The fight for the soul of Nelson Mandela

Politics and Society

The fight for the soul of Nelson Mandela

A year after Nelson Mandela’s death, South Africans still have much to learn from his complex legacy.



A year has passed since Nelson Mandela departed this world. On Friday 5 December, the nation observed a day of remembrance. At 9:56am, people and institutions were encouraged to “ring bells and sirens, use instruments, vuvuzelas and loudhailers” and then to observe three minutes of silence from 10am.

As one should expect, many of the tributes to Mandela, the unassailable icon and infallible saint, were trite and predictable. For many, it was also a relished opportunity to lambast implicitly the degeneracy of the current ANC government and to lament how far his beloved country has fallen in international status. It is not nearly the whole truth, but the Mandela legend proves a useful stick with which to beat the current grubby leadership.

The converse is true too. Madiba still has the power to make other people look good by association. At the state memorial service following Mandela’s death last year, Barack Obama took much flak for taking a “selfie” on a mobile. But in a sense, the whole occasion was a selfie for world leaders, from the president whose country’s major export has been war and mayhem to a parade of blood-soaked big men like Robert Mugabe.

For some of us, at a time of sadness, mourning Mandela’s passing, we found no place and little comfort in that particular event.


Last week, it fell to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to deliver the official address at the Nelson Mandela Day of Remembrance event at Freedom Park in Pretoria arranged by government and the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

Naturally, Ramaphosa made no mention of the booing of various ANC leaders, including president Zuma, at the stadium event last year, nor his own (mostly ignored) attempts to command the crowd.

Ramaphosa began by thanking the mourners, the “people across the globe who mourned Madiba with us and sent messages of condolence” and “the heads of state and government and leaders from various fields who travelled to South Africa to pay their final respects to this extraordinary human being”.

He praised Mandela as the nation builder he was – the unifier, reconciler; the inspiration to “fight discrimination, oppression and exploitation wherever they may manifest”.

He also spoke of the challenges facing the country, in particular poverty and inequality, and he remarked, “our workplaces are increasingly fractious”, which in the light of the Marikana massacre is somewhat of an understatement.


From using the refrain “he [Mandela] taught us”, Ramaphosa switched for the middle of his speech to the refrain “we are building”, and listed all the things his government is claiming to do, such as: “We are building an economy that will benefit all”, and “we are building democratic institutions that truly reflect the will of the people and which resolutely pursue their interests”.

According to the deputy president, the lesson we should take away from Mandela is that the nation can only move forward by co-operation, mutual respect and reaching out to one another. He did what the ANC has always done post-1994, making it look as if it is the heir to Madiba, still sincerely committed to carrying his legacy forward, however incompetently.

The problem for South Africa is that the credibility of the current crop of leaders is so tarnished there is not one figure evenly vaguely of Mandela’s stature who could lead the kind of managed democracy Ramaphosa’s rhetoric envisions. The reality on the ground is such that the only way forward is through truly transparent and democratic processes.

But the country’s democratic institutions are currently in trouble thanks to a toxic mix between a government that undermines the best aspects of the Constitution seemingly at almost every turn and a belligerent unofficial opposition that does almost as much damage.

When the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Julius Malema, addressed the Cape Town Press in September, Malema in one of many light asides, said no one questioned Mandela when he wore an ethnic shirt to parliament breaking with Westminster tradition, but suddenly there were “parliamentary rules” when he, Malema, and his EFF wanted to wear overalls in the house.


Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema addressing the Cape Town Press Club on 11 Sept, 2014, where he told his largely white audience that Mandela wasn’t their protector and champion as they’d like to believe.

He told the largely white audience that they had the wrong idea about Mandela. He wasn’t their protector or champion as they’d like to believe. In a clear attempt to bolster his own image, Malema said Mandela was first and foremost a revolutionary who had taken up the armed struggle.

Indeed, as a founding member of the ANC Youth League in 1944, Mandela was one of the Young Turks that forced the hand of a moribund ANC leadership, effectively usurped the power of the national executive, and set the party on its militant course to overthrow the apartheid regime through violence.

Mandela also made public statements without a mandate, such as his famous “we have closed the chapter on non-violence” 1961 interview, and was disciplined, ultimately though to be vindicated by what is now the dominant narrative of South African history.

Malema, however, was expelled from the ANC for his hooliganism – Ramaphosa personally delivering the verdict of the disciplinary committee. For Malema and his supporters, it is the boxer Mandela and his militant chapter, fearlessly fighting the status quo and racial oppression by any means, which is the heroic example to follow.

The EFF also likes to cherry pick policy details such as his support for nationalisation, which Mandela later abandoned. Malema believes the revolution was sold out; the apartheid regime has been replaced by a new elite, as capable of murder, and the majority must again take up the struggle for freedom from exploitation and complete “Mandela’s mission”.

As keystone in the founding myth of the new South Africa, Mandela’s legacy will inevitably be interpreted, twisted, hijacked, co-opted and distorted. The result is uncomfortable. On the one hand, what Obama called the “lifeless portrait” of Mandela as a perfect man can bring out the best in people. But it is hopelessly idealistic, a kumbaya band aid for a deeply fractured country. Such canonization and “rainbow” beliefs blind the outside world and our own self-satisfied elite, including Ramaphosa, to what really ails the nation – corruption of the democratic process by private ad political monopoly power.


Contesting Mandela’s legacy is not something South Africans should fear; it is an essential tool to understanding what kind of a country we want and what needs to be done as a matter of urgency to honour, not Mandela, but ourselves.

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