Rescuing Nelson Mandela from sainthood

There is a lively, angry, often chaotic debate about the role and place of the father of the South African nation.

Mandela statue at Southbank Centre in London. Image credit Paul Simpson via Flickr.

Like millions of South Africans, my own story is deeply tied to that of Nelson Mandela. It begins with my father. Inspired by Nelson Mandela, he joins the African National Congress. In 1961, my father slips out of the country and begins his life in exile. He travels to Russia and does military training. He travels around Africa doing revolutionary things. He thinks he will be gone for only a year. He never says goodbye to anyone because those are the instructions. He is 21 when he leaves—and he is gone 30 years. He is 51 when he finally touches South African soil again.

During those 30 years, he was busy. He met a woman in Lusaka in the 1970s and they had three girls. I am the eldest of those children. I grew up in many different countries, part of the ANC community in exile. We sang freedom songs about Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki and all those who were fighting bravely for our freedom. I owe my sense of self-belief to that community, to the adults I grew up with who taught me that I was as good as anyone in the world.

I was 17 when Mandela was released. It was like a dream come true. My family—like many others—was able to return because of the changes that began to happen in the early 1990s.  Other than my parents no one did more to determine my destiny and shape my life, than Nelson Mandela.

This is why I am especially pleased to have a chance to reflect on the father of the nation. And in this capacity—as what Audre Lorde referred to as a sister outsider—I am paying him tribute of course, but also giving voice to some of what troubles me about how he is viewed today.

Today, many younger South Africans suggest that Mandela made too many compromises.  Twenty-five years into the new era, there is a lively, angry, often chaotic debate about the role and place of the father of our nation.

When the student protests began a few years ago on South Africa’s university campuses some of the young activists accused Nelson Mandela of betraying the revolution. They called him a sell-out. The elders were alarmed and hurt, but the young ones were convinced. I am of the generation that lies between the two: I was not old enough to fight for freedom but I am old enough to remember Mandela. I know that he was no sell-out.

I agree with one point the youth made however:  the revolution was betrayed. I do not place the blame at Madiba’s feet though. The blame for that lies squarely with the generation of leaders who followed him—my parent’s generation. The freedom fighters whom I respected and loved in Lusaka and Nairobi, returned home. They put down their guns and they picked up their spoons and they began to eat. Many of them have not stopped eating since. I can think of only a handful of them who I would trust with my future.

Although he was a loyal and lifelong member of the ANC, Nelson Mandela was also a pragmatist. He once said, “you must support the African National Congress only so far as it delivers the goods, if the ANC does not deliver the goods, you must do to it what you have done to the Apartheid regime.”

He was a man whose life was totally dedicated to removing oppression and restoring dignity.  Yet today, when we talk about Mandela, we focus almost exclusively on his message of healing and forgiveness.

If Mandela were to be named a saint, I have no doubt that he would be named as the Patron Saint of Forgiveness. Today, forgiveness is seen as the central component of Mandela’s legacy. I must confess that this irritates me greatly. Worse, I think this excessive focus on forgiveness diminishes his political legacy and blunts his power. Embracing the Rainbow Nation forgiveness narrative puts white people at the center of the frame so, that over time, as the story of our transition has been told and retold in the popular imagination it has become a tale of forgiveness rather than one of justice. It has been told as though Madiba loved white people so much that he was prepared to forgive them, regardless of their collective sins.

This is a perversion of the truth, and a distortion of his political legacy. The truth of course is that in his 75-year career as a leader and an activist, Mandela never wavered in his commitment to those who had been the greatest victims of Apartheid—black people.

I think it is time that we put forgiveness back into its proper place in South Africa. Because when you look at Mandela’s life, and his approach to problem-solving, you see a man who was both principled and pragmatic. Madiba was always prepared to throw away an idea or a theory that did not support his main cause, which was the liberation of black people.  So while he became a committed and wonderful champion of forgiveness, it is very clear that if forgiveness had been standing in the way of justice, if Mandela believed that it was an obstacle or a blockage, if he saw that it was being used as an excuse for maintaining oppression, he would have very easily stopped advocating it.

I am not saying forgiveness is not good or important, but I am saying that it cannot be reduced to the only strategy, and indeed the only story about South Africa. Furthermore, it concerns me that forgiveness takes up all the oxygen in conversations about South Africa because it appeals to white people. This is because talking about forgiveness eases white fears and anxieties about black rage. These white anxieties supersede black people’s pain, and black people’s need for justice. In the long history of unfair race relations this is an old theme. White people are always far more sympathetic to one another’s pain than they are to the suffering of black people. When it comes to this issue, they are tribalists—perhaps unconsciously so. It is as though the empathy muscle can only be activated deeply in service of white feelings.

So, I want to suggest to you that the idea of Mandela as the Forgiver-In-Chief is not benign. I want to argue tonight that to the contrary, it is very dangerous. In the years since Apartheid ended, the story of Mandela’s forgiveness has taken on a life of its own. You might say a cult of forgiveness has emerged, with Mandela as its unwitting high priest. The Prophet Mandela  has been reduced to a caricature of himself. This hijacked Mandela is a commodity. Today you can find him on tea cups and t-shirts. The other day I even saw Madiba leggings!

I don’t blame Mandela for this. This mythology was certainly not of his making. But it has spread like wildfire because it ties into already existing ideas about who we are as raced subjects; about the potential of black people for volatility and the desire white people have to be considered innocent of racial crimes.

Mandela is especially loved by my fellow white South Africans. Indeed, in South Africa, there are many white people who have never hosted a black person in their homes, and who have not had any social cause to really engage much with black people, who have pictures of him on their walls. They love Mandela’s smile. They love photos of him with children. Indeed, Mandela may be the only black person many of my fellow white citizens “know.” Whenever you do something they don’t like, they are quick to tell you that Mandela would never have behaved like this.

The Mandela these white people love is “reasonable,” and never angry. In an interesting parallel, White South Africans love Madiba the way many white Americans love Obama.  They have turned him into a saint, a teddy bear, a totem for peace and good vibes. This love, however, doesn’t seem to translate into real life actions. Mandela and Che Guevara and Gandhi. Incense and ohms.

Mandela has become the chai latte of revolutionaries. I want to take a minute to outline this because it gets to the saccharine nature of why this Mandela is appealing. Chai has a long history. It is a beautiful, scented spiced tea. A latte on the other hand, is a type of coffee.  It is a totally different plant, with a completely different history and different taste. A chai latte is an entirely new concoction. This is a millennial marketing invention directly from the mind of an executive in Seattle who has probably never been outside America. Sweet, drinkable in small doses but empty of useful calories.

Watching the chai lattification of Mandela makes me sad because we see Mandela stripped of the complexity of his legacy. Instead, as time passes, those who profess to love him often do so because they are engaged in an act of profound misremembering. They forget about the freedom fighter and intellectual giant and in so doing, they diminish his relevance for young people today.

So, I want to talk about how we can rescue Mandela from this Cult of Forgiveness, to reflect on how we might restore him to the dignity of strong black coffee rather than a chai (soy) latte. There are two ways I think we can accomplish this. The first is to remember his love for Winnie Mandela. I want to close the gap that has been created between them for reasons I understand, but that ultimately do more damage than good. Winnie forces us to complicate the frame, to remember Mandela the radical and to insist that they were more alike for many years than they were different.

The second way we rescue Mandela (and South Africa) from the cult of forgiveness is by reminding ourselves of his genius; by remembering correctly that Mandela was skilled at maintaining his political principles while being able to make important political compromises.

Those who want to cast Mandela as a saint find it difficult to reconcile the fact that Mandela loved Winnie because she was implicated in violence and corruption and all the issues that are the opposite of what Mandela stands for. So, over the years as Mandela’s image has become more identified with forgiveness, there has been a gradual erasure of Winnie Mandela. The association is seen as toxic.

Yet, of course, it is impossible to write Winnie out of our history, and it is even more difficult to write her out of Madiba’s heart. There is nothing more poignant that reading his description of the first time they embraced 21 years after he was sent to prison. Until that point, he had not even been allowed to touch her hand. Then, suddenly, they were allowed in the same room together with no glass wall between them. He says he held onto her so tightly and all he could hear was the sound of both of their hearts beating. I want us to remember how much these two sophisticated, brave souls loved one another.

I want us to remember how, after she was found guilty of participating in the abduction and assault of a young boy in 1992, Mandela wrote, “As far as I was concerned, verdict or no verdict, her innocence was not in doubt.” I don’t say this to make Mandela look bad. I say it for the opposite reason—to remind us that Winnie wasn’t some tragic mistake in his life. He loved and defended her.

I also invoke her spirit and her memory because so many women loved her. She inspired us with the anger and her defiance. Women could relate to her because their own husbands were far away too—in the mines or in the cities. Like her, they struggled to manage against forces that were far bigger than them. And yet she was always there, a constant, ungovernable presence. When you push her to the side, then you push all those women away. You silence their stories. These women and these families that loved Winnie and still do today, they are not stupid. They are not evil. You can’t simply dismiss them because they admire someone who—like many other people in our damaged society—participated in violence.

At the same time, you cannot wish away her participation in violence. To do so would be to dishonor and disrespect the victims—the boys who were caught up in her recklessness.

Those who find her actions intolerable, do not like to hear this, but we cannot change it. In fact, it is better to accept it, to accept him as he was, not as we wish him to be. Winnie reminds us that many of South Africa’s heroes were both courageous and flawed. They deserve both respect for their courage and revulsion for their crimes. But, if we are expected to understand and forgive the racists who engineered Apartheid then, surely, we can extend some empathy to Winnie.

Ultimately, I am saying you can hold the contradictions in your head and in your heart—that you must in fact hold them together at the same time because they are part of the South African story.

When we try to tell smooth, easy stories about South Africa; lovely stories about Nelson, we keep bumping into Winnie and the countless others whose stories were told and not told at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

I have many critiques about the formal process through which the forgiveness narrative was implementedthat is the TRC. But, there is no question that for a brief moment under the extraordinary leadership of Mandela and under the auspices of the TRC, the nation examined its past and the ugly truth about what had been done. 

Today, those who are obsessed with forgiveness forget that many questions were not resolved when the five-year official TRC process endedThey forget that most Apartheid leaders said they didn’t know what had happened to the activists who had been killed, to the prisoners who had been detained. The forgiveness-ers forget that only one person ever served time for his Apartheid crimes: Eugene De Kock. Everyone else walked away because they said they didn’t remember, or they didn’t know. 

South Africa was supposed to be healed after the five-year period and it is hard for the world to accept that this did not happen. The TRC was an incomplete, uneven and often devastating process. At the end of it all white people collectively and individually did not show enough remorse. For most peopleregardless of raceremorse is a precondition for forgiveness. 

When Bishop Desmond Tutu handed the final TRC Report to then President Mbeki in 2000, some black people had managed to find it in their hearts to forgive those who had hurt them.  Others had not. This has to be okayit has to be accepted and the political framework for democracy in South Africa cannot pretend to be contingent on whether or not black people embrace whites. 

White South Africans will not die if they do not receive the love from black people that they think they deserve. White people in all contexts where historical wrongs have been carried out must learn that black people’s lives do not center around their feelings.

Mandela knew that you must deal with painful matters openly, but it is true, he was anxious to push us in a particular directiontowards forgiveness and reconciliation. I understand why. The situation was volatile. The threat of violence was real. But, once again, this is where the narrative betrays us. The threat was of white violence more than black violence.

It was whites who had the military power, it was whites who were angry about losing political power and had a history of cruel and violent behavior towards black people. So, Mandela’s approach of appeasing white anxiety was strategic. He wasn’t just in love with white peoplehe was managing them. He wasn’t terribly afraid that black people would drive whites into the sea or rise up and slit their throats. Those fears lie in the white imagination and Mandela was a black man who knew very well that black people were unlikely to do that.

So, yes, the young people who criticize Madiba today are righthe was appeasing whites. And I cant fault him. He was right to try to appease them because he understood their capacity for violenceAcross space and time, the instances where black people have killed white people in retribution are vanishingly rare. On the other hand, the instances where whites have killed black people simply for existing, are abundant. Madiba’s drive for forgiveness was about his hope for the future. He preached forgiveness so that nothing would stand in the way for black people’s freedom.

When Madiba was a young boy in Qunu, he and his friends were trying to ride a donkey. The donkey did not like this because donkeys are not horses. They don’t like to be ridden.  And so when it was Madiba’s turn to jump on, the harassed animal bucked and threw him off.  Mandela fell into a thorny bush, with scratches all over his face. When he stood up he was very embarrassed. The donkey had got its way and unseated him, but Madiba never forgot the feeling of humiliation. He took it to heart. They had learned that you can beat your opponent without humiliating him. He integrated this into his thinking and time and again. When the country needed cool heads and a generous heart Mandela was able to go back to this simple lesson.

In 1993 De Klerk and Mandela were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Many people in South Africa—myself included—continue to be angry about this. It is true that De Klerk took many important actions that led to the dismantling of Apartheid. He took a risk and held the referendum in which whites in the country were asked to vote on whether to end Apartheid or continue. Sixty-nine percent of them voted yes to negotiating the end of the evil system.

Yet, as Madiba pointed out later, “De Klerk did not make any of his reforms with the intention of putting himself out of power. He made them for precisely the opposite reason: to ensure power for the Afrikaner in the new dispensation.” Although De Klerk was prepared to end Apartheid, in Madiba’s estimation, “He was not prepared to negotiate the end of white rule.”

Those of you who are old enough, will remember that there were a series of horrific massacres that took place under De Klerk’s watch just as the constitutional negotiations began to unfold. De Klerk never explained or apologized for them although Mandela confronted him about them. De Klerk’s attitude, and the fact that he was ratcheting up violence, enraged Mandela.

Mandela knew very well De Klerk was not his intellectual or moral equal. Yet Mandela said, “I never sought to undermine Mr. De Klerk for the practical reason that the weaker he was, the weaker the negotiations process. To make peace with an enemy, one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes your partner.”

He took the high road and used the Nobel speech to make sure that De Klerk would not turn back—that he would finish the last mile. Mandela was not going to let his ego or the facts get in the way. If he had rebuked the Nobel Committee and told them he was offended that a man whose security forces were killing black people should share the award with him, it would have damaged De Klerk’s credibility. For the country’s process to have legitimacy, Mandela needed De Klerk to shine.

It is very clear that Mandela was never motivated by sentimentality. He did not particularly like De Klerk. He wasn’t playing into respectability politics and being polite. No. Instead Mandela’s actions were propelled by two things. Firstly, he had a clear vision of the end goal. He needed to ensure that black people won the franchise. Secondly, he had a very pragmatic approach about how to get there. This included a willingness to compromise on issues that did not matter like who got a prize and who did not.

I want to circle back to the mid-1990s though, to how we even got to the stage where Mandela was in a position to negotiate with De Klerk. It began in 1985, when Mandela was moved away from his comrades at Pollsmoor Prison. They remained on the third floor while Mandela was placed in a more spacious cell on the first floor. It was damp and not good for his chest, and it was darker than his old cell, although it was much bigger. Under the new arrangement however, Mandela was not allowed to see his comrades without applying for an official visit. The men who had been sentenced to life in prison together all those years back, might as well have been in Johannesburg—that is how hard it was for them to see one another.

He was lonely and missed his friends. He had been able to talk to them whenever he wanted and now for the first time in years that contact was gone. Yet, as he began to accept his situation, he realized that it presented an opportunity.

…My solitude gave me a certain liberty and I decided to do something I had been pondering for a long while: begin discussions with the government…. My solitude would give me an opportunity to take the first steps in that direction without the kind of scrutiny that might destroy such efforts.

The move was risky. The Apartheid regime had repeatedly said that they would never negotiate with terrorists and communists. Similarly, the ANC had long asserted that there was nothing to talk about with the government until it had unbanned the ANC, unconditionally released all political prisoners and removed the troops from the townships.

So, there was an impasse. He could see that if no one moved forward, millions of black south Africans would be trapped in poverty, violence and indignity forever. Neither side would back down and neither side would ever win.

Technically, the decision to open talks with the regime could only be made in consultation with Lusaka—with his best friend and the acting president of the ANC Oliver Tambo. Yet, Madiba decided to act on his own.

I chose to tell no one what I was about to do. I knew that my colleagues …would condemn my proposal and that would kill my initiative before it was even born. There are times when a leader must move ahead of the flock…

Ever the pragmatist he also knew that this would probably be only time when the ANC would have plausible deniability. He wrote, “My isolation furnished my organization with an excuse in case matters went awry: the old man was alone and completely cut off and his actions were taken by him as an individual” they could say.

Thus, protected by what he referred to as a “period of splendid isolation,” and able to use that isolation to protect his movement, Mandela the pragmatist removed the cloak of dogma that was blinding his comrades. With a clear vision in mind of building a South African society in which the core principles for which he had always fought were firmly embedded, he approached the enemy. He proposed a path of “talks about talks.”

This, as we now know, was the beginning of the end of the Apartheid regime. I am here today—we are all here today—because of that splendid isolation.

Mandela never took his eyes off black people—even though white South Africans, with their fragility and their tea cozies and Madiba leggings and their desire to be constantly reassured—thought that Mandela was their champion. In those delicate years when a lasting peace was imminent, but by no means guaranteed, Mandela was always calculating, balancing and re-assessing. And he was always focused on us.

He made concessions and changed plans when necessary, but he never conceded on any issue that would compromise the end-goal: that South Africa should become a country where each person would vote, regardless of skin color and where the will of the majority would determine the leadership and direction of the country. A country in which human rights were respected. This, in Mandela’s mind was the key to dignity.

He was steadfast and systematic once the negotiations started. He stayed principled, but he also made compromises. Today, we live in a world where politicians refuse to make political compromises and where too few have political principles. Mandela had both.

Mandela was an expert at both small kindnesses and grand gestures. The fact that South Africa is not equal today is not Nelson Mandela’s fault. The fault lies with those who took his political legacy and squandered it. It lies with those who took his belief in political compromise as a sign of weakness rather than strength. Mandela did not worship forgiveness, he treasured dignity and freedom.

It is not just societies that are considered to be in conflict that need Mandela. There has never been more polarization across Europe and America. Rising white nationalism and xenophobia are rampant. In Brazil and India, hatred is on the rise, and a cruelty and mean-spiritedness is on display everywhere from social media to the halls of power.

We need Mandela today in all these places—not to preach about forgiveness, but to lead the way towards crafting political solutions in places where people are paralyzed by dogma and self-righteousness.

Mandela’s greatness must be taught in schools, not as a story about forgiveness but as a story about power, principles, pragmatism, determination and, yes, that word which the world seems to reject these days—compromise. Political compromise does not mean allowing discrimination to thrive in a weaker form. It means outlawing discrimination even as we accept human fallibility.

There can be justice, no lasting peace without people who, like Mandela, are willing to move beyond restating their positions toward reaching agreements. If one man, in a damp prison cell at the tip of the African continent, isolated from his friends and separated from his people for decades, if that man can change the history of his nation and inspire us all, then just imagine what all of us who are free can do?

Those of us who hope for a better world have an obligation to move beyond us and them, beyond dogma, and towards one another. We must do this not because we love each other but because we need one another. When we walk towards the other who we fear or the other we hate or the other we do not understand, we do so because we know that there has never been any other way to end oppression. In the world in which I want to live, peace and justice are king and queen, and forgiveness is but their humble servant.

This an edited version of the first Dutch Nelson Mandela Lecture that Sisonke delivered to a packed audience on 10 February 2019 at the Amsterdam City Theatre. The lecture is sponsored by ZAM Magazine, the initiator and organizer of this—from now on—annual Lecture. The full lecture can be watched here.

About the Author

Sisonke Msimang is a South African writer and think. She is on the Editorial Board of Africa is a Country.

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