There are two distinct responses to the question of how Nelson Mandela’s legacy should be viewed. He is either revered or vilified as a sell-out for his vision of political and social transformation after apartheid. But there is a third perspective that is rarely explored in the debate about Mandela’s legacy.
It shines a spotlight on the urgent need faced by Mandela and his team of leaders to try to heal the individual and collective wounds of the past and build a sense of solidarity among South Africans.
Mandela introduced to the world a culture that requires listening to those with whom one disagrees, to keep on working at it — expressing anger when appropriate — and to accept compromise in order to reach consensus. This ethical excellence appealed not to the easy instinct of dehumanising racial vengeance but to the better angels of our nature.
For steering his country to this space of possibility he was celebrated by world leaders. Ban Ki-moon, the former United Nations secretary general, referred to Mandela as “more than one of the greatest leaders of our time; he was one of the greatest teachers”. Former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf praised him for ushering in a democracy in which “hope, not fear for the future, define[s] the national debate”. Former United States president Bill Clinton hailed him as “a man of uncommon grace and compassion, for whom abandoning bitterness and embracing adversaries was not just a political strategy but a way of life”.
It is former US president Barack Obama’s response that sums up Mandela’s legacy: “He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages.”
His words echo remarks made by Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war at the deathbed of the statesman after his assassination.
Many South Africans of my generation share this reverence for Mandela. The difference between my generation’s respect and admiration for Mandela and the voices that have criticised him as a sell-out is not just a difference of opinion. It reflects a deep divide between South Africans brought up under apartheid’s oppression and violence and the born-frees, who are angry because the history-making transition has not yet delivered the equality it promised.
For my generation, Mandela was a symbol of freedom and racial unity and he brought our country into the first light of a new dawn. His life and sacrifices will never have the same significance for the younger generation for whom the bells of freedom still ring untrue.
It is from this place that critical voices have emerged, delivered most harshly by Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, in his speech at Oxford University in November 2015: Mandela “compromised the fundamental principles of the revolution” and acted like a “sell-out” when he “abandoned” the dictates of the Freedom Charter.
Calling Mandela a sell-out fails to acknowledge the complicated conditions that emerged after apartheid laws were abolished, not least the threat of violence — and not only the threat, but its reality, played out most in the mass killings in Sebokeng, Boipatong and Bisho. Who can forget the haunting image of Chris Hani after he was assassinated, a moment in our country’s history that brought us to “the brink of disaster,” as Mandela characterised the protests that erupted around the country?
These critical views of Mandela are misguided and unkind at best and, at worst, they are tantamount to an erasure of history.
Mandela, conscious of the potential for violence in our society, with its history of systematic abuses, state-sanctioned violence and violent anti-apartheid protests, understood the need to build a culture of tolerance and solidarity among South Africans.
Neville Alexander, a former revolutionary who spent 10 years on Robben Island, said in an interview that a conversation he had had with Mandela on the island about guerrilla warfare had been life-changing. Mandela told Alexander that Ahmed Ben Bella, the first president of an independent Algeria, had said that trying to overthrow the apartheid state would be “strategically wasteful of lives”.
Alexander said this conversation with Mandela had been “memorable” and had led him to embrace Mandela’s “strategic vision”.
The problem with Mandela’s legacy, according to some among his critics, is precisely this strategic vision that eschewed violent revolution in favour of negotiation and compromise. They believe this gave white South Africans the freedom to continue enjoying multiple layers of symbolic and material privileges that whiteness bestowed under the apartheid government.
And more than this, the privileges have been passed on to their children, whereas the children of those oppressed under apartheid inherited the generational poverty and all that comes with deprived life conditions.
These generational entanglements are captured in the terminology of “white privilege” and “black pain”.
Driving from Cape Town’s southern suburbs along the coastal route on the R310 to Stellenbosch recently, I witnessed about 30 informal homes being built, some with new and some with used corrugated iron. What was most striking was that almost all of those involved in building these small houses, eager to create homes for themselves, were young men and women of a similar age to students at universities.
The scene was like watching a theatre of dreams deferred, each reduced to this act of building an “informal” structure that may be the only type of home that some of these young people will ever own.
This scene is repeated in many parts of South Africa. It is the unfolding of multiple sites, where the structural continuities of the immeasurable consequences of the crime of apartheid and the cruel betrayal of state capture converge.
Scholars writing about historical trauma — the kinds of trauma inflicted over decades or centuries of systematic oppression — have identified a tragic and gloomy reality: the trauma is passed on from one generation to the next, and plays out in interpersonal and social relationships in symbolic forms, including violence enacted against the self, against others or sometimes directed against one’s own group or family.
Transgenerational transmission of trauma, as this phenomenon of repetition of traumas across generations is called, was first identified among second- and third-generation descendants of Holocaust survivors. It has been described as the experience of the memory of the original trauma by children (and sometimes by grandchildren) of victims of the Holocaust — with associated symptoms, as if they had experienced the trauma directly.
The traumatic responses of the next generations are linked to representations of the original trauma in a range of ways.
We have researched transgenerational transmission of trauma in three communities in the Western Cape in collaboration with the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. Preliminary findings suggest that among the young people studied, the past is reconstituted as a lived reality in the present. The feelings of humiliation, sense of worthlessness and experience of dehumanising life conditions are not merely imaginary representations of past suffering, they are painfully real.
This issue of the lived reality of suffering is part of what fuels the rage against the injustice of deepening inequality and the slow pace of change. But these problems are not the consequences of the choices Mandela made. He should not be blamed for the spectacular rupture of his vision of a transformed society.
Mandela knew that the destruction caused by apartheid was incalculable, yet the march to freedom, as he said in his February 1990 speech, “is irreversible”. The task of righting the wrongs of the past was always going to be enormous, and this is probably why, for him, building solidarity was a critical part of his leadership.
His speech carried evidence of this desire to build racial solidarity, calling “on our white compatriots to join us in the shaping of a new South Africa”.
Mandela tried to open an ethical path for us and to expand our moral imagination. Issues of denial of accountability among some white South Africans and the dynamics of the shame and guilt passed on transgenerationally have hardened the hearts of even some among the younger generation of white South Africans and made it difficult for them to empathise with their black compatriots.
Mandela was no saint (and his critics should not expect him to have been perfect when their own leadership styles and their vision have not been flawless).
He faced the challenges of his time with great integrity and he and his team steered the ship in a direction that enabled South Africans to imagine the possibility of a future, and to hope again. Mandela does belong to the ages and, as we mark the centenary of his birth, his memory should be restored to its rightful place.
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is research chair for historical trauma and transformation at Stellenbosch University