Mandela the Myth informed my childhood. Like many South Africans of the 80s generation, I grew up in a State of Emergency. Political parties to the left were banned and Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island.
Although the slogan: Free Mandela, was synonymous with the liberation struggle, it was the Freedom Charter which inspired us. Pitted against a white minority regime which had literally succeeded in erasing Mandela’s identity — no contemporary photographs of Mandela existed — attempts to read Mandela’s writing were met with official statements about the possession of banned material — one activist was imprisoned merely for having a tattoo with the the words Free Mandela. Like the black consciousness leader Biko, songs about Mandela could get you into serious trouble with the National Party regime.
When Mandela was finally released and the press could photograph him, we waited with thousands of our fellow compatriots for hours on Cape Town’s Grand Parade, to catch a glimpse of the living legend. The slow transition to democracy was not without its pitfalls. The CODESA negotiations between the National Party and the ANC often broke down under threat of far right wing elements taking up arms, while political structures began to merge in the expectation of freedom — the line separating authority, the security forces from those on the other side in the anti-apartheid movement, rapidly blurring, and to a frightening degree.
The result was a short period spent in self-inflicted exile, I left my homeland, South Africa following the assassination of communist party leader Chris Hani. Upon returning, I had been given the grace to attend a triumphant “Artists Against Apartheid” exhibition, held in our very first democratically elected Parliament — only to be amazed as South Africa’s first black President, Nelson Mandela emerged, a veritable 12 foot giant* whose very presence spoke of freedom.
The Velvet Revolution began during the Cape Town Peace March turned into the Champagne Revolution. Eventually the effervescence of the transition wore off. Gradually life returned to normal. We slowly stopped believing in Nelson Mandela the legend, as it became clear that he was all too human and fallible. A simple politician more interested in the art of the grand gesture, than the finer details of freedom. Mandela, it appeared, always on the lookout for an opportunity to showcase his trademark colourful shirts, would rather visit the widow of the late Hendrik Verwoerd to placate the right-wing, than actively promote the substance of the Freedom Charter by visiting ordinary people in the townships.
Although South Africa, which had gotten over the euphoric Mandela presidency by this stage, had a new constitution supposedly guaranteeing equal rights, freedom of thought, opinion and religion, it soon became a sin in my own country to even dare to criticise Mandela’s many failures. His silence on Israel and Palestine. His uncomfortable prevarication on Myanmar and Tibet.
The truth is, Mandela never stood up for human rights in the way we all wanted him to be a superman activist, dealing with every possible problem under the sun. Rather he stood up, in a humble way for his own troubles. The result? A political party which has now constituted itself as some form of mass religion, “more popular than even Jesus Christ” in the process encouraging a personality cult which insists upon the infallibility of leadership, the unquestioning virtue of “Brand Madiba” which grants succor to all political cronies who have ascended the throne after him.
An astute politician, of that there can be no doubt. But an infallible demigod, whose every word is the truth? Mandela, for all his post-1994 writing, produced few great speeches. Many of his aphorisms and quotable quotes were written by other people, in particular his biographers. He generously accepted the position we, the people, vested upon him, living up to his historical role as a South African liberator, but he never stood up for universal human rights in later life, in the way Gandhi, or Martin Luther King stood up, regardless of who the recipients might be and in what nation they might reside.
The criticism, mostly unpopular, that Mandela advocated violence and refused to condemn aggression when it was unleashed, continues. Mandela however, managed to break with his party on support for the Treatment Action Campaign while remaining quiet on other issues, such as the arms scandal, for which the ANC deserved to be condemned.
History will judge Mandela thus as a creation of the 20th century. A scion of MTV sound-bytes, and race identity cliché. A media concoction which produced a peculiar one dimensional world of black and white, in which the lives of ordinary people, in particular the working class, came a distant second.
Mandela upon his 2012 birthday, is now a retired and silenced leader of a country which has failed to deliver on its promise of human rights for all.
The majority of South Africans still live in poverty, while a paternalistic state makes mince meat of the principles for which he rightly or wrongly, appears to have taken all the credit.
If Mandela was really the great statesman and jurist he (and his supporters) so claim him to be, then why is it that South Africa has a corrupt judiciary that maintains the last vestiges of apartheid?
The idea that the small legal practice of Mandela and Sisulu would lead to greater things has proven false. Is there nothing universal about the Freedom Struggle? How is it possible that our nation’s judges continue to disavow internationally accepted best practice, while maintaining they, and only they, are entitled to declaim on the rights of citizens without citizens being afforded equality before the law?
It is uncomfortable questions such as these, which in the final analysis show up Mandela as all too human. A failed superhero whose legacy will only come to fruition once we have truly liberated our people.
- * Note: Mr Mandela’s height was 6ft 4ins (1.93 metres)