South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: Challenges to Mandela’s legacy are historically wrong and politically risky

Op-Ed: Challenges to Mandela’s legacy are historically wrong and politically risky

As South Africa commemorates the second anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela, a huge debate has sprung up around his legacy. Spurred on, inevitably, by that young man, Julius Malema, there are now questions about whether Mandela was a 'sell-out'. The main claim against him is that he did not take a hard enough line on whites, and on their wealth. Essentially, it's a critique of his decision not to nationalise the wealth of white people and redistribute it to poorer black people. But the argument fails to understand the facts on the ground in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, and misses the point completely. At the time, there were actually very few other options. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

In some ways, a debate around the legacy of Madiba, was inevitable. In our creation myth as a nation, he set the benchmarks, and created the boundaries that limit out current political dispensation. To challenge Mandela then is also to challenge the post-Apartheid settlement. That particular settlement has been very good to the majority of white people. They are richer now, both in real terms, and probably relative to most black people, than they were in the 1980’s. They are also freer, both in the way they can move around the world, can trade across Africa, and, perhaps, in their own souls, than they have ever been.

It could be said that the best government white South Africans have ever had, is in fact run by the ANC.

There is a reason why so many white people have so many books about Mandela in their coffee tables. They are symbols that they have both accepted change in South Africa (although, often on their own terms) and that they feel accepted themselves in South Africa. However, as Professor Xolela Mangcu has pointed out, the fact that no black person has yet written a biography of Mandela (It looks like he will be the first) could be significant. That is not to say that only white South African look up to him, but to say that there could be many differences in perception.

Any anger on the part of those who have not benefitted from what was supposed to be a new period of milk and honey, which must surely be the overwhelming majority in this country, is then entirely justified. When Apartheid ended, the promise was that not only would everyone have political freedom, but that we all would have the freedom to pursue economic wealth as well. That, of course, has not happened. But that is not Mandela’s fault.

It seems that most, in fact almost all, of the people who are criticising him in this way are quite young. They may not have been politically aware in the period immediately after Mandela was released from jail. That means there are several things they have not taken properly into account.

The first is how scary that time felt for so many people. In a way almost unimaginable now, there seemed to be massacres almost every other day, if it was not in Boipotong, it was in Queenstown, or it was at St. James, and many others. And that was all before the horror that was the assassination of Chris Hani, which seemed to push the country almost to the brink. Attitudes were hardening on both sides, negotiations would deadlock, tempers would flare, talks would break down, so would talks about talks, and the AWB tried to stop the whole process by driving an armoured car through the World Trade Centre.

At stake for Madiba, and for the entire ANC, was freedom for their people. Nothing more and nothing less. To push any harder than they did could have sparked a backlash in ways that were difficult to predict. While the vast majority of white people had shown they wanted to end Apartheid (in the March 1992 referendum, which is almost forgotten now, despite the fact it shows that given a straight choice, most white people then did reject Apartheid, even if they did not before), if they had been told they would have to sacrifice their swimming pools, things might have been different. We do not know that for a fact, but it is entirely possible.

The point here is that Mandela’s critics fail to realise that at the time freedom was the most important thing, an end was needed to the yoke of oppression of black people, and everything else was secondary. Including, for that generation, wealth. The main reason that people are criticising Mandela in this way could well be that the economy is slowing. When everyone feels that they are going to be richer in a year’s time than they are now, they feel optimistic for the future, many political issues are put on the back-burner, differences in the office do not matter so much, when the cake that we all share is growing.

But when the economy slows down, the opposite happens, everyone can see the cake is shrinking, which means we all have to fight for our slice of it. It seems that the fights around BEE and affirmative action get more emotional during recessionary times, than they do during the boom times. This could be one of the reasons why so many of the arguments that we are having about race at the moment are quite so angry.

However, another problem with the argument against Mandela, is that no one really spells out what he could, or should, have done. Should white people have been made to pay a penance? What about a wealth tax? Or just a higher rate of taxation for white people than black people? All of these have huge problems, how do you define white, how do you define privileged, what does disadvantaged really mean, is Patrice Motsepe privileged and disadvantaged, or neither? For many reasons, trying to do this now could be nearly impossible.

And that’s before one considers what rich people do everywhere, when their money is threatened. They either pack up and go, or they use their resources to fight any measures to take their cash. That could be messy, and end up damaging society more than it aids it. And, in almost all cases, attempts at large-scale rapid redistribution have ended up in failure. By making everyone poorer.

There is also going to be a political consequence for those who criticise Mandela in this way. For many years there has been a bit of a tussle over which organisation can best claim him. The DA has tried, without real success, to suggest that they are the real heirs to Madiba. The ANC, which he led, has obviously fought back against that claim. This new criticism will allow the ANC to reclaim him, and it will aid their efforts to make sure he is not (mis)appropriated from them. Already the party in Gauteng has held a picket outside the provincial legislature to protest against his critics. In the longer-term, this could be politically quite useful for the party that is facing another round of elections, some of them probably tough.

Those who are criticising Mandela in this way are doing so because they feel poorer and more disadvantaged than they should be. In other words, they are complaining about their lot in life. Their everyday life has not improved in the way it should have, and political promises have not been kept. They feel poor, and badly treated. That is because they are genuinely poor and are being genuinely badly treated.

The way to draw the sting from that criticism is simply to grow the economy. And as all the economic signposts suggest the opposite is about to happen, their frustration can only grow more intense. DM

Photo: A statue of the late Nelson Mandela is seen during a memorial for the late Nelson Mandela in Pretoria, South Africa, 05 December 2014. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

[%% img-description %%]

The Spy Bill: An autocratic roadmap to State Capture 2.0

Join Heidi Swart in conversation with Anton Harber and Marianne Merten as they discuss a concerning push to pass a controversial “Spy Bill” into law by May 2024. Tues 5 Dec at 12pm, live, online and free of charge.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.8% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.2% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.2% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.2%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options