South Africa


Mandela’s leadership: Imagery and identities (Part 3)

Mandela’s leadership: Imagery and identities (Part 3)

Nelson Mandela was regarded as a heroic figure by many. This was not only because of what he did but how he represented himself, the clothes he wore and the gestures he used. But, as with much else in Mandela’s life, his imagery and identities changed and sometimes coexisted with one another at particular moments in time.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

This article is part of a series on Mandela’s leadership. Previous contributions this year, are to be found here – How do we understand Nelson Mandela and here (part 1) and here (part 2)

From early in his life Nelson Mandela was very conscious of who he was, in relation to others, his identity or identities and the imagery that he deployed to reflect these. Given the pre-eminence in leadership that Mandela attained in later life, how he was perceived could have material effects on the success of the often-fragile transition to democracy. It could impact on the state of conflict, whether or not the violence would increase or be reduced and ultimately eliminated.

In the eyes of many white people, Mandela was a dangerous man who threatened their well-being – or this idea of Mandela was conjured up to scare the followers of certain organisations. To secure peace, Mandela and the ANC had to counter that.

On the side of very many black people, Mandela was admired for representing implacable opposition to apartheid domination, manifested through his unrepentant stance in court after being the founding commander of MK. (This is, of course a perception that is being challenged by a new generation and some commentators who see Mandela as having “gone soft” and actually having compromised the freedom for which he had fought, a claim that does not stand up against the evidence.) This needs further probing, especially examining the tactical and strategic objectives at stake. (For my take on these questions, see How do we understand Nelson Mandelaand Did Mandela sell out the struggle for freedom?)

In prison and after his release in 1990, following the release of his comrades, the return of exiles and the unbanning of organisations, Mandela took actions described in previous parts of this series aimed at unblocking the stalemate that had developed between the apartheid regime and the forces of liberation.

These were manifested in various agreements but Mandela then, and indeed throughout his life, also deployed symbolic gestures, ways of being and ways of self-representation that communicated messages about what he exemplified. Insofar as he was the primary figure in the leadership of the ANC and as many looked to him to give the lead, what he did and how he appeared often mattered as much for the success of steps forward as what was in organisational decisions.

It used to be wrong, in the organisational self-understanding and practices of the ANC and the SACP for an individual to loom larger than the organisation, but it was a fact that Mandela may well, at certain times, have enjoyed substantially greater popularity than the ANC itself. In fact, this was substantially a result of the ANC’s campaigning. It had decided to galvanise international solidarity around Mandela as a leading political prisoner. The apartheid regime – conscious of the place he occupied in the international pressure it faced – offered him conditional release in 1985, requiring him to renounce violence. But he rejected the offer, making it clear that he and the ANC had not sought violence but responded to the attacks of the apartheid regime.

His standing had political effects. In the period after his release, how Mandela conducted himself had more significant consequences in many ways than decisions of conferences and National Executive Committee.

Mandela was conscious of the need to bear himself and represent himself in a manner that was inclusive and reinforced a peace process. In many ways there was a break with the Mandela of before, especially the man who went to prison. But in many respects the identities and imagery associated with him earlier were not erased but would periodically reappear when required, as when he felt betrayed by the primary negotiating party, the apartheid regime. Radicalism, as we saw in this and other instances, does not mean lack of flexibility.

Early life

Throughout Mandela’s early life, until after he arrived in Johannesburg, he was very conscious of what he was destined to be, not what he considered as existentially desirable or undesirable for himself or in human being more generally. Hwas“destined” to become counsellor to the future Thembu king, Sabata Dalindyebo. In consequence of this responsibility, the regent had often told Mandela that it was not for him “to spend your life mining the white man’s gold, never knowing how to write your name”. Shortly after his initiation ceremony, he was driven by the regent to attend Clarkebury Boarding Institute in the district of Engcobo.

In Clarkebury, for the first time, Mandela encountered a Western, non-African environment. Mandela understood his life to be governed by his lineage, what he owed in respect to people like the regent, what was expected of him and the respect owed to him by virtue of his own position. But Clarkebury was not run on this basis.

At Clarkebury… I quickly realised that I had to make my way on the basis of my ability, not my heritage. Most of my classmates could outrun me on the playing field and out-think me in the classroom and I had a good deal of catching up to do.”

