SA (and the world) needs a Mandela, who delivered what he promised
South Africa celebrates Mandela Month at a time when the world is terribly unstable: a madman is clawing his way to the White House, Europe is being held hostage by the Brexit vote and, across the Limpopo, a people are starting to rise against a senile dictator who wants to take his country to the grave with him.
In South Africa the local government elections are around the corner, with the fiercest campaign build-up seen since the dawn of democracy 22 years ago.
With political parties at each others’ throats, racism has again reared its ugly head on the back of attacks on foreigners, which threatens to destroy South Africa’s relations with the rest of the continent.
If ever there was a time when South Africa, and the world, needed the steady hand of Nelson Mandela, it is now.
Yet when the Democratic Alliance summoned the spirit of the world icon in an advertisement for its election campaign, Mandela’s family took offence and laid charges against the political party for using his voice to punt its message for votes.
Even though the DA has tried to explain itself by saying that, under the present political climate it believes Mandela would have voted for it, his own words contradict this contention.
Ten years before his death, Mandela said that when he died and got to heaven, “I will look for a branch of the African National Congress in that world and join it”.
With those words, he effectively declared that he would never forsake the political party under whose name he spent his life fighting for freedom, equality and dignity for all South Africans.
Despite delivering on what he spent 27 years in jail fighting for, there is a growing feeling among some South Africans that Mandela sold out to white capital interests the struggle for the emancipation of the black race.
Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, who was the first to fire the salvo at Mandela in November last year at an Oxford Union gathering in Britain, accused him of having sold out the Freedom Charter to white men who wanted to retain economic control of South Africa at the advent of democracy.
In a country where many people feel a sense of helplessness and have come to believe that reconciliation has not brought them eureka in the utopian country they envisaged South Africa would be once apartheid was scrapped from the statute book, many share Malema’s views.
What Malema and his fellow travellers don’t say is whether Mandela should have done what then Ugandan president Idi Amin did to Asians in 1972 when he ordered their expulsion from that country, accusing them of keeping all the country’s wealth and crippling the Ugandan economy. One only has to look north, to the Great Lakes country, to see where that got Ugandans.
Today, we are in a world that has seen a resurgence of bigotry and racism in recent times. Xenophobia is threatening to cripple even Great Britain, the one country we all look up to for decency and good manners in life.
Why, even Swaziland has joined in on the madness. Its parliament recently ordered the minister for home affairs not to give Asians permits to enter and live in the country or trade in any business.
When Mandela delivered on the three pillars of freedom, equality and dignity to the people of South Africa — and reminded the world that these were the values that are central for peace and stability everywhere — he may not have given his people the economic redemption they seek today and accuse him of letting them down on.
But, with these three pillars he gave a previously disadvantaged people a very good chance to pursue their happiness as they deemed fit, free of the whims of another race that previously believed such pursuits were their exclusive preserve.
Zelda la Grange, in her book Good Morning, Mr Mandela, writes about an incident in August 2008, when Mandela arrived at 10 Downing Street with his wife Graça Machel, to meet then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Addressing the media, Mandela said: “My wife and I are proud and happy to be here because, as you know, this was one of our rulers, but we overthrew him.”
Nelson Mandela arriving at Downing Street to meet Gordon Brown. (Cate Gillon, Getty)
Two things about Mandela come out of this incident. The first is that as a free man, his dignity restored, he saw himself on an equal footing with the people of a race that hitherto considered itself superior and had abandoned the self-loathing that apartheid had been ingrained in the minds of black people through apartheid.
Second, he was sending a message to the world that, while it was important that South Africa should maintain and improve its relations world’s powerful nations, he had not arrived in Britain carrying a begging bowl, but would be discussing matters of mutual interest to both countries sitting as equals at the same table with Brown.
That is how free people behave.
South Africa is endowed with natural wealth, well developed infrastructure and technological advancement that could allow a person to pursue and live a comfortable economic life.
However, it is a truism of life that not everyone can find that comfort zone. Even the most advanced countries in the world have their fair share of poverty.
Political pundits now claim that the answer to the economic discontent faced by many is the question of land. The trajectory of this argument, unfortunately, has an undertone suggestion that the land must be taken away from white farmers on terms similar to that of Zimbabwe.
Given the lessons learnt from the experience of that country and elsewhere in Africa, this kind of talk smacks of opportunism on the part of the acolytes of the idea purely for purposes of relevance in social and political discourse.
Its biggest danger is that it could plunge South Africa into an economic crisis that would be difficult to recover from.
Mandela did not make the selfish and destructive decision to take the wealth of South Africa from whites. By that, he may well have betrayed the Freedom Charter, even though that contention is open to debate.
But neither was he perfect. He always reminded us all who admired him that a saint is a sinner who keeps trying. He tried and delivered.
Mandela would not have been able, even if he tried, to level the playing field so that South Africans start the new political dispensation from an equal economic footing, but he delivered the best constitution in the world; one that guarantees everyone, regardless of race, just as much an opportunity to pursue happiness as the next person.
He delivered a country free of racism with all the opportunities there for the taking.
For that, he deserves all the credit that some people now seek to deny him.
Bheki Makhubu is editor of The Nation in Swaziland.