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The Bonds that Bind Us: Remembering Madiba in a Time of Global Fracture

The Bonds that Bind Us: Remembering Madiba in a Time of Global Fracture
A young boy, a member of the Maitibolo Cultural Dance Troop, pays his respects to Former South African President Nelson Mandela at the tribute wall outside the Medi-Clinic Heart Hospital on July 14, 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa. Anti-apartheid icon Mandela has been hospitalized at the Medi-Clinic Hospital since June 8 for treatment for a recurring lung infection. His wife Graca Machel has said she was less anxious about his condition five weeks after he was first admitted. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

"How can we bring a shared humanity back into the centre of justice?" Flowing from this question were other questions concerning how to effect protection of citizens, how to construct and manage social bonds across divisions and how to practice solidarity beyond borders, says Tsitsi Dangarembga.

This speech was delivered at the Nelson Mandela Foundation dialogue evening, in a panel titled The Bonds that Bind Us: Remembering Madiba in a Time of Global Fracture.

In the document outlining this year’s event, the Foundation posed the following question: “How can we bring a shared humanity back into the centre of justice?” Flowing from this question were other questions concerning how to effect protection of citizens, how to construct and manage social bonds across divisions and how to practice solidarity beyond borders.

These questions beg several further questions. The first is a question about the agent of action, who is to bring a shared humanity back into the centre of justice?  In the context of the globe today, where we see increasing nationalism and other fracture lines, which are emphasised by a global pandemic that affects us all, the answer is: us. We are all citizens of this globe, and so all of us are called upon to act. Another question concerns the location of action. The answer is contained in the questions. We are here this evening to discuss actions which transcend demarcations and borders. Yet a third question refers to what we need to do to foster a world where justice is premised on the notion of a shared humanity. I will address this more fully in the text.

To address the issues, I engage, in the manner of a layperson, with a philosophical problem which underlies all the above questions. I touch on practical challenges which arise out of this philosophical problem. I utilise some of Mandela’s well-known quotes to illustrate some methods of engagement we can adopt to overcome the challenges. I conclude with some remarks on the methods of engagement.

Key notions are division, identifying with, the indivisibility of freedom, dominators, black dominators and education for change.

Philosophical problem: me-you, us-them

Today in a global context of increased nationalism and ethnic identification exacerbated by a deadly pandemic, differences between people and groups of people are increasingly magnified at the expense of a collective identity. This problem is as old as humankind. Humankind is composed of individuals. Each individual needs things that enable physical survival. Each individual wants things that make physical survival more comfortable and enjoyable. These needs and desires are personal. I want them for myself. I want them for me. To fulfil such needs and satisfy these desires we have to see ourselves as separate from the other person. We are unable, for example, to satisfy our own hunger by watching someone else eat. We are unable to quench our own thirst by seeing someone else drink. Thus, through our needs and desires, we learn the division between me and you. There is me and there is you. This is the first division of humankind on which all other divisions are constructed.

You can be singular denoting one person who is not-me. Or you can be plural denoting more than one person who are not me. There are more than seven billion people in the world, but I’ll call it seven billion. Each of these seven billion people is a me, who theoretically could interact with each of the seven billion minus one other people. Can we stop a minute, and visualise the ensuing chaos when all these billions of people interact with all the other billions-minus-one of people in ways designed to satisfy the needs and desires of this one me?

The group is born out of the need to manage this chaos. Me becomes us. We then act to satisfy our needs and desires. The significant division is no longer a division between me and you, but becomes the division between us and them. Us is my group – an extension of me.  They is their group, which lacks me. This lack of me and my needs and desires has implications for the importance of them. They become insignificant compared to us. These groups range from intimate family groups, through groups which form around labour and ways of earning a living, groups formed around ways in which time is spent or how education is obtained, groups formed around how resources are gathered, to communities, provinces, nations, regions, continents and groupings of these. The number is huge. As with individuals, the interaction of different groups would be chaotic if not organised according to some principles.

The questions put by the Nelson Mandela Foundation have to do with the nature and the quality of these interactions and the principles which guide the interactions.

Methods suggested by Nelson Mandela’s words

On examining some of Mandela’s words, I found a number of quotes which instruct us how bonds across our divisions can be built in a way which promotes a notion of shared humanity, and a concept of justice built on such a notion of shared humanity.

The first quote is this one: “Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.” This quote is an example of bridging the me-you divide. In it the “me” of Mandela, speaks about the group of other humans not as a group of them but as other “mes”. When a human being perceives another human being as another me the gap between the two human beings is bridged. This bridging is the process of identifying with.