Despite his attempts to meet the criteria for excellence at Clarkebury, he remained psychologically and socially located in manner that displaced individual agency, for Mandela’s life had been preordained:

I never thought it possible for a boy from the countryside to rival them in their worldliness. Yet I did not envy them. Even as I left Clarkebury, I was still, at heart, a Thembu, and I was proud to think and act like one. My roots were my destiny, and believed that would become counsellor to the Thembu king, as my guardian wanted. My horizons did not extend beyond Thembuland and I believed that to be a Thembu was the most enviable thing in the world.” (My emphasis).


In 1937, aged nineteen, Mandela joined Justice, the regent’s son, at Healdtown, in Fort Beaufort. Like Clarkebury, Healdtown was a Methodist mission school. The principal, Dr Arthur Wellington, claimed to be descendant of the Duke of Wellington, who had saved civilization “for Europe and you, the natives”. Mandela joined others in applauding, “each of us profoundly grateful that a descendant of the great Duke of Wellington would take the trouble to educate natives such as ourselves”.

His pride in being Thembu was not seen to be incompatible with aspiring to British subjectivity, an aspiration that was common to the early bearers of African political thinking in the Cape and even later in the ANC (Raymond Suttner, “African nationalism” in Peter Vale, Lawrence Hamilton and Estelle Prinsloo (eds), South African intellectual traditions, (UKZN Press, 2014), 125, 129–132). The “educated Englishman was our model; what we aspired to be were ‘black Englishmen’, as we were sometimes derisively called. We were taught– and believed – that the best ideas were English ideasthe best government was English government and the best men were Englishmen.”

At Healdtown Mandela mixed with Africans from a range of backgrounds and started to develop a cautious sense that he was part of something wider than the Thembu people, an African consciousness, though this was limited.

When Mandela and Justice fled to Johannesburg to escape forced marriages, Mandela’s consciousness was still primarily that of a Thembu, not even an African.

The 1950s: peaceful struggle but preparation for illegality and war

During the 1940s a new radical current of thinking emerged under the leadership of the ANC Youth League and Mandela, although a relative political novice, became part of this.

It is interesting to note that radical though they may have been and critical of their predecessors, the dress code of the league was formal and by no means represented the type of associations that later generations of radicalism would have with casual or military dress. The Youth League dressed very much like their predecessors, with the exception of top hats and bow ties. In fact, individuals like Mandela, especially when he qualified as an attorney, paid considerable attention to their appearance and the suits they wore. Ellen Khuzwayo writes:

I remember the glamorous Nelson Mandela of those years. The beautiful white silk scarf he wore round his neck stands out in my mind to this day. Walter Max Sisulu, on the other hand, was a hardy down-to-earth man with practical clothing – typically a heavy coat and stout boots. Looking back, the third member of their trio, Oliver Tambo, acted as something of a balance with his middle-of-the road clothes!”

This was a period when dress clearly served as a signifier of specific identities, notably masculinities. It was a time when gangsterism was rife in the townships and the main gangs were always distinguished not only by their daring law-breaking, but their flashy clothing.

The 1950s was an era that comprised lawyers in suits, defendants in many court cases, volunteers who engaged in mass democratic campaigns collecting demands for what later became the Freedom Charter – just one of a number of mass activities of the time.

In some ways, the fifties, which are generally portrayed as struggling legally and non-violently, were an interregnum between non-violent, peaceful activities and the formal adoption of armed struggle by the ANC in 1961. In this period the imagery around Mandela as a boxer, a sport in which he engaged with considerable discipline, prefigured his later becoming a fighter of a different type.

The image of Mandela as a boxer coexisted with his wearing a suit as a conventional lawyer. It also resonated with his militant image. Letsau Nelson Diale, recruited to the ANC while working as a waiter, read the newspapers.

The people I worked with said: ‘This young man is very clever.’ They asked me: ‘What’s in the Rand Daily Mail?’ I told them: ‘Mandela is coming to court.’ They said: ‘He will beat the hell out of the boers. He is going to beat them.’”Here we see this image directly translated in the minds of ordinary waiters into violent action against the apartheid regime (“the boers”, a term used to describe Afrikaners).

Mandela: Black man in a white man’s court

In the first of Mandela’s cases, after the banning of the ANC, where he was charged with incitement, having been underground for 17 months, he appeared wearing Thembu attire. This was at once an assertion of his lineage, deriving from a long line of warrior-leaders, and a declaration of the alien character of the white man’s (for it was an almost exclusively male) judiciary. The imagery associated with his dress was used to deny the power and authority of the alien court.

