Opinionista Mfundo Radebe 21 January 2019

‘Mandela would have wanted…’ ‘Mandela wouldn’t have wanted…’

Hold up, you’re hedging. Is it you or Mandela who is stating this opinion? I get it. We love that man. By providing that coating you’re probably thinking that it makes your opinion more true in its relevance to whatever commentary on South Africa you’re making. Except, it’s become such a platitude — a truist form of argument, making it impossible to have debate and discussion lest you demean the name of the father of our nation.

Indeed, the joy and curse that comes with having such a profound person influence your country’s history is what we see today — that in all our doings we have come to believe that we must Mandela-fy anything we do and say.

In recent memory, I can point to none other than when Siya Kolisi, the first black Springbok captain and somebody I adore, made his daring remarks on the use of quotas in national rugby (a contentious South African debate) and fell into this very trap: “I don’t think he (Mandela) would have supported that (quotas), but I don’t know him.” A rebuttal to this is probably going to be along the line of: “It’s not his fault he was asked what Mr Mandela might have thought of quotas.” This is fair except that we need to get to a point where as South Africans we slowly start to take over our own narrative and own the fact that we, more than anybody else, deserve to account for the kind of South Africa we want to see.

I have come here to say that as captain of one of the world’s best rugby teams, Siya, you very much have the right and authority to say what you think. Stomach in, chest out, and say it boldly. You’re an expert with more validity than Mr Mandela on rugby.

South Africans who have been abroad will tell you that Mandelafication is quite a thing. Any substantive opinion you give on South Africa will surely be followed by “Mandela would not have wanted that!” I can tolerate this except when it means that people with genuine expertise shudder to give their opinions and do not feel assured that their experience allows them more believability and validity than the person sitting on the couch (who has never dared walk the field themselves) but can similarly tell you (from having read page 1 of Long Walk to Freedom) what the appropriate answer to every social problem is.

Any reasonable debater will tell you that arguing from authority can set the ground for one of the worst logical fallacies one could use to debate. Many people fail to understand exactly how this principle works. If you cite a figure with appropriate authority in the area of the topic you’re arguing for, and that forms one of the premises you use to support your conclusion, then you’re appropriately laying the grounds for a successful argument. If you cite a figure with some form of authority (but not in the area of the topic you’re arguing for), and that forms one of the premises you use to support your conclusion or it becomes your conclusion, then this is a logical fallacy. How would this test look?

On inclusive governance and democracy — Nelson Mandela – Appropriate

On inclusive governance and democracy – Robert Mugabe – Probably Not

On global health and philanthropy – Barack Obama – Probably Not

On global health and philanthropy – Bill Gates – Appropriate

Given this test, I hope in 2019 we all speak out loudly against the ills we see in our country and that we argue from the perspective that perhaps as citizens we have enough authority to allow our own voices to be cited in our personal opinions and experiences of South African social problems.

Not because it is what somebody else would have wanted, but because it is what we want and we know we deserve better and deserve to say that out loud. DM

Mfundo Radebe is an undergraduate at Harvard University studying Economics and African Studies. He is a writer for the Harvard Political Review and president of the Harvard African Students Association.


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