Bridging through identifying with is achieved by bringing to the centre of attention commonalities between the me and the you in the system. It functions whether the “you” is singular or, as in the case of the quote, plural. Identifying with is the process by which relationship is constructed. Once identifying with is achieved and relationship is built, any differences which threaten to disrupt identification and break relationship can be better dealt with.

The indivisibility of freedom

Mandela’s quote bequeaths us the principle of the indivisibility of freedom. The process of identifying with, which underlies the quote, applies to the us-them divide, as well as to the me-you divide. To illustrate, I will apply the quote to two different examples of the us-them scenario. The first example refers to a community composed of different families.  Here is my paraphrasing. “Freedom is indivisible. The chains on any family are the chains on all families, the chains on all of the families are the chains on my own family.”

Now, if we were in a hall, physically all together, I would invite members of the audience to give examples. That is not possible this evening, so I invite you who have logged on, to share your examples in the chat if it is enabled. I hope it is. Meanwhile, I go on with the second example by applying the quote to a region composed of different nations, and I will use our region  – SADC [the Southern African Development Community]. In this case, the wise observation becomes: “Freedom is indivisible. The chains on any nation in SADC are the chains on all nations in SADC, the chains on all of the nations in SADC are the chains on my own nation”.  As I said, there are many ways in which the original can be paraphrased.

Dominator groups and the indivisibility of freedom

Mandela made many other statements which uphold the philosophy of the indivisibility of freedom. I will speak briefly about one more. Nelson Mandela said, “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.”

In this quote, Nelson Mandela speaks about two groups. One of the groups is the group of dominators. The other group is the group of African people. Mandela characterises the African people as being people in struggle against the dominator groups. The dominators want to oppress African people. They manifest a need to and act on the desire to suppress and repress African people. Mandela goes on to name two groups of these dominators, specifically white dominators and black dominators. The question often comes up: What can we do in the face of the reality of black dominators on the continent, in the context of the reality of white dominators?

Black dominators

As a Zimbabwean, I know how black dominators use the tactics of all dominators to oppress black individuals and put black individuals into bondage to them and to others who they, as black dominators, are aligned with, be these others old colonial masters from Europe and its diaspora or new ones, like the Chinese. The tactics used by these black dominators are the tactics used by all dominators. They are the tactics of breaking relationships and disrupting the process of identifying with. As their intention is to oppress black individuals, black dominators create divisions within the uniting grouping of blackness. Through these divisions, other black people are extruded and/or excluded from the group of “us”, instead of being accommodated.

This process of extrusion and/or exclusion may be executed at both the group and/or individual levels. When executed at the group level, extrusion or exclusion is based on common possession across numbers of individuals of a certain characteristic. Black people who are seen to have, or even perceived to have this characteristic in common are extruded or excluded from the group of us. Some of these characteristics, which are commonly used by black dominators and in fact all dominators, to destroy identification of black people with each other and to erode black relationship are political party membership, nationality, ethnic origin which leads to tribalism, and religion. I am sure we can all think of other characteristics.

When extrusion and/or exclusion are executed at the individual level, often the reason for exclusion of the individual is because of the scope of their minds and the ideas which are propagated in these expansive minds, ideas which are then expressed in society. Other times, the reason for exclusion of individuals is for their possessing characteristics, such as courage, fearlessness, integrity, charisma which, if allowed to grow, would inspire other black people and thus interfere with the black dominator’s plan of unending domination of other black people. The individual so treated may or may not be a member of an extruded or excluded group. Sometimes, to facilitate or validate the extrusion or exclusion of black individuals, the black dominator fabricates inclusion with a group already extruded or excluded. In Zimbabwe, a favourite method used by the Zanu-PF ruling party is fabrication of inclusion in the group of white people, or former colonisers, or the group of opposition parties or Ndebele people or other less preferred ethnic groups. I am sure we all know the fabrications which black dominators use in our own settings if we have them.

Once extrusion has been effected, the work of destruction of black identifying with black by black dominators becomes the work of sealing those in the black dominator’s group off from those who have been excluded. This proceeds hand-in-hand with mythologising the worthiness and superior value of the black dominator group, while mythologising the worthlessness and inferior value of the excluded group. Mythologising the unworthiness and inferior value of the excluded group leads to behaviours which support the devaluing myth. These behaviours can range from depriving people of resources to depriving people of their rights, to depriving people of life itself, including genocide. Thus this process of sealing the black dominator’s group off from black identification is extremely dangerous, and depletes the experience of being human of other black people at many levels, even unto death.

The role of imagination

Many of us in our various African nations have grown up under conditions of black domination. Many of us cannot imagine a world in which black people do not dominate other black people. Our experience of these conditions frequently limits our vision of possible mutually beneficial relationships between black people. It may appear to us that it is only great souls like Nelson Mandela who are able to perceive the possibility of such beneficial relationships.