He tells the court of the bygone days when men were warriors fighting for their people and their land. He asserts what often tends to be submerged by an overarching African nationalism, his identity as a Thembu. He shows that he was a person with multiple identities, suppressed under apartheid.

Mandela took this defiance into court proceedings, where he challenged the right of the court to preside over the case, in applying laws that he, as a black person had no part in making. It was Mandela the lawyer and also the revolutionary speaking.

Chinese-born artist Cui Ning works on his painting titled ‘Long Walk to Freedon’ in honour of Nelson Mandela in Cape Town, South Africa, 16 July 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

Dancing for freedom vs dancing as threat: The toyi toyi of Mandela and Zuma

In the post-1976 period the toyi-toyi emerged as a dance accompanying militant and military action. When Mandela was released from prison, it was a time where many ANC cadres were geared for war and felt disappointment at the onset of negotiations. Many had not been adequately briefed on this change in direction, for they had been instructed to prepare for insurrection. One of the manifestations of the militaristic orientation then prevailing was the toyi toyi. The dance was accompanied by aggressive chants with words exhorting to hit and shoot the enemy.

Mandela entered the groups who were dancing with his distinctive “shuffle dance”, smiling to all South Africans, affirming and evoking inclusivity, reaching out and unthreatening.

Jacob Zuma also deployed the toyi toyi, notably in his rape trial, but it was very different. Zuma’s demeanour was aggressive (then as it is now). After emerging from court Zuma would sing his “favourite song”—Umshini wam/Bring me my machine gun. Singing about machine guns was itself at one level manifestation of male power over women, symbolic representation of the power of the gun—a phallic symbol. The firing of the gun is wellknown representation of ejaculationIn effect, the song was a re-enactment of a rape (that the court found did not take place). Unlike Mandela’s toyi toyi-ing, Zuma’s was threatening.

Mandela’s legacy of peace

Mandela’s gestures were never random. He knew that how he represented himself and that how he was understood by others was important, bearing symbolic importance. He did not want a civil war. Whites had to be reassured, while simultaneously having his base constituency among oppressed black people understand that what he wanted to do would lead to political freedom. Graca Machel remarks:

He knew exactly the way he wanted to come out, but also the way he addressed the people from the beginning, sending the message of what he thought was the best way to save lives in the country, to bring reconciliation…”

Many people have remarked on the stolid, sometimes tedious way in which Mandela delivered his speeches. This, he told Richard Stengel, was deliberate in that he wanted to impress upon people that he was serious and could be relied upon and did not resort to rhetoric in order to please. (Nelson Mandela. Portrait of an extraordinary man.2012, page 51).

At the same time, in this period some of what had been part of Mandela’s private self became part of his public persona. In Fatima Meer’s biography of Mandela, one sees the tenderness towards his children. (Fatima Meer, Higher Than Hope: The Authorized Biography of Nelson Mandela, 1990). One of the features of Mandela as president and retired president was his obviously unaffected love and gentleness towards children. What we see here is how aspects of his personality that had been submerged under the tough image of guerrilla leader and uncompromising trialist, became foregrounded, in the context of his changed life conditions.

The Mandela who was imprisoned was remembered as a dignified, yet angry man. The Mandela who emerged had become sober and evoked gravitas. He would often smile, yet the angry Mandela had not disappeared and could re-emerge where conditions made that necessary. On occasions where he felt betrayed by the last apartheid president, FW de Klerk, Mandela’s anger would rise to the surface.

In general, however, when we review the imagery surrounding Mandela, we see a series of journeys, where he constantly changes, but without abandoning everything that he has been before. Even in his last days he remained attached to his Thembu identity and was buried near his place of birth. The Mandela who found peace for the country also found peace with himself as a man.

(On dress and other cultural representations, I have written more extensively, for example, the downloadable article: “Periodisation, cultural construction and representation of ANC masculinities through dress, gesture and Indian Nationalist influence”. Historia [online]. 2009, vol.54, n.1, pp.51-91, and in other works I have related the imagery of dress in Gandhi and Luthuli). DM

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic advisor to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg and emeritus professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoirInside Apartheid’s Prison was reissued with a new introduction in 2017. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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