One of the recent tweets at @GSElevator–the anonymous Twitter profile that claims to record conversations overheard in Goldman Sachs elevators–concerns Nelson Mandela: “#1 If I got fired, I’d take a couple years off and sit on my ass. #2 Mandela didn’t do shit for like 25 years.” Apart from displaying the arrogance and rightwing politics of Wall Street, it also reflects the divergent, incorrect and unrealistic reactions Mandela evokes among his detractors and supporters. The tweet also reminded me of an opinion piece I read in The Toronto Star last weekend about how the ANC centenary this year suffered from the absence of Mandela.
The column by Tony Burman, former head of Al Jazeera English and CBC News, who teaches journalism at Ryerson University, is partly Burman’s attempt to insert himself into the ANC’s centenary — he was a producer when a CBC host interviewed Mandela at his house in Soweto shortly after his release. But at the heart of the piece is Burman going on about how great Mandela is and how great the ANC was led by this light. In the absence of analysis, comes nostalgia. And once more, the ANC’s ‘golden age’ led by its coterie of golden cadres is juxtaposed with its meagre present.
Yet readers won’t know that only a decade and a half ago Mandela himself challenged this dominant rendition. I remember Mandela being upset by the consistent promotion of his status above that of the ANC in the early years of freedom. It was a ploy, he stressed, that denigrated all. He wrote an article for the South African Sunday Times newspaper in response to an editorial the newspaper had published that set him apart from the ANC specifically and African people more generally. The original piece was subtitled “Don’t praise me to damn the rest” and spoke about how he became what he is because of the movement that produced him. He spoke about his position as a member of the organization and his distaste for being regarded as ‘above’ or separate from the ANC. He also admonished the editorial for refusing to regard him as an African. This refusal, for Mandela, exposed a deeply racist sentiment that suggested the impossibility that Africans could generate a “success of world-wide significance” which was the peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy.
In his article, Mandela stated that the ANC with its talented leadership collectives and millions of members and supporters could not possibly simply be a rubber stamp for his ideas. It is another myth about Mandela that has established traction in the popular liberal democratic imagination — that he is the man of peace without whom South Africa would have descended into the hell of bloody civil war. The Toronto Star reinforces this legend by suggesting that the terrorism charges that Mandela was incarcerated for were “phony”. Well, the law was certainly problematic. But Madiba was at the helm of an underground army. He reminds us that he had to be convinced by other ANC decision-makers of the value in suspending armed struggle in 1990. Why is it so damn hard to imagine that Mandela is great and wonderful and not a saint? Too often, in our desire to have lived amongst the exceptional, we inadvertently dehumanize the ones we seek to valorize.
What seems hard to grasp, to some, is that while Mandela has more supporters globally than the ANC, he is still, and always will be, a part of that organization. Over the generations, many have tried hard to create a counter-movement to the ANC’s struggle hegemony. They have learned the hard way that it has an institutionalized way of renewing itself, of inventing itself afresh when the moment demands. No doubt state power in the context of dominant global capitalism has influenced the character of the organization today. But to take Mandela’s absence from the celebrations as a sign of its imminent collapse is to misrecognize the nature of the ANC and the magnificent humanness of Mandela.