Nelson Mandela told us, “Those who can’t imagine change reveal the deficits of their imaginations, not the difficulty of change.” It is true, it is difficult to imagine change, when one has been locked into a specific world. It is even more difficult to imagine change when the situation one is locked into is a situation of unending anxiety, distress and even terror. And indeed, anxiety, distress and terror are the norm for many who live in conditions where they are oppressed by dominators, including black dominators. It is a debilitating, existential terror. However, Nelson Mandela also told us how we can overcome such a dreadful situation.

Education for change

Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” In saying this the first president of South Africa told us how we can become the kinds of people who can imagine change. He told us we can become the kinds of people who can imagine change through education for change. We need education in the values which point to our commonalities, rather than to our differences and divisions. We need education that frees the mind to imagine dignified, prosperous common futures that we have not yet seen. We need education in creativity, and in the products of creativity. These products of creativity include the arts.

The arts increasingly have economic value, thus the arts put products into markets. In this way the arts can contribute to satisfying our survival needs. The arts instil values into society. The arts put new ideas into groups, communities, nations, regions, continents and worlds. The arts do this by reflecting who we are and how we behave to ourselves and by reproducing complex notions in accessible ways. They do this in languages we can understand, and some of the arts do this in a global visual language. In this way the agency of the black individual to imagine and to do can be built through art.

It has proven a challenge to interest influential and resourced Africans in changing the subjective, agency-building life of the continent. The subjectivity exhibited by today’s Africans appears to support the objectives of currently influential and wealthy Africans. Resourced Africans are more inclined to channel their resources towards material and political ends. These things are seen as being practical and real. In this way the inclinations of wealthy Africans and resourced Africans mirror the inclinations of dominators who are not African.

It is true there are practical things, which do not include subjective transformation, that we can do to promote a notion of justice founded in an idea of a common humanity and to foster solidarity across borders. We can, for example, advocate for the Responsibility to Protect. The Responsibility to Protect is a Untied Nations-fostered norm, which puts upon nations the responsibility to act when the citizens of a certain nation are subjected to persecution of a devastating order, which they are not equipped to relieve themselves of by themselves. It is this responsibility to act which Nelson Mandela referred to when he said. “I believe that we must all accept that we cannot abuse the concept of national sovereignty to deny the rest of the continent the right and duty to intervene when, behind those sovereign boundaries, people are being slaughtered to protect tyranny.”

Another practical thing we can do is to upscale NGO [nongovernmental organisation] programmes in the areas of governance and citizen agency, especially where these programmes reach out across borders. This is good, even if NGO programmes are by their nature designed to impact relatively small numbers of people and not to engender the far-reaching systemic change that is necessary for fostering a notion of a shared humanity.

On a different note, I also think it is important to realise when some kinds of solidarity between groups across our borders have outlived their usefulness and have become a liability to us. In this category of archaic solidarity, I put the solidarity of former liberation movements here in SADC, which is cemented through their militaristic ideology. The liberation impulse we need today cannot arise from these militaristic movements, no matter how deeply appreciated they may be. Different orders of liberation are required today. Thus wealthy, resourced Africans across the board, including those in our militaristic governments, would do well to allow themselves to be educated for change.


While we continue to reach out to each other across divisions in ways dictated by old conceptualisations and structures of the world, and while we begin intentionally the process of transforming old ways of doing things which are no longer positive into the liberating and liberated new ways of being, it is my submission that external engagement will only ever be successful where sufficient numbers of those individuals who need assistance in liberating themselves are ready to accept that external engagement and allow it to sum with their own actions, and where this summing with the energies of the oppressed is also the sincere and authentic goal of those engaging from outside.

I conclude by saying, as Mandela’s walk to freedom was long, so should we not expect the walk of our continent or the walk of the globe of which our continent is a part, to freedom to be short. However, my greater concern at this juncture is with our continent. The walk of the different regions, nations, groups and individuals of our continent to freedom will be long. To attain our goal, we are called upon to educate ourselves and each other for change. The objective of this education for change is to expand our imaginations so that we can imagine free, prosperous conditions that we desire together and share together, and thus motivate an ongoing long walk together towards this vision in the knowledge that this prosperity and freedom can only be true prosperity and freedom when it is the prosperity and freedom of all. DM/ ML/ MC

Tsitsi Dangarembga is the Founding Director of the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa (ICAPA) Trust (incorporating Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe and Nyerai Films) and African Women Filmmakers Hub (AWFH), and the Founder of the International Images Film Festival for Women (IIFF)


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