On Sunday, we celebrated the 92nd birthday of Nelson Mandela and people across the globe marked it by devoting 67 minutes of their time in the service of the disadvantaged. Yet I couldn’t help wondering whether we aren’t destroying something even more precious than the memory of Mandela’s achievements: A sense of what was sacrificed in the struggle for democracy.
I sat Mandela Day out. Or rather, I’ve put it off until a later day, and I’ll explain why in a bit. Call it “conscientious objection”, if you will. I didn’t do it because I don’t think much of Mandela (I admire him greatly), or because I’m one of those “things were better under apartheid people” (I’m not), or perhaps because I’m an obdurate and sour person.
We all have our reasons why we think Mandela is a great man. To me, it was his steadfast dedication to democracy for all people as well as his incredible courage. I can imagine him facing Judge Quartus de Wet and uttering the now-immortal words, “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. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” It took something special for Mandela to speak like that, knowing fully that De Wet would have no qualms about granting him martyrdom.
We’ve often been afflicted by the hysteria of those who fear and loathe Julius Malema, especially in the last seven or eight months. There were some pretty colourful rants out there – Steve Hofmeyr providing one of the most colourful; my favourite being about how Julius was going to take over the country a la Zanu-PF and drive all the whites into the sea. As it turns out, Julius can’t even hold his own Youth League together, much less turn the ANC into a party of violent populism. The only person who could have lead us down that path is Mandela. He was the only leader who had enough support within the ANC and crucially, the population at large, to pull off a Mugabe-like bid for dictatorship. He didn’t. He handed power over peacefully, exhorting his successor Thabo Mbeki not to surround himself with “yes-men” – advice Mbeki chose to ignore. For that, and so much more, Mandela deserves our adulation and respect.
On Mandela Day we remember and celebrate the life of this great man. In remembrance of the 67 years he spent in the service of the people, we devote 67 minutes to serve the needy in our communities. The day is now celebrated throughout the world, by movie stars and the dregs in the street alike. The New York Times, Guardian and other eminent newspapers carry glowing Mandela Day editorials and supplements. TV channels show inserts of Mandela walking triumphantly out of prison, Mandela on Robben Island, Mandela holding the Jules Rimet trophy.
Madiba has at all times rejected the advances of those who sought to deify him. He has pointed out time and again that he is only a human being. We can’t even leave him alone, after he explicitly stated that he’d like to enjoy a quiet retirement. His image, which has become something of a hieroglyph, adorns mugs and shirts and walls. One cannot but wonder how much the name and image of Mandela generates in revenue every year. It must be a tidy amount. Then you begin to wonder whether Madiba’s wish to remain a mere human being will ever be granted.
We are singling Mandela out for praise and adulation, ahead of others who were with him in the struggle against apartheid. We’ve stuck Mandela on a plinth, and cast his comrades aside. In a sense, it has always been like this for him. He became the face of the Struggle. He was in prison, jailed for his beliefs. Anyone could look at him and immediately understand how monstrous apartheid was. Crucially, he was an extremely talented leader and speaker, and could easily speak for the ANC and oppressed people. When he finally walked free from jail, that moment became the symbolic end of apartheid.
Now, thanks to our attention being riveted on Mandela, we are slowly creating the impression that he single-handedly wrested democracy from the apartheid regime. We may not be doing it purposefully, but the impression is being crafted nonetheless. Older people complain that my generation is politically ignorant. Imagine how things will be 40 years from now, when Mandela and those who were with him have passed on.
Will people like Sobukwe, Sisulu, Hani and Tambo be nothing more than a footnote in the pages of history, thrust aside by our adulation of Mandela? Will our children even know who Albert Luthuli was? Will they know what role Steve Biko played in the Struggle?
Our Struggle history is one of the richest treasures we possess as a country. Thousands of men and women devoted their lives to the fight for democracy and equal rights, and many gave their lives in the process. Ultimately, their sacrifices were not fruitless. The Struggle is a testament to the fortitude of the human spirit. We should all be proud of that history.
Yet we threaten to destroy that pride by focusing on Mandela alone. We run the risk of forgetting everyone else by focusing on the man who is the face of the Struggle, and who is the face of the Rainbow Nation and all the promise that it holds. It would be a tragedy if that happened. We must celebrate Mandela’s life and achievements, and in the same breath I say we must celebrate and remember the Struggle as a whole.
It was not only Mandela who dedicated his life to the service of the people. In memory of all those other people, and in acknowledgement of their sacrifices, I decided to postpone my 67 minutes of community service. This year I’ll do it on the 27 October – the birthday of Oliver Reginald Tambo. Next year I’ll do it on someone else’s birthday and acknowledge that person’s contribution to the fight for democracy. And so forth.
We dare not forget.
Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.
The 2016 Rio Olympic medals are already showing defects including rusting and chipping.