Mandela as ‘underdog’ and a fresh look at the liberation struggle

Although the eminent African literary scholar Professor Bhekizizwe Peterson who died in June last year critically explored genres of fact and fiction separately, he let these registers bleed on each other. This is important for the discussion of Spear: Mandela and Other Revolutionaries (2022) by Paul Landau and Ghosts of Archives (2021) by Verne Harris. It is because both projects adopt a similar approach to Peterson’s engagement with narrative and archives, thereby enriching how these two books engage the post-1994 blues emergent in South Africa’s public discourse. Instead of relying on the prominence of Nelson Mandela, both books ply their narrative and archive trade in what in archival studies is understood to be the figured and thereby reconfigurable nature of archives. 

The value of the archive, which the two books Spear and Ghosts plough through, and the value of Peterson’s lens is that his scholarly engagement with narrative — as the foremost framing rationale for storying the past — brings to the fore a healthy bricolage or improv quality to the reading of the text. This helps to investigate the effect that the history of ideas has had on established or received facts. 

This bricolage or eclecticism is enabling. It takes apart received ideas, and dismantles and re-assembles their fragments, to hold the potential to defer meanings away from the monopoly of the powerful towards use by vulnerable people. Because of our long history of repression (administratively, and knowledge production-wise), it becomes important to forge tools that trace these diehard “durabilities of duress”, to stem their sipped-through effect on the current political imagination. 

Also, archives are no longer taken as neutral documents of immutable evidence. Their authority is always reassessed against forms of new consciousness and new attitudes. Two new relevant attitudes that have emerged lately and are central to how the books engage the text and freshly wrestle with themes in the public domain, have to do with i) Mandela’s contested liberatory iconography and ii) the need to overcome limitations of shrinking people into fixed, individuated analysands (psychologiseable subjects). In this insistence of the books to read political actors as contingent subjects, always in flux, something new emerges. 

Mandela, the morphing subject of history

We are not really shown how the ANC, once the party of the oppressed, has segued into a citadel of crass opulence. Rather we are trafficked through archival records by subway dom straats, where Mandela’s iconography is dealt a fresh underdog-narrative blow. Landau, more sharply, traces the faultlines of Mandela’s nationalist project by setting it up against a stifled traditional openness of the ANC in the 1960s. He places us in the cloak-and-dagger traits of the era, and notes a certain inherited covert culture from this era as one that haunts the organisation’s dialogue tradition. 

It’s the decisive, perhaps even opportunistic, dissident military-oriented band in the ANC, that at this time of underground operation and secrecy seemed to push the movement towards militancy. In addition, this internal pressure group of militants grabbed the opportunity to gain support from the independence-gaining African states. 

Landau also gives us the anatomy of Mandela’s preoccupation with taking up arms: “The case was made that the ANC must not be left behind by other people.” The breakaway Africanists from the ANC who formed the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) in 1959 solidified for “Mandela and his [white communist] allies” a commitment to “guerrilla war”, as a contestation of the PAC’s vanguardist traction gained in the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre.

As already alluded to in the frame we ascribe to Peterson, Landau, in Spear, mobilises protocols of storytelling to turn up new soil on an old narrative ground. He casts agents of liberation in the light of individuals who “consist in the fabric of what they weave in action”; people making and unmaking themselves. They are engaged with both the material and metaphysical strains of the liberation struggle; tangible and intangible strands that make it impossible to mechanically tell where one begins and another ends. Landau succeeds in re-storying the near-biblical patriarch of South Africa’s liberation struggle as an underdog. He does this by inhabiting the past, the present and future of Mandela’s subject constitution, not as discrete and cut-off units of linear time, but as an arc of entanglement where a certain sense of simultaneity runs throughout his counter-history project. 

Asking new questions

Ghost of Archive is similar, and both projects draw on the potential of reconfigurability that archives avail when one asks new questions. This iteration of a largely already written history and archival record, read from the vantage point of an incomplete struggle, in both projects takes one’s attention by the scruff of the neck. 

For Landau, the predisposition to produce a vulnerable Mandela rather than a towering “father of a nation” riffs on the paradigmatic reading of text rather than the reading of a mere string of words. As such, this decision to openly lean toward buried meanings instead of obvious ones, elide certain “syntagmatic[ally] contrary messages”. In line with this eclecticism, Landau invites the reader to contest his preconscious “emplot-ment” structure. He adds that he does “not regret that he misses some things and that he has deliberately blurred and excluded other things”.

Summarily, reading these books through Peterson’s lens shows that evidence doesn’t speak for itself but must itself be interpreted along axes of narrative biases. Hence, to misquote Mao, let a thousand narratives grow. This brings us to what the author of Spear calls his overall interpretation: “Mandela’s ‘Sophiatown group’… saw the shift to violent opposition as inevitable, tried to take control of it in the name of the ANC, and therefore made MK possible.” Much in the book shows that there is no mechanist way to arrive at what transpired as a path of struggle: No foreshadowing reveries. The organisation jumped through thumb-sucking hoops towards the post-94 iteration of struggle. 

