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Tutu, Mandela: Wilful forgetting and the absence of memory in the populist imagination


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

What sets the EFF and its youthful members apart from very many political parties is that they have no memory of the violence of the mid-1980s and early 1990s and the concessions and compromises that had to be made to prevent a descent into civil war and the complete collapse of South Africa’s economy.

There is something quite disturbing about the glee among the populists following the death of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. In some ways the gloating and glee, the almost macabre celebration of Tutu’s death, were to be expected. Those who are now dancing on Tutu’s grave, as it were, are marked by an absence of memory, and wilful forgetting. Some are simply too young, some had not been born and others have been denied the opportunity to feed at the trough. Then there is the intelligently framed absurdity which suggests that we did not sign off on the Constitution, so it does not apply to us…

Predictably, then, the gloating and glee have come from populists and early 21st-century fascists — South Africa’s version of the ethno-nationalism and searches of purity that are sweeping the world — who would insist that Tutu (along with Nelson Mandela) was too kind to whites and “non-Africans”. Tutu and Mandela are singled out as the villains who produced a South African version of what Benito Mussolini, in an earlier age, referred to as a “mutilated victory” that humiliated the Italian people. It is from this playbook that Julius Malema gains his fascist performativity with its attendant heightened masculinity. These are the exact opposites of what Mandela and Tutu stood for and the post-death slander has continued. 

Absence of memory and wilful forgetting 

The unabashedly populist Economic Freedom Fighters, (now) joined by the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction of the ruling alliance, share at least two retrogressive and dangerous beliefs and programmes of action. There is the belief, especially among the EFF, that the political settlement and transition of the mid-1990s have left most economic power and land in the hands of white people. There is a lot of truth in that. For this apparently meaningless outcome (for Africans) of the settlement and transition, the EFF in particular has identified mainly Mandela (for the political settlement) and Tutu for the post-apartheid reconciliation process. The belief is that Tutu and Mandela “sold out” African people.  

The first problem that the EFF has with the political settlement and subsequent reconciliation process is that it was insufficiently punitive (and rapacious) and that whites got away with murder, sometimes literally. Again, there is a lot of truth in the latter. In the EFF’s view, both processes failed to summarily and wilfully take land from white people and give it to Africans, in a conspiratorial deal with whites. Malema is wont to throw about “the Ruperts” as being somehow behind the social democrat leaders of the ANC, people like Cyril Ramaphosa, Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela. 

On the face of things, it is reasonable to make the claim that Africans remain “landless”. However, at the time of the political settlement (before most young radicals were born or their leaders were young) at least two things shaped the outcomes of the political settlement and reconciliation process. 

The first was that Mandela refused to “play god” and was insufficiently vengeful. He recognised and was fully apprised of the need to bring South Africa back from the edge of complete collapse through violence and political economic meltdown. Some of us who reported on the daily violence across the country and on the negotiations process at Codesa gained significant insights into just how dangerously close South Africa came to collapse. The EFF and young radicals have no idea of just how bad things were. 

Second, Tutu himself spent days on end attending funerals across the country. Some of the funerals were for victims of factional battles between the ANC and any number of its adversaries (notably Inkatha), others were for those killed by the state, and some were of people who had been accused of being “sell-outs,” the same condemnatory name-calling the EFF resorts to. Together, Tutu and Mandela were opposed to the politics of revenge (the touchstone of EFF political economic policies), without losing sight of rolling back the injustices of the past.  

The incoming regime approached the return of the land in a gradualist manner, with the main priority at the time being to bring about stabilisation and consolidation. This was achieved quite successfully until about 2006. And the most important thing in this particular context is that the state did expand social spending and allocated billions to land reform. A survey of the Treasury’s website and its official appropriation documents will confirm this. There is an argument to be made that land reform has been too slow, but (it’s not hard to imagine that) the EFF prefers outright rapine.  

What sets the EFF and its members apart (from very many political parties) is that its youthful members have no memory of the violence of the mid-1980s and early 1990s and the concessions and compromises that had to be made to prevent a descent into civil war and complete collapse of South Africa’s economy. While the EFF’s young radicals have no memory of this difficult period, the RET faction’s main leaders seem to have resorted to a wilful forgetting.  

The RET faction’s main gripe, it seems, is that their time to feast is steadily coming to an end. Both share (to some extent) a political economic programme of action that is socially driven by the politics of revenge, politically and economically driven by a type of ethno-nationalist-inspired total control of the economy. This can be gleaned from the EFF’s constitution. 

Malema as putative leader of the politics of revenge 

There is an apparent meeting of minds and objectives between the EFF and RET faction. In the event of a merger of sorts, it’s hard to believe that Malema would follow any leader. He has a history of disruption at official ANC gatherings, where at one point he “charged the stage” and “grabbed the microphone”. Malema will recall the specific event and the decisions that were made by the ANC leadership…. I will not say more than that, other than doveryai no proveryai — trust but verify (but be prepared for a sudden loss of memory, and obfuscation). 

