Provocation triple distilled
15 December 2017 20:09 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

Should we be mad at Mandela?

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

This weekend, I joined an exciting line-up of South Africans speaking at TEDxSoweto. This is a significantly cleaned up version of my comments. Race, reconciliation, justice 20 years on… was Mandela’s decision to prioritise forgiveness the right one?

I have to admit it, in the last few months I have spent a lot of time being mad at Mandela. Like most South Africans, I love the guy, but in a year that was supposed to be a celebration of 20 years of democracy and freedom far too many sickeningly violent racist incidents have taken place in this country. There have been a range of racialised road rage incidents, a series of unprovoked attacks on black people by white passers-by, a number of blackface incidents at historically white universities, and just a few weeks ago, there was the case of the young white man who urinated off a balcony on to a security guard who was standing just below. When he was confronted, the ‘urinator’ said, “I don’t care if I pee on a black man’s head.”

It is no wonder then that many people in my generation are asking whether Mandela’s decision to prioritise forgiveness and reconciliation over justice and redistribution in 1994 was a wise one. (Let me note here that the forgiveness narrative wasn’t Mandela’s choice alone, it was an ANC position but I use ‘Mandela’ as a metaphor for a particular generation and a particular approach.)

But beyond the headlines and the overt racism that is aimed at humiliation and denigration, the statistics point to a real and very serious deterioration in race relations in this country. According to the South African Institute for Race Relations (SAIRR), in the year 2000 72% of South Africans believed that race relations were improving. In 2012, that figure had plummeted to 39%. A few weeks ago an equally worrisome set of statistics was revealed in a study carried out by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO) in the older townships of this province – places like Atteridgeville, Soshanguve, Soweto and Mamelodi – between 77% and 100% of black people agreed with the statement “blacks and whites can never trust each other”.

Among whites that figure is significantly lower at only 44%. I suspect that this is not so much and indication of white people’s magnanimity and more byproducts of the extent to which white people need to trust black people in order to live in relative comfort. Black people take care of white children, guard their homes and businesses and provide a pool of labour to build white South Africans’ most valued economic assets.

Crucially, among both whites and blacks, the Gauteng study notes a steady pattern of decline in trust since the last study was conducted in 2009. This trend raises important questions about whether or not we have reached the end of the rainbow.

In 1994 no one questioned the basic premise that ours was a society in which blacks and whites were seeking to move towards one another. Today, many South Africans – including many who were too young to have ever experienced Apartheid – question that very notion. ‘We need not get along,’ they suggest, ‘We simply need to live side-by-side without tearing one another apart.’

Daily Maverick columnist Simamkele Dlakavu neatly summed up the debate about Mandela’s legacy in a recent piece in which she spoke of challenging Investec CEO Steven Koseff. Dlakavu details an incident in which she confronted him, asking whether he had read Steve Biko. He replied in the negative. As Dlakavu observes, “Reading Biko’s work would not be as comfortable for him as reading Nelson Mandela’s book.” She goes on to cite Andile Mngxitama who has written elsewhere, “Mandela is loved precisely because he is so effective in shielding whiteness from the view.”

One reading of Mandela allows one to arrive at Mngxitama and Dlakavu’s conclusions. The trouble is, as many South Africans know, Mandela’s political life was long and varied. And so while I agree that at one stage his forgiveness narrative pandered to the desire for some whites to be absolved of guilt without having done the requisite work, this period and these decisions aren’t actually complete and fair representations of the span of the man’s life and legacy.

Four Mandelas

In my estimation, there were four Mandelas. The first Mandela was fiery – he was called a ‘radical’ for promoting the extreme view that blacks and whites are and should be recognised as equals in the eyes of the law. This Mandela espoused violence and was famously unapologetic about it. This Mandela was a founder member of Umkhonto weSizwe who was prepared not only to die for his convictions but also to kill for them.

The second Mandela was a principled pragmatist. He refused to be released from prison six times because knew that he was more powerful and more dangerous in jail than he was as an ostensibly free man in an un-free society. This Mandela also refused to renounce the idea of violence until it was clear that the apartheid regime couldn’t turn back anymore.

The third Mandela was the grandfather – the teddy bear, the man who was easy to caricature because he was embraced by all and sundry. He was the man – still a pragmatist but a deeply empathetic one – who was convinced that South Africa could not move forward without a process designed to forgive those who had perpetrated crimes against humanity, and those whose complicity had allowed those crimes to continue over a 50 year period.

The fourth Mandela is one we seldom talk about because he was by this time well into his twilight years, but this Mandela was a social justice activist. This was the Mandela who opposed his own party by putting on a Treatment Action Campaign T-shirt that read ‘HIV positive’ when this was a difficult thing to do. This was the man who stood with the poor and the hungry and was concerned not only with peace as a concept but with peace as experienced through access to health and education and the tangible benefits of freedom that black South Africans rightfully expected.

If you look at all that Mandela was, it is clear that he was a man who responded sensitively and astutely to the contexts with which he was confronted. So the trait that bound those four personas was Mandela’s ability to make the right decision at the right moment.

Mandela did what needed doing in the early 1990s. Today, we clearly need a different tack. In part, we need to look at other options because we have 20 years’ worth of lessons about what to do and what not to do in relation to forgiveness and justice.

One of the most painful lessons of the last two decades has been the realisation that although poverty remains largely black phenomenon, many white South Africans do not necessarily see this as the result of Apartheid. Indeed, while 82.0% of black South Africans agree with the statement, “black South Africans are still poor today as a result of the lasting effects of apartheid”, only about half (50.6%) of whites agree. The younger the respondents to this survey were, the less likely they were to agree. Specifically, when asked “whether apartheid was a crime against humanity and that the state committed atrocities against activists, 27.7% and 24.6% of white youth agreed that these statements are certainly or probably not true.

It is unsurprising then that many whites feel as though they are now the victims of black racism. Let me give you an example.

A few weeks ago I was talking to a young white woman who on the surface had many similarities to me. She is well travelled, is an academic with a good job in a well-resourced university. As the conversation got underway, she made a number of comments that indicated to me that she was surprised that I was articulate. I could tell that she wasn’t trying to be patronising. “Gosh, you have a lot of interesting things to say,” she suggested, which was strange in the context of a small discussion in which everyone had very interesting things to say. What she really meant was ‘for a black person,’ you have a lot of interesting things to say’. I could tell by her earnestness that she was not doing this on purpose.

It went on. She was at pains to mention several times that she believed South Africans are generally ‘colour-blind’. Despite this, she noted that the project we were discussing would be of particular value to ‘the 18 year old young white male student because his prospects of finding work after graduating are you know, so low’.

My colleague – another black woman – told her that young white people have a far better chance of getting a job than black children. The woman looked surprised, as though this was a very strange idea. It was clear to me that she was not trying to be provocative.

The entire conversation in fact was a living example of how the statistics cited above play themselves out everyday in South Africa.

The facts are simple: black South Africans earn one sixth of what whites earn. This is not just a historical hangover. According to the last census, incomes for white households increased 88% in the last decade.

What we have to wrap our heads around, as a nation, as we try to chart a way forward on race is why it is that this young woman’s view is so dramatically different from mine and more importantly, why it differs so much from the truth.

The empathetic part of me understands that for some white people – even ‘good whites’ who ‘felt powerless’ to change things in the bad days – apartheid’s end was deeply disorienting. I get that and I don’t always judge that harshly. Yet increasingly I want some empathy too. Increasingly I am finding myself wondering when black South Africans can expect to see an end to the kind of everyday passive and aggressive refusal by whites – especially younger whites – to embrace the reality of their privilege. This is not – again – a generalisation. It is borne out by the facts.

While there is a vocal minority of young people of all races who have forged cross racial friendships and who demonstrate solidarity with one another, the figures from various surveys demonstrate that the decision by many blacks to ‘move’ on peacefully has not been met with much grace by many whites.

The question, as always, is how we will address these facts.

Let’s put the challenge plainly: in my view we have two options. The first is that we move forward on the basis that we are all entitled to live in South Africa, but we don’t have to like each other. The second is that we are all entitled to live in this country and that requires us to forge meaningful and mutually respectful relationships and that genuine friendships are not only anticipated, they are warmly encouraged.

At the moment we are betwixt and between these two positions; neither fully committed to a radical plan for social cohesion, nor fully prepared to admit that we have given up on getting along.

There are risks inherent in both. If we only do the bare minimum, then trust will continue to diminish. In the face of huge income disparities that continue to hew closely to race, this is a recipe for disaster in the medium to long-term.

If we try to embrace one another and go the Mandela route, then we risk continuing to subject mainly black children to intense and painful forms of cultural racism. As a parent it is heart-breaking to contemplate the idea of telling my children to believe in a shared future in which they can expect genuine and loving friendships across race, and then having to pick up their hurts and bruises when white students tease them because of their hair, or question whether they earned their jobs on merit once they finish university.

Despite this, I think the long-term implications of living side by side without embracing one another are even more heart-breaking, and frankly, dangerous.

We should be able to live in a society in which we aspire to more than the bare minimum. For isn’t that ultimately what defines our humanity; the ambitious search for meaning and love in the midst of chaos, violence and uncertainty.

If there is anything that the last 20 years has taught us, it is that both idealism and pragmatism are embedded in our national DNA. Without the generation of leaders who took us back from the brink, we seem rudderless. And yet the figures tell us the whole story: in the absence of a focused and clear agenda for race relations, South Africans are beginning to retreat into their corners.

Ditching the myth of South African exceptionalism must reverse this. Democracy wasn’t a ‘miracle,’ it was the result of hard work. We planned and prepared and then we executed. Telling ourselves this mythical story of the transition miracle (which we do all too often) strips us of agency and creates a false sense that a divine hand was guiding us. It suggests that there is something so unique and special about the South African story that it was resolved because of luck, the sheer luck of having Mandela, Sisulu, Tambo and so on at the helm. If we agree that we worked hard for freedom and won it, then we can also agree to focus on race and begin to make measurable attitudinal changes in the direction of peace. We must move away from the current détente.

Most importantly however, we must not allow ourselves to be distracted by the kinds of events that I described at the beginning of this set of reflections. As Toni Morrison says, “ The very serious function of racism is to distract us.” I do not wish to demean the effect of the individual acts of racism I have already cited, and the many others that take place each day. But it is also important that South Africa put in place a proper plan for addressing the structural and systemic drivers of racism, particularly race-based poverty, so that our society isn’t continually responding and reacting to individual acts. We need to strengthen our capacity to address the systemic issues on an on-going basis.

Too often when a race row breaks out we resort to filing a complaint with the Human Rights Commission. It is crucial that we use this mechanism, but if we are serious about creating a sustained and sustainable peace based on justice then we must do much more.

A starting point is to begin to teach our children the science of reaching out, which is ultimately about the art of dialogue. This is crucial if we are to make the tough decisions we need to make about more equitable sharing of resources. If we are to tax more heavily or if we are to constrain historically accumulative benefits like inheritance, then we cannot rely only on hard power.

Not everyone is as optimistic as I am. The debate about Mandela’s role and place in our society will continue to be robust. There are no easy answers, but I am convinced that on matters of race in South Africa there is no difference between pragmatism and idealism. If we do not reverse the current trend of diminishing trust and hardening attitudes, then we are surely headed for a race war and so whether we like it or not, we must live together as more than passing colleagues.

In closing, I am aware that it is hopelessly sentimental to end a talk about Nelson Mandela with words from Martin Luther King, but this quote is so apt that I hope I can be forgiven.

Dr King said, “We must live as brothers, or perish together as fools.” It seems that these words have never been truer than they are today. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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