/ 1 December 2023

Madiba and his forgotten legacy of virtue

Late former president Nelson Mandela. (Photo by Gideon Mendel/Corbis via Getty Images)

My eldest child Lukhangela was born in 2003, which makes him a bona fide member of the age group colloquially known as the 2000s. 

Far removed by time from the political events that took place before and immediately after 1990, their epistemic point of reference is not experiential. Unless they are keen to find out the truth about the past on their own, it may be said that they are “virgin territory” for post-liberation political thought, some of which has taken a grotesquely forensic form since the late 2000s. 

And no political liberation figure has been so dissected to the point of posthumous mutilation as Madiba has — a merciless forensic rhetoric that has presented my son and his peers with a disfigured image of the man, not a true reflection. 

The symbolic violence of Madiba’s legacy that my son is witnessing is undergirded by the familiar intolerance and ridicule of divergent views about the man. His admirers are being branded as sell-outs and symbolically persecuted in a way reminiscent of the mediaeval branding and killings of “heretics” for preaching the gospels which were excluded from biblical canon by the early church. 

Sadly for my son, his inquiry and learning about Madiba is a contest against this emotive whirlwind of hostility toward the man’s legacy. But particularly concerning is that the demagogic nature of the challenge to Madiba’s legacy potentiates insidious tyranny, threatening the freedom to think independently about him. 

So, I must accept that the narrative about Madiba is no longer a smooth sail. And in keeping with the somewhat forensic atmosphere around him, as a parent I have the dual task of equipping my son and his peers with the acumen to think independently about Madiba and his legacy, on the one hand. On the other I must share my own story about his legacy, but do so with the transparency that allows him to distinguish the facts from my own opinions. 

But besides offending Madiba’s admirers, what is so problematic about the violation of his legacy? Immanuel Kant’s answer to the question is obvious, although it is taken more seriously in courts of law and the natural sciences. He called it “public reason” — the discipline to reason logically, from true premises and evidence, in order to arrive at the truth or a rational conclusion. Kant correctly propagated that public reason ought to govern all discourse about public affairs. 

Bereft of any modicum of respect for public reason, the charge against Madiba’s legacy is not deserving of serious consideration. But our commitment to teach our children to think independently about Madiba also dictates that we provide some commentary about the causality surrounding the vicious onslaught on the man’s legacy. 

And my commentary consists of three arguments. The first is that anyone who tries to view Madiba’s legacy through the lens of the current ANC is bound to see a distorted reflection of the man. 

Second, I argue that the injury to Madiba’s legacy is the collateral damage of the rage directed at the ANC, owing in part to its shameless loss of respect for the South African people. 

Third, it is possible, albeit misguidedly, to be cynical about Madiba’s symbolic image of peacemaker and nation builder, if the perception is that the walls he mended are crumbling and his nation is being torn apart by the widening gap between the rich and the poor. 

In addition, I opine that a Hegelian psychoanalysis might claim that Madiba’s presidency was too short for his nation building to mature to the extent of completely healing the post-apartheid national trauma. And as a corollary, it could be said that the anger against his legacy is a symptom that the trauma is re-emerging. 

I conclude this Hegelian perspective by arguing that Madiba’s legacy is the casualty of the leadership that severed the umbilical cord with the people and escaped the responsibility of completing his task of nation building and healing. 

The forgoing analysis is simply a conceptual foundation. It is part of the quest to develop in the minds of my son and his peers the acumen for public reason, meaning and interpretation. But my self-appointment as my son’s tutor on how to think independently about Madiba’s legacy is not contrary to my role as his tour guide around the man. 

So, when he asked me, ‘Who was Madiba?’ I told him about the man who was born to the royal house of Ngubengcuka. The man who shed his royal regalia, putting on the robes of a law graduate instead. The man who became a legal practitioner but sacrificed that achievement to participate in the struggle for all South Africans to be the best they could be. The man who told the judge in the Rivonia trial that he was prepared to die for his ideals — words he spoke as if he was a man with nothing to lose personally, and yet he did have. 

I was particularly proud to also tell him that Madiba possessed the four cardinal virtues postulated by the philosophers of antiquity. In him I recognised wisdom, justice, courage and self-restraint. And more than a handful across the world, especially the children, can remind us that among his other virtues were compassion, kindness, generosity and humour. 

But if I were to fail to persuade my son that every nation needs to revere its heroes and invoke their virtues if not their deeds as well, I would not be troubled. I would show him that Madiba should be to us what Samora Machel is to the people of Mozambique. Madiba should be to us what John Garang is to the people of South Sudan. Madiba should be to us what Kenneth Kaunda is to the people of Zambia. Above all, Madiba should be to us what he is to the rest of the world. 

I conclude by arguing that it is not what we challenge about Madiba’s legacy that could cast aspersions on our own characters, it is how we challenge it. I doubt if anyone rationally believes that Madiba locked us in a bad political deal that for three decades we could not do away with. Otherwise we would have achieved almost everything we believe Madiba should have done differently. 

I want my son and his peers to challenge these forensic sleight of hand.  These rhetorical fault lines in the criticism of Madiba’s legacy must be exposed. By doing so we might realise that in fact progress is possible, even without desecrating Madiba’s grave. 

I am not a member of a political party. I have no party line to toe. I am simply a courageous man unafraid to proclaim my reverence for Madiba against even the heavy current of antagonism towards him. 

And that is not a reflection of my views on his political strategies. The man conquered my heart with his virtues alone. And those who confine Madiba to political parochialism cannot understand this view of the man. Perhaps they do not understand the transcendence of virtues, if they are acquainted with them at all. 

Mzwandile Manto is a thinker and community activist.