/ 10 May 2019

Mandela, the Merc and the making of stories

On 22 July 1990
On 22 July 1990, Mercedes Benz employee Philip Groom handed the keys of a brand new Mercedes Benz to Nelson Mandela at the Sisa Dukasha Stadium in Mdantsane, near East London. (Photo: Walter Dhladhla/AFP files)

Five months after his release from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela was given a brand-new car.

It was a red S-Class Mercedes Benz made in the factory in East London — and it was presented tohim at a special ceremony at the Sisa Dukashe stadium in Mdantsane, in front of 30 000 people.

In 2013, with Mandela’s health declining, the car company produced a celebratory film called Labour of Love, telling the story of the car, the firm’s long association with the former president, and providing an account of the Mandela-inspired unity between management and the union-member workers who had built it after hours and by hand, in just four days.

The film ended with the words: “South Africa, together we are better.”

During his address, titled “On ‘making’ Mandela”, at the recent Mandela University colloquium Dalibhunga: This time? That Mandela?, University of the Western Cape professor of history Ciraj Rassool described a second film about the same event, but which revealed a completely different story.

He used the two films to illustrate the many layers of the stories and histories we are told about Mandela — how they are constructed, the details revealed and hidden, often reflecting the times and purposes of the story-tellers. And how they are never the full story — including Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom — but should rather be viewed as resources for critical inquiry and deeper exploration.

Both films included recollections by the automotive workers, union organisers, management and industrial conflict facilitators.

The second film, called Red, was made in 2014 by artist Simon Gush and actor and writer James Cairns. It formed part of Gush’s exhibition in Johannesburg and East London.

“Gush sought to understand the producing and presenting of the car in light of the nine-week illegal strike and plant sleep-in that transpired a few weeks later,” said Rassool.

“He was inspired by the commitment of the East London workers to produce a car for Mandela — as well as their resilience during the nine-week strike.

“Gush intervened in how events should be remembered. His film revealed a more complex story … and revealed a much more divided workforce [at that time, prior to subsequent improved relations].”

In addition to the film, Gush’s exhibition included the disassembled parts of a replica of the car alongside a reconstructed display of the sleep-in, with “strike beds” made from scaffolding, foam, upholstery and car headrests.

“The Mercedes-Benz replica, stripped down to its parts, turned into an enquiry, almost an autopsy, into the labour process and the events of the strike. It questioned the celebratory and reconciliatory view of the gift as a product of partnership between workers and management.

“The installation Red was also an engagement with the cultural production of Nelson Mandela, of the meaning of the man and how he should be remembered.”

Rassool also critically examined Mandela’s history as told in Long Walk to Freedom, published in 1994, which had “come to be inscribed into South Africa’s process of nation-making as the seeming embodiment of its heritage and the immortal guarantor of its future”.

“Mandela’s autobiography/biography came to stand at the apex of the biographical order in South Africa.”

He described how Mandela’s “biographical maintenance” — the “process of producing, deploying, contesting and maintaining of Mandela’s life story” — has gone through several different phases and purposes.

“Yet instead of trying to analyse the cultural history of Mandela’s biography, much more has been made in terms of what his life as activist, prisoner, president, leader and retired politician symbolised, in relation to the narrative of the South African nation and the triumph of the human spirit.

“We are limited to understanding Nelson Mandela as a symbol and how it is put to use as a brand of leadership, rather than as a study of cultural politics and Mandela’s biography.”

He went on to say that the “cultural production” of Mandela’s life through the medium of biography was complex, and involved the interaction of experts and assistants, promoters, publicists and image-makers over time and through several media.

“Some narratives are also simultaneously autobiographical … When writing about the life of another, it’s also about writing about yourself … It’s interesting to realise how much hope and desire people put into biography. Biography doesn’t have a sure footing in history. It’s a product of culture and it’s a product of history.”

Rassool said the red Mercedes was “given to Mandela, importantly, at a time of transition in his autobiography/biography”.

“The biography was changing alongside the shift in his life. This was a change-over from the biography of a desire for the absent revolutionary leader [Mandela in prison] to a biography of statesman and president, and it is this turning point in the biography that partly explains the ambiguous history of the gift of the car as labour of love … It is significant that Simon Gush chose to take issue with the warm and celebratory interpretation of the gift.

“It was a labour of love turned into an artwork of inquiry.”

He said Gush’s film showed that Mandela’s car had indeed been assembled with love and passion by the workers. “But as much as it represented love, it also represented labour. Mandela’s Mercedes had become an artefact of labour history … This line of inquiry into the history of labour was a more appropriate way to understand the significance of Nelson Mandela.

“The installation was a vivid dis-assembly of the corporate narrative of reconciliation, and an insistence that Mandela’s life history is best understood as a resource for critical inquiry.”

As sense-maker of Rassool’s session, Relebohile Moletsane, who holds the John Langalibalele Dube Chair in Rural Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said Mandela’s biographies revealed “Nelson Mandela’s complexity, his multiplicity and his contributions” and required exploration across disciplines.

“Modern universities are still organised around disciplines and hierarchies. It doesn’t help us to understand the very complex and intertwined issues our society presents us with,” she said.

“Mandela’s biography reminds us of the old feminist saying that the personal is political.”

In responding to Rassool’s talk, Xolela Mangcu, a professor of sociology at George Washington University in Washington DC, said there was not a single full-length autobiography or biography written by an African.

“Part of the problem with Nelson Mandela’s biography is that his story has not been narrated by African people or by black people broadly. It has mainly been written by United States or United Kingdom authors [Long Walk to Freedom was penned by US author Richard Stengel], so there are problems of interpretation and knowledge about who Mandela was.”

Another response came from Ihron Rensburg, former vice chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg, who spoke about the challenges universities face in decolonising university processes and curricula — even through dedicated decolonisation projects such as the proposed Critical Mandela Studies project. “In as much as we’re reflecting on Madiba, in as much as we’re seeking to excavate new insights and perspectives, in as much as we’re seeking to retrieve him from the commercial and from interpretations that are problematic, I think we should challenge ourselves in this work, similarly, to ask questions and engage ourselves — how do we begin to nurture wider groups of masters and doctoral students and ourselves as young and established academics? How do we begin to form our own ‘clubs’ as academics to begin this [decolonisation] project? And so, that’s a challenge I leave for us, that I think it is wrong for us, those of us who have been in the trenches, to look the other way instead of playing a role, of offering humility, insights, perspectives and to help secure this project so that it doesn’t become a spectacular failure.”

As moderator, Human Sciences Research Council chief executive Crain Soudien responded to Van Rensburg, saying it was a challenge to ensure the Mandela Studies project was carried forward into something that was not just symbolic.

Returning to the question of biography, Carolyn Hamilton, who holds a South African Research Chair in Archive and Public Culture at the University of Cape Town, said: “One of the things we’re interested in [with biographies] is this business of being able vicariously to watch another person act, which makes you think about yourself acting in history and in time. I wonder if that isn’t a way of confronting an ethical frontier — so you read someone else’s life either to see how they’ve failed, when you read the biography of a villain, or a hero [to see how they’ve succeeded], but how difficult when there is ethical compromise or ambiguity … Another component that’s incredibly hard to imagine is how does the writer of the biography presume to sit in judgement of another life in quite that way? Because it seems an extraordinary thing to represent another life … How do you pick up that responsibility?”