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Betraying Mandela’s revolutionary legacy

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Picture: Reuters – Nelson Mandela with his lifetime comrade and former ANC president, Oliver Tambo, in January 1992. Any celebration of Mandela that does not address white supremacy is a sham, says the writer.

By Professor Sipho Seepe

Peeved by those purporting to be Marxists but differing fundamentally with views he propounded, Karl Marx remarked that “if anything is certain, it is that I myself am not Marxist”.

To be sure, Marx was not disavowing Marxism. He was distancing himself from those who distorted it. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela would probably distance himself from many of the activities that are meant to celebrate his life. It is not that there is something intrinsically wrong with the planned activities. The problem is that they tend to belittle and trivialise what Mandela represents. More value can be derived by getting people to read Mandela’s Rivonia Trial speech than having people participate in the annual farce of activities such as painting schools, collecting garbage and offering meals to the hungry for Mandela Day. Mandela’s legacy is bigger than that. These should be done as a matter of course, every day. Many of those who praise him today, are the beneficiaries of the vile system of apartheid. They have cunningly appropriated his name, not to advance his legacy, but to distort it and strip it of any revolutionary content. Many of the planned activities are part of the falsification of South African history.

The real Mandela is to be found in the speeches he made at the pivotal moments of his political life. Mandela used the Rivonia Trial in 1964 to locate himself within the broader African struggle against colonialism. “I hoped then that life might offer me the opportunity to serve my people and make my own humble contribution to their freedom struggle. This is what has motivated me in all that I have done in relation to the charges made against me in this case,” he said. Today, some seek to represent Mandela as a useful teddy bear, an individual who would turn the other cheek when slapped. The real Mandela is the revolutionary who rose to become the commander in chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe. The real Mandela took political responsibility. He owned up to decisions taken, telling the court that as part of the leadership collective of the ANC, “we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the government. We chose to defy the law.”

Many of the choreographed activities for Mandela Day are designed to airbrush this image of Madiba. He identified white supremacy as the foremost challenge facing the Africans, pointing out that “the lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy. White supremacy implies black inferiority. Legislation designed to preserve white supremacy entrenches this notion”. Today, white supremacy is so entrenched that legislation is no longer necessary. The psychological damage is almost total. The black leaders we have are a disgrace. In describing such a leader, Steve Biko was spot on: “In the privacy of his toilet, his face twists in silent condemnation of white society but brightens up in sheepish obedience as he comes out hurrying in response to his master’s impatient call… All in all the black man has become a shell, a shadow of man, completely defeated, drowning in his own misery, a slave, an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity.”

Any celebration of Mandela that does not address white supremacy is a sham. Today white supremacists have never had it so good. Working together with their carefully selected Uncle Toms, they control the entire charade. Mandela’s speech at the 1997 ANC national elective conference was significant in two ways. First, he was stepping down as president of the ANC. Second, the speech provided him with an opportunity to reflect on the challenges faced by the ANC in the government. Many have sought to describe the Mandela administration as representing the glorious days of post-1994 South Africa. Mandela knew better. He told ANC delegates that “even a cursory study of the positions adopted by the mainly white parties in the national legislature during the last three years, the National Party, the Democratic Party and the Freedom Front will show that they and the media which represents the same social base, have been most vigorous in their opposition, whenever legislative and executive measures have been introduced seeking the end to the racial disparities which continue to characterise our society”. Not much has changed since then.

The prospect of failure of the democratic experiment was not lost on Mandela. He chillingly observed that the “reason for this is that the defenders of apartheid privilege continue to sustain a conviction that an opportunity will emerge in future when they can activate this counter-insurgency machinery, to impose an agenda on South African society which would limit the possibilities of the democratic order to such an extent that it would not be able to create a society of equality, that would be rid of the legacy of apartheid”.

That fear has come to pass. Mandela could not have foreseen that his party would end up being led by leaders that are beholden to beneficiaries of apartheid. Many of its leaders, who have been co-opted into the echelons of the private sectors, appear more concerned about the performance of their shares in companies than the suffering of the masses they claim to represent. The hypocritical role played by the NGO sector was not lost on Mandela. In his assessment, “many of our non-governmental organisations are not in fact NGOs, both because they have no popular base and the actuality that they rely on the domestic and foreign governments, rather than the people, for their material sustenance.

“As we continue the struggle to ensure a people-driven process of social transformation, we will have to consider the reliability of such NGOs as a vehicle to achieve this objective.” A quarter of century later, Mandela’s observation is as true as it was then. These NGOs are at the forefront of misrepresenting his legacy. They have mastered the art of invoking the tenets of transparency, rule of law and constitutionalism, not in the interest of advancing democracy but in the sustenance of white privilege. It is no accident that 28 years into democracy, South Africa remains a poster child of global and racial inequality.

Mandela used his farewell speech to disabuse the notion that he was bigger than the ANC and the masses whose interests and aspirations he represented. He was quick to point out that to the extent that he has been able to achieve anything, it is because of the ordinary people of South Africa. Mandela averred: “I am the product of the rural masses who inspired in me the pride in our past and the spirit of resistance.

I am the product of the workers of South Africa who, in the mines, factories, fields and offices of our country, have pursued the principle that the interests of each are founded in the common interest of all… I am the product of Africa and her long-cherished dream of a rebirth that can now be realised so that all of her children may play in the sun.”

Today, as we celebrate Mandela Day, Africa’s children are in the dark. And his party, the ANC, is an embarrassing shadow of itself. It is a travesty. The real Mandela wants to be remembered as a patriot who tried hard to advance the cause of African people.

Seepe is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Institutional Support at the University of Zululand.