Two-and-a-half years after his passing, who would’ve thought that Nelson Mandela would be featuring in this year’s local government elections? Instead of big issues that should be in contention in this poll, the African National Congress and Democratic Alliance are fighting over which party is entitled to use Mandela as a campaign weapon. Mandela’s legacy might belong to the world but his political affiliation was not universal. The question is: why should Mandela even be a factor when people make a decision about who to vote for? The answer says a lot about our politics. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
On 18 July, it is perfectly acceptable for people across the political spectrum to celebrate and uphold Nelson Mandela’s legacy. In the context of the elections campaign however, the Mandela family and his party, the ANC, have taken offence at the DA using the icon’s image, voice and legacy to draw the attention of voters.
Up to now, the opposition’s biggest campaign tool has been President Jacob Zuma. His conduct and leadership (or lack thereof) has turned many people away from the ANC and caused disillusionment, even among people who were prepared to dedicate their lives to the organisation. But there is only so much the DA could flog out of that horse, and with the president’s ability to shrug off every scandal and controversy, they needed to find another strategy to tap into the ANC base.
A television advert released by the DA a few weeks ago was aimed at rattling the ANC. Not only did it use the ANC’s flag and show members supposedly trying to bully a voter, they also used Mandela’s voice to convince a young woman in the voting booth to change her vote from ANC to DA. It was aimed at undecided and disillusioned people, using Mandela’s words to get into their minds and convince them to vote DA.
The Mandela family reacted angrily saying the association of Madiba with the DA was an “insult” and an “affront to his history, his party of choice, his legacy and the values for which he stood”. A statement released by the Royal House of Mandela also said that the use of Madiba’s voice was an attempt to “lend credibility to a party which has made the preservation of white privilege its reason to exist”.
This did not dissuade the DA, which put up posters this week saying, “Honour Madiba’s dream; Vote DA”. The ANC was, predictably, enraged. ANC national spokesman Zizi Kodwa said attempts by the DA to “appropriate” Mandela as a campaign weapon were “cheap politicking bordering on desperation”.
“It is a glaring sign that the DA’s attempts to woo the black electorate are floundering and they will stop at nothing to ‘blackwash’ their chequered history as a whites-only party by thrusting a few token blacks into positions of leadership and appropriating even symbols that have always shunned them,” Kodwa said in a statement. He cited an incident 16 years ago when Mandela said at a Cosatu rally that the DA was a party of “white bosses and black stooges”.
“The DA displays a shocking form of arrogance and presumptuousness in claiming that Nelson Mandela would endorse its organisation were he still alive,” Kodwa said.
Anybody who tries to repackage Mandela as a mascot for the reconciliation, nation-building project is misrepresenting who he was. Mandela was a politician, and the president of the ANC at that. That fact cannot be camouflaged by the elder statesman and global icon he grew to become later in life. Mandela’s conscious life choice was to serve the ANC, to the extent of facing death or life imprisonment for his organisation. Even though he might have felt disappointment about the conduct of some ANC leaders after his retirement, there was absolutely no indication that he wanted to renounce his organisation in the final years of his life.
Mandela belongs to the ANC. But his legacy belongs to the world.
This is why people participate in all manner of activities to honour his memory. If any civil society organisation had put up posters saying “honour Madiba’s dream”, there would be no issue whatsoever. His “dream” for equality and human rights should, after all, be a universal goal. The problem is that the DA, while not infringing any electoral laws, is using Mandela against his own organisation.
There is an ethical question about whether the DA should be using a dead person’s name, image and voice for a political campaign he was not associated with while he was alive. If the DA used Mandela’s name to build hospitals for children or for an HIV treatment campaign, it would be less objectionable, as these were issues he was passionate about. If Mmusi Maimane or anyone else in the DA uses quotes from Mandela in their speeches, they are entitled to do so – his words belong to the world.
But would Mandela have agreed to have his name used in an election campaign against his own party? No.
At the launch of the poster campaign outside the Union Buildings, Maimane said their message was that “Madiba’s dream and vision for a prosperous, united and non-racial South Africa for all is alive within the DA, and can only be realised by the DA”. He said because the ANC had strayed from the legacy of its legends and the divisive way Zuma was leading the country, former president Thabo Mbeki was not campaigning for the ANC.
“My question is – would Madiba be out on the streets campaigning for the ANC is he were alive today?” Maimane asked.
Mbeki can speak for himself, if he chose to explain why he is not campaigning for the ANC, but Mandela cannot. It is therefore wrong for anyone to make assumptions about what he might and might not have done.
But the DA’s campaign was aimed at stirring controversy and agitating the ANC. It was intended to provoke a reaction to show that the ANC is worried about whether its traditional voters will remain loyal in the face of much anger and disappointment. It is quite clear that the ANC has been severely challenged in this election campaign, due in no small measure to its own delivery failures and poor leadership.
If the ANC were confident about its support, it would have waved off the DA’s campaign as a stunt. But the ANC is on the back foot and had to drag out its veterans, even those who have been critical in the past, to help with the elections sales pitch.
The ANC should not have needed Mandela, its surviving veterans or a host of celebrities to salvage its campaign because its image is so tarnished by scandal, factional battles and bad leadership. It should have fought this election on the capability of its election candidates, the strength of its achievements and the successful implementation of its developmental plans. The fact is that there have been serious weaknesses in the management of municipalities, and the economic woes and failure to create jobs add to the instability in the country.
While it is true that Mandela belongs to the ANC, they cannot claim with confidence that the party has remained true to his legacy, which belongs to the world. The ANC has neglected issues of race relations and nation building, for example, and the country has never been as racially polarised in the post democracy era as it is now.
While the DA claims that they espouse Mandela’s vision and values, what have they done to promote race relations? In the wake of a spate of racist incidents, including by DA members, Maimane had promised to undertake an anti-racism campaign to root out racists from the party’s ranks. He had also undertaken to conduct a series of dialogues to foster race relations. If these have taken place, there is no indication that they have had any impact in changing racist mindsets in the country. The party’s leadership structures are by no means representative – racially or otherwise – of the utopian society they claim to represent.
It is one thing to lay claim to Mandela’s legacy, but it is extremely difficult to live up to it. Nelson Mandela should not have featured at all in this campaign – both the parties brawling over his legacy fall far short on upholding his legacy. Mandela’s legacy is also too great to be abused for short-term electioneering, even by his own party.
In any event, voters should be making decisions based on who is best able to run their municipalities and the track records of the parties desperate for their votes. We should be making informed choices based on current conditions and not be coerced by sentimentality or blackmail.
Madiba has done his part and should be left to rest. It is the current cohort of politicians who should be judged because it is they, not the golden generation of yesteryear, who will be running our lives for the next few years. DM
Photo: Former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela chats with Britain’s then Prime Minister Gordon Brown (unseen) during a meeting at his hotel in central London June 24, 2008. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle