Understanding Nelson Mandela’s legacy

By Judith February

Across the country, South Africans in different ways celebrated what would have been Madiba’s 100th birthday on Wednesday through acts of kindness – or 67 minutes of kindness if we want to follow the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s entreaty to us all.

Many have criticised the initiative as a cynical use of ‘corporate social responsibility’ funds by corporate South Africa that seems to engage in 67 minutes of random kindness. The criticism levelled has often been that these very corporates may well continue with exploitative practices thereafter, or do not fully grasp their role in creating inclusive and sustainable economic growth.

This may well be – after all, business and civil society, like government is often also filled with charlatans or those with a careless disregard for the most vulnerable in our society. South Africans should be working towards creating a more just society – not only on Mandela Day. Yet, to the cynics, the message must surely be that engaging South Africans in acts of kindness towards one another can be better than us all mauling each other – literally and figuratively on social media and other platforms?

The challenge, of course, is that given ‘Brand Madiba’, we have come to sentimentalise Mandela the man and often forget that Mandela the leader was a complex man, a thinker, a pragmatist, a reconciler and a bridge-builder, but above all a constitutionalist and a president committed to the rule of law. In the sentimentalisation of Madiba, we see him laughing with the Spice Girls and Princess Diana, wearing the ‘Madiba shirt’ and doing the jive. He earned the right to the light-hearted moments, surely?

And so, it has become easy and intellectually lazy for many to label Mandela as a ‘sell-out’ for his role in negotiating South Africa’s transition. It is a view ignorant of the historical moment and the sacrifices Mandela made for our collective freedom. Who can forget Mandela’s televised address when Chris Hani was assassinated? Our country was at the brink of civil war. It was Mandela’s act of leadership that pulled us back from the brink. And who can forget Mandela’s statesmanlike speech to a 200,000-strong crowd in Durban at the height of IFP-ANC violent clashes, when he said, “Take your guns, your knives and your pangas and throw them into the sea. End this war now.” He urged peace at a time when we thought peace was impossible – let alone a free and fair election.

And then the oft-cited yet important reminder of Mandela’s commitment to the rule of law when he appeared in court and give evidence in the Sarfu case in 1998 on whether he had “applied his mind” when setting up a commission of inquiry into SA Rugby’s affairs. In doing so Mandela showed that no one was above the law and that even his actions as president were subject to constitutional scrutiny.

So Mandela’s legacy is one which, while imperfect, provided a solid foundation for building a representative and participatory democracy which ensures that all South Africans live with the dignity the Constitution, our aspirational founding document, envisages.

As a record crowd gathered for the Nelson Mandela Annual Mandela lecture at the chilly Wanderers stadium on Tuesday, Mandela’s virtues were being extolled. Yet, as Graca Machel said in her introduction, Madiba would be the first to acknowledge his imperfections.

Nelson Mandela Foundation chair Professor Njabulo Ndebele spoke with the greatest clarity about Madiba, his legacy, his ability to laugh at himself and stay calm under pressure and his integrity. Ndebele is truly one of our country’s greatest thinkers. He was pointed in his criticism of the ‘years of predation’ under Zuma and clear-eyed when he said that we finally had a president we need not be embarrassed about. Indeed.

Michelle Obama was often criticised when speaking about Barack Obama and saying he’s just an ordinary man. And so Graca Machel reminded us all that Madiba saw himself firstly as part of a collective and was genuinely perplexed by the admiration he attracted.

And so while many questioned Obama’s ‘right’ to deliver the lecture, citing US foreign policy choices Obama had made, it may well be a case of campaigning in poetry but governing in prose. Reading David Axelrod’s brilliant memoir Believer one gets some sense of what it was like for the first African-American president to usher his country out of a financial crisis the likes of which was not seen since the Great Depression and his ongoing struggles with Mitch McConnell and the GOP over 8 years.

Axelrod, who was a special advisor to Obama and along with David Plouffe helped Obama win both his election campaigns, provides an honest and thoughtful reckoning of the mistakes made during Obama’s tenure. He also provides a fascinating account of the struggle for healthcare and the passage of the Affordable Care Act – and Syria and other foreign policy mistakes which haunt the Obama years.

Obama, for his part, in his interview with American Presidential historian, Doris Kearns-Goodwin in retrospect, grasps the limitations of his own power and is thoughtful about his place in the march of history and in trying to bend the arc of the moral universe towards history, as the saying goes.

As Obama started to deliver his lecture, a lone cry rang out in the stadium, “We love you!” One almost expected #44 to reply in his trademark, “I love you back!”. But Obama had other things on his mind, though he has certainly not lost his ‘swag’ as Mrs Obama would say. Much has been written about how inspirational the speech was and Obama’s sheer oratorical brilliance.

Much has also been written about the content of the speech and what Obama called the ‘strange and uncertain times’ we live in. He had probably seen President Trump’s disastrous press conference alongside Vladimir Putin the previous day.

But if we were to take anything out of Obama’s speech it would naturally be his call for an adherence to facts. Yes, facts still matter. He needn’t have mentioned Trump – everyone knew what he meant.

But, the most compelling point may well have been the underscoring of Madiba’s ability to grasp complexity when dealing with the ‘enemy’ by, for instance, learning Afrikaans and trying to understand his political adversaries. Mandela understood, above all else, that compromise was often at the heart of democratic deliberation. As Obama said, “so those who traffic in absolutes when it comes to policy, whether it’s on the left or the right, they make democracy unworkable. You can’t expect to get 100 percent of what you want all the time; sometimes, you have to compromise. That doesn’t mean abandoning your principles, but instead it means holding on to those principles and then having the confidence that they’re going to stand up to a serious democratic debate.”

It is a singular lesson for the historical moment South Africa finds itself in. If we are to truly understand and grapple with Madiba’s legacy, we will need to engage with the complexity which building an inclusive, sustainable democracy demands. Easy populism, be it on land, jobs or anything else will take us no further than the cul-de-sac of thought we often find ourselves in. Complexity also means seeing our ‘adversaries’ and those with power as those we need to draw into the conversation. It’s a hard lesson but one Mandela’s life of sacrifice and principle showed again and again as we slogged through our negotiated transition. And a slog it was for those of us fortunate enough to have lived through that time and witnessed its fraught politics.

But mostly Obama’s message was a call for active citizenship and that all leaders, be it Madiba or Obama, are inevitably flawed and constrained by their office or the objective conditions of their time. Democracy is a collective effort, after all. “We are the ones we have been waiting for” has never seemed more apposite.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Her new book, ‘Turning and Turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy’ published by Pan MacMillan will be released in August. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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