Friday would have been the 96th birthday of Nelson Mandela. It was the first Nelson Mandela International Day since his passing in December, commemorated in 126 countries. According to the Nelson Mandela Foundation, 1,200 “positive deeds” had been registered on their website. Amid the 67 minutes of tree planting, cycling and picking up litter, all of which is supposed to demonstrate service to humanity, it sometimes is forgotten that Mandela was, first and foremost, a political figure. South Africa is now the custodian of his political philosophy. What is it doing with it? By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Had Nelson Mandela died while he was in prison or an active politician, his legacy would probably have been vastly different to the loving grandfather figure image now projected, along with his vision for human dignity and reconciliation.
In the latter years of his life, Mandela stepped out of his primary political persona and grew into the global icon personifying social justice, human rights, peace-making and reconciliation. In recognition of this, the United Nations General Assembly declared 18 July Nelson Mandela International Day, joining a call by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to devote 67 minutes to helping others.
The UN resolution, adopted in 2009, recognises Mandela’s values and dedication to the service of humanity in the fields of conflict resolution, race relations, the promotion and protection of human rights, reconciliation, gender equality and the rights of children and other vulnerable groups, as well as the upliftment of poor and underdeveloped communities. It acknowledges his contribution to the struggle for democracy internationally and the promotion of a culture of peace throughout the world.
The efforts to pay tribute to Madiba’s life by emulating his commitment to humanity through the 67-minute campaign are laudable and help to keep his memory and legacy alive worldwide. However, the almost Hallmark packaging of Mandela’s legacy relegates his political life as a means to an end rather than a deliberate choice on his part to lead a militant fight for freedom and racial equality.
Writing in The Sunday Independent, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe spoke of the challenges of remembering Mandela in all his dimensions and through his own words. He quoted Mandela’s friend, comrade and predecessor as ANC president, Oliver Tambo, as how he knew him: “As a man, Nelson is passionate, emotional, sensitive, quickly stung to bitterness and retaliation by insult and patronage… He is dedicated and fearless.” That is obviously how Tambo remembered Madiba as a fellow revolutionary, charting a militant path first in the ANC Youth League and then in the ANC towards liberation.
The free-for-all 67-minute campaign now allows everybody to remember and translate Mandela’s life and memory in whichever way they wish to – as long as it has some association to public service. It is of course true that Mandela was different things to different people, but his political philosophy and life are not open to interpretation.
His political convictions, in fact, are extremely definite.
The ANC has struggled to keep its claim on Mandela because of the way he has risen above his role in the liberation struggle into a towering global figure. Unlike every other heroic figure produced through the fight against Apartheid, Mandela’s post-liberation life both as South African president and elder statesman rivals his tremendous sacrifices as a freedom fighter. The ANC has been mindful not to be defined by Mandela only but the litany of heroic figures in its leadership over its 102-year history. However, there is a latent resentment that other political organisations and civil society use Mandela’s images and words in their campaigns, often against the ANC.
One of the ANC’s grave errors has been the neglect of political education both in its own ranks and in South Africa society. This has resulted in much of the organisation’s rich traditions and history being reduced to highlights in the liberation struggle. The failure to hand down and debate the life and values of the generation of Tambo and Mandela in its own structures has contributed to the internal erosion of the ANC. Both in terms of political knowledge and the culture of self-sacrifice and comradeship, the ANC is losing what made it a truly extraordinary organisation that produced a truly extraordinary man, Nelson Mandela.
Madiba did not want to be a saint. Neither did he want to be seen as a superhuman, capable of what others cannot do. His famous quotes emblazoned and uttered across the world mostly encourage what needs to be done to improve the lot of others. But there is nothing that brings it all together, his life, his teachings, his values, his passions, into a coherent philosophy.
Let’s call it Mandelaism.
South Africa and the ANC could have been models to the world of what Mandelaism should be. It should have been reflected in nation-building policies, programmes and in South African society. It should have been what makes this country distinct and what others around the world look up when they search for Mandela’s legacy. Instead, the rainbow has faded and Mandela’s miracle nation is just another place on the planet, increasingly disconnected from his vision for our country.
Two other towering figures of the workers’ revolutions, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, have influenced multiple political ideologies and social movements that have evolved since the 19th century and will continue to impact on political thought for generations to come.
Will the same be true of Nelson Mandela’s life and teachings? Do they influence how South Africa is managed, do they affect our value system and enrich our cultures? This is the danger with what Nelson Mandela International Day is coming to represent – a great big charity event with no deeper political meaning.
In his article, Mantashe said that, in order to build the nation Madiba envisaged, the implementation of the National Development Plan will change people’s lives and be central to fighting poverty and social problems. Speaking at the launch of the ANC’s Imvuselelo campaign in the Free State on Sunday, President Jacob Zuma said this “back to basics” recruitment and revitalisation drive was also in tribute to Mandela.
“All Fridays from now on should be ANC community work days, during which we will continue spreading the Mandela spirit in our communities,” Zuma said.
So perhaps there is a deliberate effort to infuse Mandelaness into the work of government and the structures of the ANC. Or perhaps all these are thrown into the giant cauldron that is supposed to represent who and what Mandela is.
How, then, is this given to the rest of the world and to future generations? There is a very real possibility that in years to come, Mandela Day will become an empty, commercially abused symbol that suits whoever is in power at that moment. It may also happen that Nelson Mandela the man, denoted through a plethora of statues around the world, will be remembered as a heroic figure of yesteryear, but his political and social beliefs will all be forgotten.
Whose fault will that be? Nelson Mandela gave 67 years of his life to public service not for it to be reduced to an opportunity for kitschy selfie moments once a year when humanity decides it’s time to be nice for a day.
Every time a commercial interest twists his words and meanings into a set of saleables, we move away from the true meaning of Mandela and deeper into meaninglessness. Should we continue on the road, we, as society, have every chance of, in not so distant future, completely losing a sense of who Mandela was and the values he represented.
It has to become something more. Mandelaism needs to be fashioned and championed as his lasting legacy. It needs to be understood properly. It needs to be ingrained deeply in every fibre of our society. It needs to be lived the whole year and not become just another day of chasing more for ourselves and caring less about our joint future.
As South Africa is looking into a future without the towering figure from Qunu, we’re at the crossroads. One road is Mandelaism. The other is not.
The choice is ours, and ours alone. DM
Photo: A file picture dated 02 July 2005 shows Nelson Mandela waving to the crowd at the Africa Standing Tall Against Poverty concert linked to Live 8 in Johannesburg, South Africa. EPA/JON HRUSA
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.