​There is more than one answer to the legacy of Mandela

Mac Maharaj says he is not despondent when he thinks about the current South Africa. (Photo: Madeleine Cronjé)

Mac Maharaj says he is not despondent when he thinks about the current South Africa. (Photo: Madeleine Cronjé)

South Africa is not in conversation, but is in desperate need of a genuine exchange, according to Mac Maharaj. At a lecture titled, “Living the legacy of Nelson Mandela”, the struggle stalwart who served as minister in the Mandela administration and spokesperson to President Jacob Zuma said that the country still needs to agree on its problems, share the facts and arrive at a common understanding of the solutions. However, he emphasised: “No major change takes place without an organisation at the helm, and if the organisation is failing it has to be made to fulfil that [function].”

Maharaj delivered the lecture hosted by the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in partnership with the Mail & Guardian on July 27 at the Pretoria campus. He debated the ideals of the “rainbow nation” with a panel comprising Professor of Political Sciences at the University of Johannesburg Mcebisi Ndletyana and chief executive of Afro Visionary Legacy, Lebogang Chaka. Facilitating the public lecture was Prof Herbert Maserumule, HOD: Public Management, TUT.

In his address, Maharaj chose to deviate slightly by focusing on three “iconic individuals” instead of just Mandela — he also reflected on the legacies of OR Tambo and Walter Sisulu. He warned: “Drawing lessons from the lives of leaders is in my view fraught with pitfalls. More often than not, their lives become coat hangers for legitimising or advancing one’s own ideas … but sometimes the advice given or drawn may be useful.”

Much to learn from our leaders

Maharaj remembered his time on Robben Island, his anger-fuelled behaviour towards the prison warders and Mandela calling him aside to issue some advice on how to manage his emotions and circumstances. “Your reactions are correct and we ought to challenge the warders,” Mandela told him. “The problem (was) that, an injudicious word by me (was) picked on by the authorities to challenge me. The prison rules are stacked against us as prisoners, so he advised me, ‘maintain your stance, you’re right’, but instead of erupting spontaneously he said to me I should pause, count to ten measure my response, choose my words. That way he said, ‘your anger will still be in charge of your response, but you will control your anger, your anger will not control you.’”

He described Mandela as “resourceful” and told of his courage, and being an example to those he led, including how he offered his services as volunteering to be chief of the ANC’s defiance campaign, and the first commander of the ANC’s Military Wing, uMkhonto We Sizwe. According to Maharaj, Mandela was able to clearly identify and articulate the issues at the helm of the tenuous negotiations in the 1980s. Maharaj quoted a memo from 1989 in which the former president wrote: “You have to reconcile the principle of majority rule with its concomitant of peace and stability. You have to reconcile that principle with the fears and concerns of the white community, who want structural guarantees and who are the ones that are occupying the seat of power.”

Maharaj said Oliver Tambo was “resilient”. He reminded the audience of Tambo’s significant contributions to the struggle, including preventing the disintegration of the ANC when its members were forced into exile. He debunked notions that much of what informed the ANC negotiations was imposed on the organisation at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) in 1992. Sisulu, on the other hand, he referred to as persistent: “He was human and humane to the core, but at the same time self-effacing.”

Maharaj claimed it frustrated him when Mandela is accused of sacrificing his Africanism for non-racism. He said that the three leaders were dedicated to national liberation and grew together from their different perspectives. “I think that this conception — that they abandoned it and gave it up in favour of non-racism, instead of seeing a development part — denudes their position of humanism, which undermines their lives of activities and their thoughts. And when a democracy is devoid of humanism it becomes a mechanical answer to humankind’s march to freedom.”

Democracy, Maharaj said, should be participatory, people-centred and is always an experiment — a challenge that is not unique to South Africa. He spoke of the “unintended consequences” of waging a revolution and how the outcomes are rarely what were planned for. “Understanding the lives and activities of individuals such as Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu, as well as that of the masses of the people involves much more than drawing lessons from the choices they made and the activities they undertook. It is more than recording their achievements — important as that is — it is more than just recording their qualities. It is as much an exercise in extracting the experiences, sharing them, making them a part of the memory bank of the South African nation that is in the making.”

Context and nuance are important

Professor Ndletyana said the Mandela generation succeeded in doing what they could at the time considering their context, including what they had to endure. “We should not judge an individual based on his last act. In fact his last act is an accumulation of long life experiences. Mandela was not always a reconciler; he was not always diplomatic. He was militant, at times arrogant and a number of other things. So we evolve over time, shaped by our own experiences.”

According to the professor, there are lessons to be learnt from the ANC’s past and the intergenerational exchange of ideas, which are critical for progress. “The tension and contestation of ideas is quite important, to think things are new, to see things differently.”

For Chaka, nuance is needed in our perspective as South Africans, including in media reporting and how we think about our contemporary struggles. In her address, Chaka recalled a conversation with “an old white Afrikaans lady” from her gym who had asked her granddaughter how many black children were in her class. Confused, the child reportedly looked at her grandmother and responded, “I don’t know.”

“That conversation symbolises what these great men fought for. I live in a South Africa where I am considered a youth, where all the headlines tell me the bad news. I live in a South Africa that does not give me hope and does not tell me about those that went before me.” Chaka said South Africa needs to reflect on past leaders such as Mandela and critically examine the lessons that they can teach us. “Some of the questions (from the audience) were ‘blame’ questions and the narrative tonight was learnt from the good and the bad,” she advised.

The audience had asked various questions including how President Jacob Zuma fared when compared to the leaders Maharaj had mentioned, whether there were still people like Sisulu in the ANC, and whether the “rainbow nation” was “sold” to South Africa to gain peace. Maharaj did not respond directly to the question about Zuma and the ANC, but spoke of the need for intergenerational experience and remembering the past in its context rather than focusing on what-ifs. He said, in the run-up to democracy, it was necessary for the ANC to create peace and stability. He conceded that they also made mistakes. “We began to conduct democracy the way it is understood in the Western form. We articulated and said we are going to build a people-centred, participatory democracy — we did nothing to experiment in that regard.”

Maharaj said we are beginning to understand the challenges and still need to define who we see as the people, but he is not despondent when he thinks of contemporary South Africa. He ended his lecture: “May we, and generations to come, derive strength from them and act in the knowledge that there is a possibility, a potential of a Mandela, a Tambo, a Sisulu, in each of you, in each of us. That potential is there if we commit to never forget that we exist to serve the people.”