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Nelson Mandela’s legacy: The Rorschach Test for South African politicians

By Rebecca Davis 17 July 2018

Former President of the African National Congress (ANC) Oliver Tambo died April 24 after a long illness at the age of 75, pictured here with his life-long friend and current President of the ANC, Nelson Mandela. Photo taken January 1992 - RTXF0MY

Almost every major political party in South Africa – with the notable exception of the Economic Freedom Fighters – has, at some point, claimed that it alone is the best representative of Nelson Mandela’s values in South African politics. There are few global figures, if any, whose legacy has been so exhaustively flogged in the hope of winning over voters. With the centenary of Mandela’s birth coinciding with the run-up to the 2019 elections, we can expect a lot more of this. But it’s also a risky political strategy.

Nelson Mandela’s ears must be ringing in his grave daily. Mandela’s life and legacy has become a kind of Rorschach test for South African politicians, able to be interpreted in multiple ways depending on who’s looking at it – and ultimately revealing more about the viewer than the man himself.

In the past, the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) has urged South Africans to focus on Mandela’s lessons of reconciliation and forgiveness. The Congress of the People (Cope) has laid claim to Mandela’s vision for a non-racial South Africa. The Democratic Alliance (DA) went so far as to use Mandela’s name and voice in campaigning before the 2016 local government elections.

The South African Communist Party (SACP) has owned Mandela as a former member of the central committee of the SACP – a notion refuted by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Agang launched itself as the party best poised to carry forward Mandela’s values.

Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi has made endless mileage of his personal relationship with Mandela.

Even the Freedom Front Plus has used Mandela to justify certain stances, pointing to Mandela’s willingness to hear them out on farm murders in 1997 as evidence that the matter should be prioritised.

The notion that Mandela belongs to all who believe in him, like an apolitical Jesus, is one that has received short shrift from the ANC. The ruling party made the ultimate statement in this regard at Mandela’s funeral in 2013 – an occasion which in itself swiftly became a tussle over Mandela’s meaning – by draping his coffin in an ANC flag.

But this “hands off” message from the ANC to other political parties, when it comes to Mandela, continues to be ignored. This year, the centenary of Mandela’s birth takes place less than 12 months before the 2019 general elections – and the concurrence of these two events means that Mandela-flavoured rhetoric is likely to be whipped up to new heights across the political board in the near future.

It is Mosiuoa Lekota’s Cope which seems to be currently leading the opposition when it comes to making pleading gestures towards Mandela’s legacy. This is not a new position for Cope – during the 2011 general elections, Cope’s Johannesburg mayoral candidate Preddy Mothopeng said he was “convinced” that Mandela had secretly voted Cope – but the current debate over land expropriation without compensation has seen the party ratchet up the Mandela appeals.

Lekota has always been a vigilant Mandela defender, but lately the argument has seemed more personal and anguished for the Cope leader, who spent time in Robben Island alongside Mandela. Earlier in July, Lekota broke down in tears during a TimesLive interview contemplating the sacrifice made by Mandela and other freedom fighters.

Lekota has been a vocal critic of the idea of taking land from white people, arguing that it constitutes a betrayal of Mandela’s vision for a non-racial South Africa. He has, in fact, been far more explicit on this score than any other opposition leader beyond the Freedom Front Plus’s Pieter Groenewald.

While this approach may win Cope unexpected new fans among white voters in 2019, there is a sense with Lekota that this position is not a cynical election ploy but a deeply felt conviction – one Lekota looks set to cling to despite the consternation it has caused in some quarters.

The DA has been careful to avoid racialising the land debate, focusing instead on constitutional arguments. But that doesn’t mean the party has been leaving Mandela alone. Following the conclusion of the party’s federal council meeting on 15 July, the DA released a statement in leader Mmusi Maimane’s name which was headlined with a claim the party has been making for at least two years:

DA is the only party which honours the legacy of Madiba by putting all the South African people first.”

In the DA’s most recent Mandela-themed communications, it appears to be appealing to the notion of Mandela as an anti-corruption hero.

The people who steal money from government do not honour President Mandela,” Maimane said after the party’s federal council meeting.

In fact, though Mandela was a man of unimpeachable personal integrity, he was sometimes accused of being too soft on corruption. This illustrates the utility of the malleable Mandela legacy in 2018, however: fit for any nation-building purpose a political party wishes to advance.

But appealing to Mandela’s legacy is not always a successful political strategy. The DA has received major blowback for its use of Mandela in past electoral campaigning, but another case in point is found in the example of Agang.

Agang was positioned as the party best able to “live the values Mandela fought for so hard”, as leader Mamphela Ramphele put it in a 2013 interview. Ramphele consistently invoked both Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko in her public statements, and appeared to compare herself to Mandela a number of times.

When she was slammed for not having consulted with her own party, Agang, about her decision to stand as the DA presidential candidate, for example, Ramphele likened the situation to Mandela not being forthcoming with his colleagues about anti-apartheid negotiations.

It was not a wise move for a newborn party, analysts suggested.

A new political formation should create its own history in order to acquire political capital and build its identity,” suggested three academics from the Tshwane University of Technology in a 2014 paper.

In the minds and souls of South Africans, Mandela and other leaders of the ANC Ramphele invoked are part of the political capital of the ANC. To invoke their names for anti-ANC purposes exposed her to accusations of opportunism. Agang SA was dismissed as a party without history, claiming the history of other organisations for its political ends.”

It’s unlikely that this is a lesson that many opposition parties will reveal themselves to have absorbed as the 2019 elections draws closer – with the exception of the EFF.

The EFF have carved out a political niche, in fact, as the only political party to define itself in opposition to Mandela’s legacy. Over the past few years, the Fighters have steadily escalated their anti-Mandela rhetoric, painting him as a sell-out, a tool of white monopoly capital, and the man responsible in large part for South Africa’s ongoing failure to secure economic freedom for all.

Though there have been a few individuals from other political parties to voice similar thoughts – IFP MP Mkhuleko Hlengwa questioned in 2015 if Mandela could be said to have fought for freedom when he spent so much time behind bars; International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane allegedly told Robert Mugabe in 2017 that it was Mandela’s “fault” that white people still wielded so much power in South Africa – no other party has dared to make Mandela scepticism a cornerstone of its ideology in the way that the EFF has.

The 2019 elections will be singular in many respects, but one of the most interesting aspects will be this: are we now living in a South Africa where Mandela-bashing could prove as fruitful a campaigning tool as Mandela-honouring? DM

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