The finality of death means that we can never know how Mandela would have liked to have been remembered. His mortal remains, lowered to the ground at Qunu, will become a symbol of contested memory. Growing up in post-94 South Africa, I have seen how chestnuts are traded in the national discourse. Hurriedly, the proverbial elephant in the room is allocated an illusory tag – to mask the discomfort of lived reality; to invoke alarm; and ultimately, to conceal the truth.
A key lesson in Mandela’s life is that he – the man, not the myth – rarely had the opportunity to sketch himself. The world did this for him. Mandela’s mediated life was filled with tags: “rabble-rouser” when he was younger, “black pimpernel” and “terrorist” (thanks, Cameron, Reagan et al) when political urgency found him. When the sun finally shone on him, the world projected its hopes onto him, recasting Mandela as a “global icon”, “South Africa’s liberator” and “talisman”.
Mandela’s South Africa suffers from a similar queasiness. Contemporary issues – some contentious, some not – are tagged by convenience. Our national discourse is polluted with signals; their tone ranging from Rainbow Nation-ism to crude denialism. In youthful naivety you ask: “What is a “born free”, when real opportunity still has a hue attached to it?”; “Who are these ‘young, angry and black’ people you refer to?”; “Why is it that the language of reconciliation has trumped more substantive ideals like social justice?”
Three weeks ago, I stood in a packed room at Cape Town’s indie bookshop, the Book Lounge. Wannabe politician, and former black consciousness activist, Mamphela Ramphele was there to launch her autobiography, A Passion for Freedom. After the dull questions were asked, Mamphela shared an interesting anecdote:
I was in Rustenburg this past weekend. One of Malema’s supporters took off his beret and greeted me with respect. This proves to me that these young people need acknowledgement. The young man was really decent to me.
As Ramphele narrates, the young man was from a small, forgotten community in Rustenburg. He is unemployed, young and black; a reality in post-94 South Africa. He is a member of the Economic Freedom Fighters, the latest democratic-left ensemble advocating for ‘radical change’, led by Julius Malema. The party attracts the “young, angry and black and angry” tag at whim.
Scores of young people, aged 15-34 are unemployed and looking for work in South Africa. The media tags them as “young, angry and black”. We are told that they are the faces behind “service delivery protests”. The ethereal term “service delivery”, itself, reducing the plight of poor South Africans to something less knotty: the provision of, and access to, basic services; disguising and invalidating the quest for true dignity.
The face of the EFF is young-ish and black. Their “redistribute now” missive has earned both valid and lazy criticism. Their tone is perceived by many to be “dangerous” and “irrational”. For Ramphele, the red-beret clad young man from Rustenburg should have been less respectful towards her. For he is “young, angry and black”. The faceless trope deprives him of agency; he is driven by dangerous impulses and anger; he is one within an uncontrollable mass, predestined to produce instability. He is a threat. In a country that oscillates between the haze of Rainbow Nation-ism and the reality of economic exclusion – “young, angry and black” is a good scarecrow.
In South Africa, the threatening discourse has more obvious roots. Under the old order, the politics of fear projected imagined threats to make sense of false adversaries. Remember Mandela the terrorist? Think swart gevaar (black danger) – used by PW Botha and his ilk. The anxiety of swart gevaar sprung far beyond the fear that black people would take over the country. At its root was the imagined fear of the ferocious native – unable to control irrational “anger” and “impulse”.
There are other more colorful tags in Mandela’s South Africa. The Rainbow Nation also gave birth to fuzzy and illusive tags like “born free”. These chestnuts represent a failure of imagination. We believe that there are three standard responses to our pressing challenges: the mysticism of Mandela’s South Africa, senseless alarmism, and myth-making.
As a young South African, Mandela’s legacy leaves me conflicted. I do not doubt the significance of the collective achievement made possible by Madiba and his compatriots. My conflict stems from a recognition that we have not moved beyond the glorious moment of 1994. It is why political leaders like Mamphela Ramphele, big business and the media can downplay the lived realities of the vast majority of South Africans. They deploy tags like “young, angry and black” to mask their lack of imagination.
The day after Mandela’s burial also happened to be Reconciliation Day. Reconciliation – also to be filed under popular South African tags – is a reminder that sometimes, altruistic ideals can be deployed as an opiate.
Now that the 10-day long gedoente is done, our reality will re-etch itself. For many young South Africans, the country we have inherited is littered with contradictions. Mandela, the great statesman our parents told us about, straddled South Africa’s great divide with charm. Yet our divisions have never been bridged. As youth, we now find ourselves in an in-between space: the significance of liberation is chanted aloud, while our lived reality rings a different tune.