one to betray his cause or his comrades in the fight against apartheid.

He was not a romantic who viewed people from either a religious or a messianic standpoint. He was a leader who was cognisant of his place in history. The feel-good portrayals of this African icon came long after he had decided that the struggle for his people's freedom would be his life.

Like all icons of Africa's broader struggle against colonialism in the post-World War II period, Mandela and his colleagues, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki and Joe Slovo, among others, knew that, though inevitable, liberation would require a great personal sacrifice.

Iconic figure
I do not for once think that Man­dela envisaged himself becoming the iconic figure that would adorn murals, cups and T-shirts. His primary task was, with others and in a multiracial fashion, the pursuit of the goals of the Freedom Charter.

That he was freed at a time when the Cold War was ending and the global media and its attendant capitalism were reinventing perception and reality does not take away the seriousness of the historical task that was African liberation and independence.

He could have been Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah or Julius Nyerere and the task would still have been an enormous one, even while shaking the hands of his oppressors.

Mandela's and even Tambo's revolutionary and generational task was to lead the ANC and South Africa to attain independence as a first stage of what is still referred to as the national democratic revolution (NDR). And, because there is no politics without stages, they were correct to negotiate with the white nationalists for a ceasefire and an inclusive Constitution.

That initial task of the revolution done, it was and remains up to subsequent cadres of the NDR to continue working towards the fulfilment of the rest of the aspirations of the anti-apartheid struggle.

There was never going to be a complete departure from the past in South Africa, just as there has never been a complete departure from the same in Zimbabwe. We all still grapple with the vagaries of colonialism and imperialism, but we are not beholden to them.

First encounter
Mandela, like Nyerere and Cabral, taught us that we must navigate our ideals with pragmatism while ensuring that future generations do not forget that their task is to take our revolutions to higher stages.

I first encountered the political (not branded) Mandela through a collection of his speeches and writings edited by South African revolutionary Ruth First in my early years of high school. It was titled No Easy Walk to Freedom.

Through reading and rereading it, I learned, without knowing a lot else about the ANC or his personal life, that somewhere in Africa was still a man of democratic principle who was committed to the liberation of his people. 

When he became president of South Africa, many thought that he had become an "acceptable" African leader – either because of the Constitution or by deciding to pass on the baton after his first term.

But he remained true to his ideological and historical origins. He met Cuban president Fidel Castro and invited him for a state visit and he hugged Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and thanked him for Libya's support in the anti-apartheid struggle.

Although one knew that, yes, Mandela was acceptable in the global eye, sometimes even viewed as a saint, whatever else we might think of him as, like many others, he was an African icon – in African terms and in African time. Before he was anything else, that was what we all wished him to be.

Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity. Visit takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com