As the putative leader of the South African incarnation of the ethno-nationalism and early 21st-century fascism that is sweeping the world from Brazil to Hungary and further east to the Philippines, Malema seems to have created an almost seamless elision of a leader that exploits individuals who are generally law-abiding; a leader who lays down laws to further exploit political and economic conditions for personal advantage; and a strongman who (like Mussolini) gives the impression of being “for the people”, but remains detached and aspires to tyranny and complete (totalitarian) control of state and society. 

Tutu and Mandela were social democrats. They avoided “playing god,” and refused to indulge in “the politics of revenge” and infused their words and deeds with humanism and a morality that is greater and more progressive than revolutionary reveries that include rapine. Above all, they respected the Constitution, but never forgot that many people had been left behind, were excluded and were waiting for a peace dividend. 

The difference between Tutu and Mandela, and their detractors, is that the latter would have us believe that they did not endorse the Constitution so it does not apply to them. They use the parts of the Constitution that suit their immediate objectives (the way Mussolini did), and will change it as soon as they can to establish a polity of total control of the state and society “by any revolutionary means possible” — this is the first among the EFF’s aims and objectives along the way to establishing a dictatorship of the people, in elimination of the “bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes”

In the 1980s and early 1990s I witnessed first-hand and at very close range the way that “sell-outs” were set alight with “necklaces” and had large rocks dropped on their heads, and I photographed the moment that Tutu saved the life of someone who had been accused of being a “sell-out” from an angry mob about to set the man alight. This language of “sell-outs” is part of the EFF’s lexicon. Mandela specifically told people to throw their weapons into the sea, and Tutu was opposed to the brutality of mob violence. This is what sets them apart from the EFF/RET alignment and its young people who do not remember just how close South Africa came to complete social and political economic collapse between 1985 and 1994. 

There is no question that land reform is fundamental to economic inclusion and expansion. Land reform has been the basis of economic development and expansion in most countries in the world across history.

There is no question that land is/was distributed unevenly and ownership remains skewed. The EFF needs to look at the National Treasury’s allocation of money for land reform during the Mandela and Mbeki years — it runs in the billions — and consider where all the money went.

There is a strong case to be made that much of it went to seedy characters and cadres of the ruling alliance. Therein lies the problem.

Tutu and Mandela were not problematic. They left us with a grace and kindness that should help us avoid making Africans better off without making “non-Africans” worse off — through rapine, revenge and punishing children for the sins of their forebears. It’s a tough call, but it always seems impossible until it’s done. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mike Linden says:

    Excellent assessment and presentation of the facts while explicitly recognising the very real foundations for grievance and the need for fundamental reform. Thank you.

  • John Cartwright says:

    Bravo, Ismail.

  • Stephen T says:

    I had a discussion once with a Dr of anthropology about the land restitution program back when it was still in full swing. He was one of the specialists tasked by the program to investigate and report on land claims that had no evidence other than “buried ancestors”.

    Every claim had to be investigated before any restitution was agreed upon, and there were only so many professionals available for this job. Most cases were a waste of his time as the bones they dug up were often those of dogs or baboons that had recently been buried. How these claimants thought they could fool a trained anthropologist with mere animal bones is anyone’s guess, but if anyone was wondering why the process was taking so long (as many complained at the time), this was one of the reasons.

    • Stephen T says:

      Years later I myself was involved in capturing existing records of land restitutions into a spatial database. These were only of successful claims and my allotted section was only a small part of the W. Cape. Even so, there were still several hundred that I needed to capture. One thing became abundantly clear in the data: the vast majority of successful land claims were paid out as monetary compensation even if the option existed to return to the land they were removed from. This amounted to several million just for my small section.

      So unlike Ismail’s insinuation that the money “disappeared”, there is a paper trail here that says the restitution money actually reached its intended recipients. Whether or not they used it wisely to improve their lives is not the prerogative of government (nor should it be).

      • Charles Parr says:

        Stephen, the process that you’ve described here was very thorough but the problem, when paying out funds to a tribe, village or any group of people, was that payment was made through some structure, such as a trust, which was supposed to ensure equitable distribution of the funds in terms of the claim. My feeling is that that is where things broke down and the people that ended up in control of the funds took most of it for themselves leaving the rest of the people disgruntled. A classic example of that occurred in the Northern Cape where a group consisting of 1600 people received several R100s of millions plus productive farms, plus, plus, plus and yet the average family received almost zilch while the person that controlled the money had diamond diggings that suddenly were making so much money even though they hadn’t yielded a diamond in years.

  • Hugh Corder says:

    An outstanding assessment; lifting the spirits at a sombre and distressing time. Thank you.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Maybe the limitations of this format prevented Ismail from referring to the experience of India, where a sections of an overwhelming religious majority has embarked upon a similar politics of revenge against various minorities, with the complicit approval of the current ruling party and a largely co-opted media. The previous regime which under the influence of Gandhi (who no doubt influenced Mandela and Tutu) had inherited a magnanimous approach, had like out own congress ‘lost its way’ with incompetence. Gandhi was murdered by a BJP type Hindutva supporting Hindu. In some ways, the parallels between what happened there and what is unfolding here now, are too close for comfort !

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