Whither the Mandela of the history books?

Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy is the subject of intense debate, and some people have labelled him posthumously as a “sell-out”, arguing he did not do enough to achieve economic freedom for South Africa’s landless and dispossessed. What has however also emerged is the blind spots of history that have grown in parallel to the legend of the great man.

University of Cape Town Professor Xolela Mangcu, speaking at a Mail & Guardian Critical Thinking Forum in Houghton on Tuesday, pointed out that he is the first African writing about biography on Mandela, an indication, he said, of our reluctance to engage actively  with our history. Mangcu also disagreed vehemently with the notion that Mandela could be a “sellout”.

“It hurts me when young people born into freedom say that Mandela was a sellout. Mandela chose to remain in prison when he could have become a wealthy man with one of the few black law firms in Johannesburg,” Mangcu said.

The Economic Freedom Fighters and Black First Land First have called for Mandela’s economic policies to be reviewed, arguing that he sold out with his call for reconciliation. Tuesday’s panel argued that the history of Mandela cannot be studied through two extremes.

READ MORE: Why South Africa should undo Mandela’s economic deals

The critical thinking forum, hosted in partnership with Sanral and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, questioned the validity of rainbowism and the choices made in the name of reconciliation.

The panel agreed that Mandela could never be deemed a sellout, but pointed out that Mandela’s history was not neat.

Mandela the revolutionary?

Wits Professor Noor Nieftagodien said that the context for the term revolutionary has changed over the years, and the word now means those seeking to overthrow capitalism.

Mangcu added that the more orthodox meaning of revolutionary is connected to Marxist ideas, which Mandela did not meet.

Mandela grew up as an aristocrat. He was a prince who was aware that people would always defer decisions to him. Furthermore, Mangcu said, Mandela was vain.

Despite his vanity, Mangcu argued that Mandela was a practical leader. Mangcu cited Mac Maharaj’s book, in which the former president in an essay queried whether the ANC had been correct not to participate in the homelands system. Mandela even went as far as to encourage individuals to participate in local government structures under the apartheid regime, Mangcu argued.

“Mandela was not a revolutionary in the way we understand that concept. Before the 1960s, the ANC — and the individuals who formed it — wanted to be a part of the Eurocentric system,” Mangcu said.

The former president may have been vain and a product of his time, but according to the founding general secretary of Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), Jay Naidoo, Mandela was, after all, just a man, but a man who went on to do extraordinary things.

An extraordinary Mandela moment was retold by attorney and content curator for the Museum and Archive of the Constitution at the Hill, Lwando Xaso.

For Xaso, Mandela’s first court statement in his 1962 trial is the Mandela she remembers and whose legacy is a lesson for South Africa today.

In the trial — held in the Old Synagogue court in Pretoria, from October 15 to November 7 — Mandela was accused on two counts: that of inciting persons to strike illegally (during the 1961 stay-at-home) and that of leaving the country without a valid passport. He conducted his own defence. Mandela’s “black man in a white man’s court” speech called for transformation. Mandela was “not at ease with the situation”, she said, reiterating the point that this is not the behaviour of a person who sold his people out.

Recalling his statement, Xaso said that Mandela asked the judge to recuse himself, making this recommendation not because he thought the judge was a bad person, but because Mandela thought that the justice system at the time was a sham. She believes this showed a Mandela very much aware of the need for transformation, and very much attuned to the struggles of the black professionals in corporate spaces all these years later.

For Mangcu, Mandela may not be considered a revolutionary in today’s narrow interpretation of the word, but his decision to fight for the political freedom of South Africa before his own economic comfort meant that the former president practiced “radical sacrifice”.

In closing, Nieftagodien cautioned against reviewing South Africa’s history and Mandela’s legacy uncritically, adding that a contemporary focus on Mandela’s story has shut out women who played a vital role in the struggle, pointing out how the “sellout” discussion began again with the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

“When we celebrate Mandela’s legacy, we have to do so in a critical way,” Nieftagodien said, because “many voices have been erased from the narrative”. 

Watch the full discussion here

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