Saturday, October 16, 2010

Reflections on the Mandela myth

By Patrick Laurence

In the newly published sequel to his internationally acclaimed autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela apologises for the false image of being a saint that he "unwittingly projected" while in prison. Entitled Conversations with Myself, Mandela writes in the sequel: "I never was one, even on the basis of an earthly definition of a sinner who keeps on trying."

His apology is unnecessary since, as a prisoner, he had no control over the projection of him as the political equivalent of a saint by the African National Congress leaders in exile. Ditto the world wide Anti-Apartheid Movement that did everything in its power to project him as a man of unblemished integrity and a prisoner of conscience. It is common knowledge that Mandela's reputation grew with the passage of every year that he spent in prisoner and eventually became overlaid with myth.

Welcome as Mandela's admission that he is not a saint may be, it has come a bit late in the day. His beatification has been challenged over the years by both of his ex-wives and by David James Smith, author of a biography of Mandela as a young man entitled Young Mandela.

In an interview published in early 1990 shortly after Mandela was released from prison, Evelyn Mase, his first wife, describes Mandela as a dandy and adulterer and expresses astonishment at the excitement or "fuss' engendered by his release from prison.

More recently, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his second wife and herself a stalwart of the struggle against apartheid, describes the name Mandela as an albatross around the necks of her grandchildren in the published reflection on Africa by V S Naipaul, a Nobel laureate for literature. In his account of an interview with Madikizela Mandela in her Soweto home, he quotes her as accusing Mandela of betraying the revolution by emerging from prison as a man of peace who sacrificed his poor black constituents in order to conclude a deal with their oppressors.

She forgets, of course, that when Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia trial of 1963-64, the previous white controlled regime was determined to crush the ANC and to press ahead with its plans to offer black people quasi-self-governing states in their own areas.

In Smith's biography of Mandela as a young man, he portrays Mandela as a man of flesh and blood who was attracted by beautiful women and who had affairs with several of them. Mandela's purported paramours include Lillian Ngoyi, a high profile ANC activist, and Ruth Momparti, who worked in the legal office that Mandela shared with his comrade Walter Sisulu, and who, according to Smith, bore Mandela a son. Smith's style is understated. He does not trumpet his conclusions but leaves readers to draw their own.

The burden of sainthood imposed on Mandela needs to be seen in the context of an equally burdensome myth: the presentation of him as a magician possessed of extraordinary powers akin to those reportedly possessed by Merlin, the benevolent wizard who helped to bring King Arthur to power in medieval Britain.

Mandela's supposed magical powers are hinted at in the phrase beloved of the South African press: "Madiba magic," Madiba being Mandela's praise name. Mandela's inspirational powers are elevated to supreme heights in John Carlin's account of his role in South Africa's victory over New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup. He seems to relegate the contribution of the players and their coach, Kitch Christie, to minor players.

The elevation of Mandela to the status of a benign magician, like his canonization as a saint, has been a burden to him since it aroused expectations among his followers that he could not gratify. To reject the saintly and magical attributes bestowed on Mandela by his admirers is not to deny Mandela's massive contribution to the emancipation of South Africa from the tyranny of white over-lordship.

Mandela has earned an honorable place in the history of South Africa for his role of volunteer-in-chief during the ANC's passive resistance campaign of 1952-53, for his decision to initiate armed resistance to the apartheid regime after the Sharpeville massacre of March 1960 and the outlawing of the ANC, for his initiative of starting settlement negotiations with P W Botha administration from his prison cell in the mid and later 1980s, and for his magnanimity as a protagonist of peace and reconciliation after his release from prison in February 1990.

To recognise his huge contribution to the founding of South Africa as a non-racial constitutional democracy is not, however, to be blind to his mistakes and shortcomings as a politician and president after release from prison.

His attempt to persuade the ANC to advocate the extension of the vote to 16 year-olds and even 14 year-old adolescents is at best seen as a moment of irrationality. As his official biographer Anthony Sampson notes, it would have places South Africa in the company of some of the most oppressive regimes around the globe, including that of North Korean dictatorship.

His defence of the killing of Inkatha Freedom Party protesters outside the ANC headquarters at Shell House in Johannesburg in March 1994 seems to have been premature in view of the findings of Judge Robert Nugent in the inquest into the massacre: Nugent found that the protestors did not constitute a serious or imminent threat to ANC members in its headquarters and that the ANC guards had continued firing even after the protestors had fled from the area.

It might be observed that there is an eerie similarity between the Sharpeville and Shell House massacres: the armed men -police and guards respectively -open fire in controversial circumstances on protestors and continued firing long after the protestors have turned and fled for their lives.

Mandela's role as South Africa's first post-apartheid president does not constitute a tale of complete success.

While Mandela deserves praise for his constancy in seeking to reassure whites that there was a place for them in the new South Africa and the rights of all South Africans enshrined in the founding constitution would be upheld he is open to criticism for not anticipating the seriousness of threat posed by HIV-Aids to the entire population but particularly to those who were poor and, for historically reasons, mainly black.

Instead of taking the lead in the fight against HIV/Aids, he handed over responsibility to Thabo Mbeki, who later won notoriety for his dalliance with Aids dissidents and his reluctance to recognize/that HIV/Aids is a sexually transmitted and virulent disease.

Mandela similarly failed to raise his voice against the multi-million rand arms deal and instead handed over responsibility for it to Mbeki as the chairman of the special arms deal committee. By acting as he did, Mandela opened the door for attempts by arms companies to dangle massive corrupt payments before the eyes of government officials in return for their support in winning contracts.

One result of that is that the high hopes of South Africa becoming a relatively corruption-free state were compromised within the first five years of its existence and the new republic was burdened with a huge debt that is not yet completely paid off.


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