By his own admission, Nelson Mandela was a product of the Congress movement and he resisted every attempt to disentangle his personal journey from that of the African National Congress. At one of his very last public appearances, in 2008, he insisted: “I would be nothing without the ANC.”
In 1985, his daughter Zindzi had read out a letter in which he rejected conditional release from prison and had asserted: “I am a member of the African National Congress. I have always been a member of the African National Congress and I will remain a member of the African National Congress until the day I die.”
Attempts to drive a wedge between Madiba and his organisation — whether by scholars or by political foes of the ANC, both during apartheid and in the democratic era — have been doomed to failure. The organisation shaped him; and he strove to shape the organisation.
In discourses today, Mandela the exceptional principled leader is often pitted against Mandela the opportunist sell-out. In this debate the complexity of a man who was highly principled but at the same time a politician’s politician, able to play the political game more adeptly than any of his contemporaries, is missed.
He was both principled and pragmatic, a leader who consulted widely and respected the collective but who also acted unilaterally at several critical moments in his life, a leader who would go the wall for certain principles, but who could also make compromises — some in retrospect arguably softer than they needed to be.
Madiba joined the ANC in 1944, and from the outset was always working with others to renew, reform, retool or radicalise the movement. Together with Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe and others he embraced Africanism and was part of the first ANC Youth League, which by the 1950s had transformed the organisation in fundamental ways.
He studied Marxism and communism, and worked with communists. So much so that when he became Umkhonto we Sizwe’s first leader he was also widely believed to be a member of the Communist Party.
Through the long prison years, Madiba continued to push for renewal. He led strategies of resistance to oppressive prison conditions. He encouraged engagement with Black Consciousness. And, against the counsel of his closest comrades, he opened the door to talks about talks with the apartheid regime.
From the moment he left prison he worked with a collective to harness the movement as part of a broader peacemaking process, while retooling it into a political party.
For Madiba the movement he was a member of would only have life if it was constantly reimagining and repositioning itself in relation to changing realities. It had to have a life and self-awareness that enabled it to be strategically receptive to the messages of changing circumstances. It had to look in the mirror and be able to effect strategic adjustments in the face of environmental changes. It had to constantly strive to do better and to be better.
As he stepped down from the position of ANC president in 1997, Madiba warned his successor against the danger of surrounding oneself with yes-people. He had looked in the mirror, and could already see it happening. He said: “Many among our members see their membership of the ANC as a means to advance their personal ambitions to attain positions of power and access to resources for their own individual gratification.”
In the decade that followed — during his retirement — Madiba found himself repeatedly at loggerheads with ANC leaders on the question of HIV/Aids. He didn’t hesitate to critique the policies of the governing party in facing that pandemic.
For Madiba, renewal and unity were not to be at the expense of the benefit of the country.
For some in the current cohort of leaders, renewal and unity mean being allowed to get away with the theft of state resources and in some instances starting new state capture ventures without consequences. Impunity could never be the basis for organisational “unity and renewal”, particularly if it further crippled the arms of the state meant to protect and strengthen South Africa’s constitutional democracy.
It can also mean using state resources for personal enrichment without much care for the poor. It means being allowed to inflate prices when building houses for the poor without much care about quality. It means sabotaging municipal water infrastructure in order to keep making money out of bringing water in tanks to communities at a huge cost and inconvenience to the people.
Renewal for these forces means turning a blind eye to such acts in the name of the unity of the movement. They do not realise that they are stealing from the next generation, or they don’t care.
They are robbing the poor of a constitutional injunction that promises a better life for all. They have forgotten the promises of the Freedom Charter — that the people shall share the wealth of the country. They have forgotten the key values that made the movement what it was.
If Madiba had been younger and were still alive, what would his stance be in relation to a movement and a political party that is in serious trouble today? What would stand out for him at the marking of the organisation’s 110th anniversary, one that coincides with the 60th anniversary of his 1962 trip through Africa to mobilise support for the movement?
We can’t speak for Madiba, of course. In the period 2004 to 2010 my colleagues and I saw Madiba in pain as he watched a spiralling factionalism within the ANC, and as he began to make sense of state capture and a broader capture of democracy. No doubt he would be in even greater pain now.
The greatest urgency now is to visualise the future from the perspective of the mandate citizens will give the government they will elect in 2024. Can these elections catapult South Africa into the next phase of our constitutional democracy, armed with formative lessons from the first phase of a great promise that descended into severe disappointments? South Africa have learnt significant lessons from the last 27 years. How such lessons could or will inform a new politics in South Africa remains to be seen.
Sello Hatang is the chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation