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Guest post: The struggle continues: Mandela and his Legacies

Guest post: The struggle continues: Mandela and his Legacies

This is a guest post by Nicholas R. Smith, a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is currently completing a dissertation on crime, policing, and vigilantism in post-apartheid South Africa. 

South Africa’s national image has been remarkably tied to the image of one man: Nelson Mandela. However, as Mandela’s life seems to be coming to an end amidst widespread disenchantment with the leadership of Mandela’s own party, the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa faces the difficult task of reimagining itself. The best way to do so may be to rethink the image we have of Mandela himself.

The South African public has constituted itself around the Mandela legacy, perhaps to an unusual degree, by taking his personal narrative of triumph over political repression as metaphor for the nation. It is an image Mandela himself was instrumental in constructing. Mark Gevisser, one of South Africa’s most astute observers, has gone so far as to argue that Mandela made his biography the subject of a “political fetish”: “as he was in chains, so too were all South Africans; as he liberated himself and forgave his oppressors, so too can we all expunge the hate from our hearts.” As a result, healing, forgiveness, and unity have become the watchwords of the Mandela legacy.

Although Mandela was instrumental in propagating his legacy as that of a unifier, it does not mean it is false or that South Africans do not identify with it. On the contrary, he is often spoken of as a living embodiment of the nation’s collective triumph over state racism. A recent photo essay on The Guardian website captured the common sentiment well. For example, one elderly lady standing with her granddaughter by Regina Mundi church, a central gathering place for Soweto anti-apartheid activists, told reporters “For us, Mandela represents life. Without him we couldn’t be what we are now. My granddaughter loves him. She calls him Dada.” The image of Mandela as father is a common one. South Africans often refer to him with the isiXhosa honorific tata or “father.” The parental language conjures a sense of a unified South African family, of a cohesive nation which has overcome past divisions created by the racist apartheid state.

This image of unity is crucial to many South Africans but it is also crucial to South Africa’s brand. Politicians and tourist boards alike take every opportunity to promote South Africa as the Rainbow Nation. His appearance at the 2010 World Cup was important to both local politicians and to FIFA’s organizers. His entrance at the closing ceremony brought thunderous applause from the stadium, calling to mind the overcoming of racist authoritarianism and the creation of a robust democracy. Tourism since the end of the World Cup has increased dramatically.

Such spectacles are not without basis. Indeed, there have been many laudable achievements since end of apartheid for which South Africans and their political leaders should be justifiably proud – and which many never thought possible. Every election the country has held has been peaceful. Its constitution enshrines some of the world’s most comprehensive civil and social rights. And these rights are no paper tigers. South Africans regularly go to the courts to ensure that they are protected and extended. The results – including early progress on marriage equality, broad government provision of anti-retroviral medications, and strong protections for housing rights – are achievements of which progressives around the world should be jealous.

However, even as increasing numbers of young South Africans have no experience of apartheid, the country’s past still shapes daily life. Although formerly white suburbs have become increasingly integrated, formerly African townships remain largely segregated. Though the government has made impressive strides in extending infrastructure to formerly black areas, the process has been uneven and often corrupt. While the state has established one of the developing world’s most extensive welfare systems, economic inequality has, remarkably, increased since the end of apartheid. Although the ruling ANC was brought to power with the help of strong labor unions, police gunned down 34 workers at a recent strike at the Marikana platinum mine, drawing comparisons to the worst excesses of the apartheid state. Amidst such contradictions, Mandela, and the ideals of unity, forgiveness, and healing that he represents, have proven to be valuable national glue.

But, despite the unity that Mandela represents, his image is valuable and, therefore, subject to intense competition. Even though he has not yet passed, the fight for it has already begun. Political parties have fought over who better represents his vision for South Africa. Historians and journalists have, with great controversy, debated his personal history. Perhaps most uncomfortably, his children are suing three of Mandela’s closest confidants for control of the fortune which is generated by the sale of artwork bearing images of his handprints.

While these contests over his legacy have been disheartening, the possibility of his passing can offer an opportunity to reopen a broader discussion about Mandela’s past and how it might shed light on South Africa’s future. If today Mandela is often thought of as a unifier of moderate temperament, that was not always the case. Indeed, in his younger days Mandela was a rabble rouser who was instrumental in pushing the ANC to take a more confrontational stance with the apartheid state – a legacy often deemphasized today. Yet, it was widespread confrontation which eventually forced the apartheid state to negotiate its own end.

There may be a lesson here for today’s South Africa. While reconciliation was the watchword of the early democratic years, as many feared state collapse and renewed violence, today no such threat is imminent. The country is stable and its governing institutions are strong. However, deep seated problems remain. Taking up Mandela’s legacy of contentious citizen mobilization may be the key to overcoming them.

It is a legacy which many South African citizens are already living out through well organized social movements, like the Treatment Action Campaign, or episodically through frequent service delivery protests. To be sure, the comparison between the struggle against apartheid and today’s social movements and protests is imperfect. The former sought to completely overturn an unjust system, while the latter seek meaningful implementation of the rights that the previous struggles produced. But the lesson underlying both – that actively mobilizing to demand justice from the state – is the key to realizing Mandela’s legacy and, to borrow an ANC slogan, realizing a better life for all. To be sure, this mobilization is not without problems (the increasing appearance of xenophobic violence during service delivery protests being the most obvious). But in the long term, contestation, rather than elections, may be the best tool average South Africans have to achieve meaningful change. In taking to the streets and confronting their state to demand better lives, arguably, mobilized South Africans are living out an important part of Mandela’s legacy which is increasingly forgotten.

About Ahsan Butt

Assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason.

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