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Against the ropes – the other Mandela

Our collective imagination around Nelson Mandela can do with more interrogation, says Kagiso Mnisi.

Two years ago, just less than three years after the passing of Nelson Mandela, a filmmaker friend of mine, Nhlanhla Masondo, talked about how he would like to cinematically explore the life of the globally beloved figure. With his body of work comprising noir offerings and a string of documentaries that were relatively taxing to watch, his brainchild did not come as too much of a surprise: He would take a slice of Mandela’s life during the Treason Trial, when Mandela, along with 156 other people, were accused of treason in 1956. At that time Mandela took up boxing to beat the blues of the trial and to take his mind off the three year-long case. In Masondo’s speculative train of thought, Mandela would be the whipping boy of those he sparred with.

Through this lens, the seemingly infallible figure of Mandela would be challenged, one bruising jab after the other. This a complete negation of the ‘saint narrative’ usually associated with the founding father of a ‘rainbow nation’ and a man who forgave atrocities of Apartheid after spending 27 years in prison. It toys with the idea of a flawed Rolihlahla.

Read: 10 pictures of Nelson Mandela

At this time of the year, specifically on his birthday on 18 July, Nelson Mandela International Day is commemorated. The day is also remembered as signifier of the lifetime of service Nelson Mandela gave to South Africa and the world. Foregrounded as a day where the privileged give back to the destitute, there typically are campaigns by mostly white-ran NGOs to offer food and blankets.

Nelson Mandela, President of South African African National Congress (C) and South African President Frederik de Klerk (R) display 09 December 1993 in Oslo their Nobel Prizes after being awarded jointly for their work to end apartheid peacefully. Photo: ANP/AFP Gerard Julien

Ignoring the race and class chasm

Foregrounded in a ‘what would Mandela do?’ fashion, these drives neglect entrenched systematic injustices perpetuated by the ‘rainbow nation’ myth, whereby the act of giving to the needy is abundantly endorsed, where self-determination would be more valuable. It is logical to say that these social interventions are largely public relations exercises that gloss over the deep racial divides within South Africa. But we also all know that the very same spin is content to keep the neo-liberal project intact under Mandela’s name by conveniently forgetting the apparent racial and class chasm.

Minus the (un)intended implications, the Mandela brand has been robust over the years. Cited as “definitely one of the most powerful brands that has been built over the 20th and into the 21st century” by media specialist Tebogo Ditshego, the Mandela brand is lauded for its ability to galvanise. At a peripheral level, the Nelson Mandela brand has managed to hold its own as an embodiment of peace, forgiveness, caring, justice and equality, beyond its monetary value.

Today, the inclination to call Nelson Mandela a “sell out’ after concessions made in 1994 for a non-violent transition into democracy is gaining traction.

Today, the inclination to call Nelson Mandela a “sell out’ after concessions made in 1994 for a non-violent transition into democracy is gaining traction despite the robustness of his brand. More so, this a call made mostly by the Fallist generation, who are advocating for an affordable, decolonised and non-patriarchal higher education system. The logic coming from this cohort is that as much as the resolutions made dealt with political emancipation, they did not adequately deal with economic freedom. This negatively affects the majority of South Africans to this day.

A file picture dated 27 March 1998 shows Nobel Peace Prize winner and iconic political prisoner Nelson Mandela (L) and US president Bill Clinton (R) looking out the jail cell window, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years as a political prisoner on Robben Island, South Africa. Photo: ANP/EPA/Scott Applewhite

Albeit the burden of a bad deal made in 1994, Nelson Mandela still remains a paragon of morality in comparison to his successors. The AIDS denialism dogging Thabo Mbeki and scandal-riddled-state capture allegations associated with the Jacob Zuma presidency are more jarring, especially because of the fact that both successive presidents had the opportunity to change the course of the ship towards settling the old score of economic equality.

Read: The fight for the soul of Nelson Mandela

Deconstructing Mandela’s legacy

This assessment – I think – cannot be divorced from any analysis that attempts to deconstruct the Mandela legacy. The idea of vilifying a man who, along with his comrades, were motivated by the intent, albeit with a string of questionable moves, to stabilise the country is a bit amiss. It shifts the focus on leadership that came after him, most especially the one currently at the helm, who, when confronted with the opportunity to the level the economic playing field for all in the country, chose to be brazenly corrupt. Each leadership has its busk under the sun, Mandela and Mbeki’s once were and Zuma’s currently is, sigh! Though the three leaders arise from a similar African National Congress lineage and are beneficiaries of its culture, each man has been met by a different context.

As much as the resolutions made dealt with political emancipation, they did not adequately deal with economic freedom.

However, our collective imagination around Nelson Mandela can do with more interrogation. South African corporate culture’s insistence on peppering his image with unicorn magic dust should be put to the test. Mandela walked his walk and by no means did it without any trips and missteps. Maybe Nhlanhla Masondo’s idea of a black and blue-faced Mandela is now due. Picture him dangling from the ropes of a boxing ring, open to a succession of assaults. Worth a thought…

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