On Bop and the legacy of nostalgia

A man died the other day. Some people expressed their sadness. Others declared his death was not to be lamented. A fissure opened between the two positions. It showed once more that South Africa is a story pressed into service as a country.

The dead man was a relatively forgotten figure, save for a distinct peculiarity. He was Kgosi Lucas Manyane Mangope, and he had ruled apartheid’s showpiece state, Bophuthatswana. Bop was a homeland and the ultimate proof that apartheid was, in Hendrik Verwoerd’s twinkling words, “a policy of good neighbourliness”.

It was a work of artifice, an illusion kept afloat by a network who exploited Bop’s people and its resources. Those external parties bankrolled the infrastructure, the expensive casinos, the hotels and the resorts to which white South Africans flocked to experience what the Calvinist apartheid state denied them.

There was an international airport, an astonishing 59 000-seater stadium and one of the grandest recording studios on earth. All of these things were larger than life — a cartoonish embodiment of the apartheid state’s idea that Africans could have the good life as long as they did so away from white people.

Mangope, too, was larger than life. The chief was a ubiquitous feature of public life in Bophuthatswana. His scowling portrait, with the ceremonial leopard skin (why do all dictators pose in the same way?), emphasised his stature and upright posture.

He was Bophuthatswana’s first leader when the homeland was founded in 1971, and he presided over its nearly three decades as the richest of the 10 bantustans. In photos, he always looks unimpressed, meeting the viewer’s eye with a baleful glare that suggests he has more important things to attend to.

Now that he is dead, Mangope’s legacy will be the subject of some discussion. For if he holds the distinction of presiding over the most illustrious of the bantustans, he will also go down in the pages of history as the homeland leader who obstinately refused to participate in the 1994 elections.

In a South Africa that was tumbling headlong towards democracy, there was little room for the past, and Mangope belonged to the past. He belonged to a world that had been living on borrowed time. But as an emblematic figure, one who has been simultaneously lionised and vilified, he proves crucial to understanding the complexity of memory in South African public life.

My own story intersects with the myth of Mangope in various ways. My family moved to Bophuthatswana as the last decade of the 20th century began, and to my five-year-old self it was the picture of normalcy. My father worked at Unibo, the university with its brutalist design ethos that sits in the centre of Mmabatho. My brother and I went to a school that was named after Solomon Plaatje, staffed by white teachers and diversely populated. There was little sense that the whole show would be coming to an unceremonious end.

If I was asked what I remember most about Bophuthatswana, it would be the distinctive black-on-yellow number plates with their Y-prefix designations. I remember them only because they vanished soon after the fall of Mangope. My parents’ cars had them. Everyone’s cars had them.

Even though only South Africa (itself an illegitimate pariah) recognised Bophuthatswana as an independent territory, it had all the trappings of an independent state. Bop seemed completely self-sufficient. It had glamorous Sun hotels, game lodges and a golf course. It had a relatively comfortable class of black civil servants. There were housing schemes and ostensibly good schools.

When it ended, we were shielded from the spectacle by our parents. We learned only later of how the man we knew as the president had called on the aid of the Afrikaner right wing to quash resistance. We learnt only later of how the Bop army had mutinied, throwing its lot in with the people who demanded freedom.

Today, the puzzling brutal end of the regime is something I think I remember. But these are implanted memories, taken from photos and newspapers and video footage seen many years later.

[Lucas Mangope, Bophuthatswana’s first leader (Getty Images)]

At some point early in the new century, Mangope faded from our view. His solitude freed the local public to reimagine him as an icon, the benevolent father figure rather than the enthusiastic apartheid collaborator. The citizenry of the old homeland now numbered among the wider population of a country that, a decade on from 1994, was looking back at the time of transition as a moment when everything seemed possible. This, they felt, was in stark contrast to a present that was depressingly ordinary.

Groomed to expect extravagant political miracles matched only by passionate national triumphs in sports and public life, it took some adjustment to realise that life in South Africa would not be lived from one exceptional moment to the next.

It was during these years that something inchoate began to express itself more clearly. I heard people reminiscing fondly on the radio. I saw adverts for “Back to Bop” parties and talked to people who were angry that the new dispensation had taken away “our” airport, “our” television stations, “our” sense of self-determination. There seemed to be little consideration for the idea that it was the people of Bophuthatswana themselves who had wrestled power from the grasp of an implacable Mangope.

Sometime later, I left Mahikeng to study elsewhere. I was repelled by the insularity of a space that constantly seemed to be living in thrall to its past. Over the years, I had developed a taciturn scepticism about those who would claim that life was better for them under Mangope’s rule. It seemed to me to be akin to the false retort which declared that, whatever else Hitler had done, he had at least built highways and made the trains run on time.

This was the tenor of the nostalgia — that Mangope was a hero because he had championed the dignity of his people. Whatever else he had done, the argument went, was pale in comparison to the transgressions of those who succeeded him.

The reality, I have learned, is not as easy to dismiss. This nostalgia finds root simply because the successive post-1994 governments of the North West have not covered themselves in glory. The capital lurches between bizarre optimism for the future and the quiet sense that its best days are behind it. The roads are relentlessly potholed. In summer, the uncut grass sings its tale of neglect.

It’s little wonder then that people remember the old regime selectively. For many of Mahikeng’s inhabitants, choosing to celebrate the idea of Bophuthatswana as a haven of good governance and impressive infrastructure is vastly preferable to embracing a present that seems in a state of disrepair.

There is nothing extreme in this way of thinking. At the heart of this sentiment is something that cannot be easily dismissed — a sense, however misplaced, that the ideological benefits of democracy do not outweigh the more concrete benefits of well-funded homeland administration. A vote is not as important for day-to-day life as a pothole-free road.

Of course, there is something more complex going on. Mangope’s defenders are people who would, I think, baulk at the idea that they were nostalgic for apartheid. Theirs is a truth that cannot easily be cognitively absorbed. It is not to be glimpsed in the material residues of the past — the physical remains of Mangope’s rule are the white elephants that were once enlisted to inspire the belief that Bophuthatswana was exceptional. An airport that doesn’t see enough traffic to sustain itself. A stadium that towers gauntly over a city that has little use for it. Megacity, the grand boast of late-capitalism that was symbolically looted as Mangope’s regime crumbled, is undersubscribed and underutilised.

What confounds many of the people who took to social media in the wake of Mangope’s death is that the harsh truth seems irrefutable. How can the normalcy of life in Bophuthatswana sit alongside the routine brutalities, humiliations and deprivations of apartheid? For those who find the fondness for Bophuthatswana abhorrent, the idea of applauding Mangope, the many declarations that “under the old man, things were better for us”, seem a grotesque infidelity to the horrors of black life in 20th-century South Africa.

So far, so ordinary. But in the wake of the 1994 moment, when we believe we understand the culture of memory a little better, why are we still driven to erect boundaries between memory and “truth”? Why does nostalgia make us uncomfortable? Because it shifts things out of their tidy boxes.

But if we accept that “bad” things like Bophuthatswana can also be “good” things in the memories they cultivate for some people, we might come closer to understanding that such comforting fictions are essential to the complex make-up of our nation.

Wamuwi Mbao is a literary critic. He teaches at Stellenbosch University

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