The deferral of the post-94 dream, however, is a subject that haunts these two books, even though their take is of a post-mortem kaleidoscope kind, rather than fixation on character flaws that shape the pitfalls of political leaders. 

Worth noting with this multivocal throughline we are reiterating is that the psychobiography babble we eschewed — as Bongani Nyoka’s intellectual work on Archie Mafeje cautions — is prone to trite. By that, we mean that the vulgar elision between “the life of the man” and “the life of the mind” reveals that such shrink genres fall for a context-excised notion of “agency”. In addition, psychobiography is prone to pitfalls of crass emphasis on “experience” as opposed to “idea”. This is truer where blacks are objects or subjects of inquiry. Although both these elements of agency and experience are still there in Spear and Ghosts, they are measured. The books rely on temporal and spatial contexts for reconfiguring archives, to see history afresh.

Moving from this place of many subjective frames for the assemblage of the “fact”, Harris, similarly to Landau, asserts that South Africa is full of ghosts that “whisper incessantly through centuries of colonialisation, slavery, segregation and apartheid”. He deploys his iconoclast take on Nelson Mandela by referring to him as follows: “Although in the 1990s, Nelson Mandela seduced many South Africans into thinking that South Africa was [special]… all societies are haunted. All societies struggle to find liberatory ways of responding to their ghosts.” Some of these ghosts are labelled “indigenous knowledge”: mediums and ancestral rationale which speak a language of terror to established convention. 

Dissecting the meaning of power and authority

But this spectral lens, as something that can haunt us — something that does not only record the past but actively constitutes it with each added insight or novel question (that unravels the archives) — is why we huddle over these two books. It is to attempt to dissect the meaning and power of authority sanctioned by words of history that come to us through the archive. Harris circles around the idea of archival work as both necessary and inhibiting. Such a sentiment is true for the project of reconciliation, he avers. He adds that we should consider ways in which archiving undermines indigenous knowledge-keeping. 

Moreover, in Ghosts the current configuration of the archive silences the voice of the ghosts in determining which stories proclaim to be heard. It also discredits the merit of ancestral knowledge by delegitimising truth claims that fall outside the current judicial purview. Harris does not outrightly proclaim this, but only hints at it. He says this to avoid what we are presently experiencing as a “haunting”, which comes in the form of the resurfacing of archival knowledge for the use of settling political scores.

The narrative turn as a frame to retrieve contextual facts has summarily fostered a humbleness and appreciation that truth and people are mutually constitutive. It is here that the eminent African literary scholar, Peterson, contributes most profoundly to the refashioning of our humanity. It is this instability, a structural ambivalence in text and an immanent ambiguity of lifeworlds where Peterson helps us think. He helps us think about the generative nature of the two texts — as both texts exist at the limit of breaking with the old and getting geared to the new. 

A struggle of memory

Ghosts poignantly paints Harris’s world. His is a world of a conscripted apartheid youth who subsequently escapes the trauma of putting paid to the regime’s political health in the 1980s. He, out of guilt or conviction, converts to the anti-apartheid struggle camp. Harris’s narrative-biography, or what might be called autrebiography, dabbles in both the expository world of theory and the narrative world of a priori (or hardcoded) biases. 

For all that, Harris doesn’t fail to register a highly empathetic reading of black people’s tonality of the anti-apartheid struggle. This is not merely a struggle against power, it is also a struggle of memory, where remembering and forgetting contests for space. Here Harris backs off from the pomp of academic objectivity by declaring his ideological bias. As such, he cedes ground, without putting it in too many words, to accommodate himself in a struggle that is fundamentally not his. 

Having said that, Harris has his own limitations. He wants to impose his own sense of frame for testing truth claims. This strong sense of frame makes it hard to lay down one’s bias at the feet of another’s grammar of suffering. This makes him split hairs about authentic and inauthentic archives. This blind spot notwithstanding, his coalition politics is sound. Landau by contrast seems to miss this nuanced gesture, the dance of lead and accompaniment: what Mogobe Ramose, a philosophy and legal studies professor, might frame in these terms: who has the “sovereign title to territory” in South Africa’s liberation struggle?

Landau is rightly incensed with the elite nationalism of the ANC and hints at how its fault lines can be traced back to the sectarian pressure groups within the 1960s struggle movement. The ANC hardly has “a good story to tell”, but something truly fresh, even sympathetic, emerges when the story of the struggle for liberation is not homogenised around their triumphalist mono-narrative tropes — Harris’s and Landau’s books lead the pack here. 

The author thanks Sandile Ngidi and Lethokuhle Msimang, who acted as conceptual editors for this article. Rithuli Orleyn works through the Blackhouse Kollective outfit, a home for Black Consciousness and Pan Africanist thought. He is a fellow of The Centre for Humanities Research and a PhD candidate in the history department at the University of the Western Cape.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Rithuli Orleyn
Rithuli Orleyn works through the Blackhouse Kollective outfit, a home for Black Consciousness and Pan Africanist thought. He is a fellow of The Centre for Humanities Research and a PhD candidate in the history department at the University of the Western Cape

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