Opinionista Oyama Mabandla 9 July 2014

Madiba, Mbeki and South Africa: Let’s not forget

As Mandela Day approaches, it is important that we think about the repercussions of forgetting certain voices. While in some quarters, Thabo Mbeki’s voice is seen as an important one, in the events that marked Mandela’s final exit from the stage, we witnessed a refusal to call on all the intellectual and political experience and acumen that exists in the body politic. This is a metaphor for an increasingly narrow approach to governing and governance; one that leaves the country poorer.

“Hamba mfana/Hamba uyobatshela bonke/Hamb’uzolitshel’ilizwe/Uthi/ Silwel’inkululeko e South Afrika”

Cry Freedom soundtrack.

This year will mark the first time that we will celebrate 18 July without Madiba’s comforting presence. Madiba’s passing triggered a myriad of responses and as I think about how I will commit myself to service this Mandela Day, it is hard not to contemplate the words of novelist Milan Kundera: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” In some ways, remembering Madiba this July is an antidote against amnesia down the line. We must never allow the sun to set on the splendour of Madiba and the heroic example of his band of brothers and sisters.

Just after Mandela’s death in December, I found myself driving from Johannesburg to Cape Town for the holidays. I was with my 14-year-old son, who had just arrived from the United States the previous day and was hopelessly jet-lagged. So instead of the much vaunted father/son bonding, which we had both been looking forward to, I found myself alone with my thoughts as he dozed away. I was not terribly bereft though, as I had Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Pharaoh Sanders and Cassandra Wilson as my other road companions. I also had Jonas Gwangwa and George Fenton’s Cry Freedom soundtrack.

I had not listened to this soundtrack in years, and loading the CD into my player felt like a reunion with a long-lost friend. Gwangwa and Fenton were nominated for an Oscar for this music, and in a powerful nod to our struggle, they performed at the Academy awards in 1988. Reconnecting with this music so many years later in the middle of the arid Karoo, as I motored towards the Mother City, my mind was very much on Nelson Mandela and his meaning to our humanity.

Music has always been intertwined with struggle in South Africa and I found myself thinking about what an important statement it would have been – how much it would have embodied the triumph of memory against forgetting – if Jonas Gwangwa had been invited to play at Mandela’s funeral; what it might have meant for him to be chanting, “Mandela, Sisulu, Luthuli, Dadoo, Stephen Biko, Govan Mbeki, Robert Sobukwe, Baba Tambo, Bhasopha!” at the funeral of this titan, as he was laid to rest in Qunu.

In the recording, you hear George Fenton intone softly “Soweto, Langa, Sharpeville, Matola… the children sing about the great ones who Cry Freedom for South Africa”. Gwangwa then segues in, in a soaring, plaintive crescendo, “Bayeza abamnyama. Bayeza nemikhonto”. And then the orchestra and the voices explode in a raucous cauldron of protest and celebration. This song was a salute to our heroes and martyrs. The billions of people around the world who tuned in to bid farewell to our eldest statesman would have been enchanted by the cascading tempest of Cry Freedom.

The world, which has begun to look increasingly askance at us, in the wake of Marikane, Guptagate, Nkandlagate, and the fiasco of the memorial service, would have seen that we had not entirely lost our groove.

But it wasn’t just in the musical selection that we might have proven our commitment to ‘memory over forgetting’. The absence of former president, Thabo Mbeki, from the roster of speakers at both the memorial and the funeral services, was curious. It is a recognised international norm to allow those who succeed or precede the deceased in office to speak at a state funeral. Thus it would be inconceivable for Bill Clinton not to speak at the ailing George H.W. Bush’s funeral, even though Clinton had defenestrated Bush from the White House in 1992. Barack Obama will speak as the president, but so will Clinton as Bush’s successor. This was indeed the case at Ronald Reagan’s funeral, with Bush, as Reagan’s successor giving the tribute. I could cite numerous other international examples. This is an institutionalist approach as opposed to one governed by the caprice and idiosyncrasies of the incumbent.

And we are talking about Thabo Mbeki here; the prince of Madiba’s post-Apartheid Camelot; the exiled ANC’s pre-eminent political strategist and diplomat; and most pertinently, Madiba’s successor as president of our republic. Shut out of the podium? What was up with that?

This was the man who gave, when he was barely 36 years old, a torrentially erudite speech at a seminar in Canada in 1978, which was talked about for years, in reverential tones, in the exiled organisation. The speech, “The Historical Injustice”, was a sublime rumination on the South African political economy, and its racist genealogy. It combined a trenchant Marxist critique, with echoes of Weberian hermeneutics to provide an examination of the concept of Calvinist predestination in Apartheid’s founding myth. The speech shattered the notion that Africans were merely a bunch of malodorous Neanderthals, with no capacity for the higher arts of intellection.

Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech is often seen as a touchstone of our South African identity, yet in my view his finest speech was his ode to Walter Sisulu when the old man passed away ten years ago. Mbeki summoned the poets SEK Mqhayi and WB Yeats and commanded them to dance in an intoxicating tango of oratory and rhyme. Despite the combination of Mbeki’s speech-making gifts and state conventions related to who speaks on occasions such as the passing of a president, it may just be that ‘forgetting’ of Mbeki was an administrative gaffe. It couldn’t have been a selective choosing of whose voices history would remember, not an act committed to elevate some and reduce others. The repercussions of forgetting certain voices are profound. A refusal to call on all the intellectual and political experience and acumen that exists in the body politic is metaphor for an increasingly narrow approach to governing and governance; one that leaves the country poorer.

Had Mbeki been allowed to serenade Madiba at his final resting place, we as a country would have answered Obama’s oratorical tour de force at the Johannesburg memorial service with Mbeki’s poetic lyricism. This is a tantalising prospect, one which no doubt, would have electrified the country and restored our pride as a nation.

Then my son woke up; I snapped out of my reverie. In my day-dreaming I seemed to have forgotten that some among us are committed to selective amnesia, or, as one sage eloquently captured it, the “curious arithmetic of adding by subtraction and multiplying by division and exclusion.” DM

Oyama Mabandla is a businessman.


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