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South Africa’s Mandela: Icon or aikona?

A sellout is someone who betrays his own principles and his followers for personal venality. Where is the evidence that South Africa’s Mandela betrayed himself and deceived his countrymen for self-gain?



A student at the University of Cape Town recently told me that he had been set an essay for his second-year course in South African Politics. Although the topic was more objectively phrased, the lecturer heavily implied that the students ought to argue from the standpoint that Nelson Mandela was, to quote, a “sellout”.

This is the man who, together with the Youth League, ousted the liberal-thinking but sclerotic leadership of the ANC in 1949/50; who founded uMkhonto we Sizwe and launched the armed struggle in South Africa; who was prepared to go to the gallows and expected to die until the moment he was sentenced precisely because he refused to come to a compromise with the prosecution in court. This is the man who then spent 27 years in prison and extended his confinement by refusing to renounce violence. That this man should now be described as a sellout, as if it were accepted wisdom, is an intolerable injustice to one of the finest men in the history of African politics.

A sellout is someone who betrays his own principles and his followers for personal venality. Where is the evidence that Mandela betrayed himself and deceived his countrymen for self-gain?

In the first place, Mandela did not act alone in achieving the constitutional settlement. If Mandela was a sellout, then so were Oliver Tambo and the entire leadership of the ANC, South African Communist Party, United Democratic Front and the workers’ movement.


Read: Against the ropes – the other Mandela

Mandela’s task in the transition was as daunting at the time as it was specific: Achieve black majority rule in a unified South Africa – no minority rights, no Volkstaat, no federal state for the Zulu warlord Mangosuthu Buthelezi, but one man, one vote as a necessary prelude to transforming the economy. This he achieved.

A historical criticism

Most of the criticism of Mandela is ahistorical and ignores the reality on the ground at the time. The nation was on the brink of civil war as the daily slaughter in the KwaZulu-Natal province threatened to spread across the country. The right wing was armed and had serious military backing. There was a bombing campaign. There was massacre after massacre – at Bisho, Boipatong, Shell House, twice in Sebokeng, Katlehong, Nangalembe, Daveyton, Alexandra …

When Chris Hani was assassinated it was as if the powder keg had been lit. It was only a man of Mandela’s stature that saved us from throwing ourselves off the precipice. He prevented the country from slipping into civil war. It is at this point that he got the popular support of the white citizenry. If anybody “sold out”, it was the white leadership and the South African generals, not Mandela.


It is easy for people with feeble memories or no experience of the violence and mayhem of the 1980s and early 1990s to sit, 23 years later, and criticise the peace terms. That we survived at all still has a miraculous quality. Mandela did not do it alone, not by any means, but it is hard to see how it could have been achieved without his leadership.

Political vs economic transformation

The primary allegation against Mandela as a sellout relates not to political but to economic transformation. Once again, the criticism is ahistorical and based on counterfactuals. Mandela always believed the economy had to be transformed and he stuck to this. But he could not see how it could be done until there was a political settlement and a stable country. That his successors have let us down is hardly his fault.

Photo: Matthew William

It is true that white monopoly power (a term that still had precision back then) in discussions held behind closed doors – the Brenthurst group and others – frustrated the political talks to try and extract a safer space for themselves. It is also true that Mandela abandoned the idea of nationalisation and radical land expropriation, and that the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) was scrapped in 1996, a few years into his presidency.

I have always been a harsh critic of the implementation of the neoliberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) economic programme, with its fallacious assumption that the “trickle-down effect” would uplift the masses. But to say that this amounted to “selling out” by Mandela is to deliberately misconstrue the historical record for sensational effect. Then Fidel Castro was a sellout too, as it was Castro who advised Tambo as early as the 1980s against making the mistake of nationalisation without first having the necessary engineers and skills in place and the state capacity to run such enterprises. Mandela fell in line with that thinking at the time.

Anyone who thinks that Mandela could have defeated global apartheid in the same stride as defeating racial apartheid in South Africa is living in a ‘flat earth’ world. When negotiations started in earnest, the Soviet Union had just imploded and an alternative economic model seemed remote. The ANC hardly had an economics department. And South Africa was bankrupt.


And, yes, even though there was much disgruntlement at the time, the collective leadership plus the alliance partners – the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the SA Communist Party (SACP) – all went along with GEAR and the ANC’s economic project, with black economic empowerment instead of nationalisation, and with neoliberal macroeconomic policies to try and attract foreign direct investment as the panacea to a crippled economy.

Mandela had always believed in the power of capitalism to produce surplus value for redistribution. He also believed in black entrepreneurship and that one of apartheid’s great crimes was to stifle the black middle class from participating and prospering in a capitalist economy. To liberate this entrepreneurial spirit was part of his world view.

Identity politics

The next rung of “sellout” accusations comes from the Black Consciousness movement. But this, too, is a straw-man argument. As with the economics, Mandela can hardly be accused of having sold out on a principle he never adopted in the first place. He was never with the Black Consciousness movement. His critique of it was sympathetic and nuanced but emphatic: He rejected identity politics in favour of class struggle. He would neither accept nor rebuff a person on the basis of the colour of their skin, but judge them solely on their qualities as an individual.

Read: Celebrating the life of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela: A photo essay


Mandela was the first to admit that he was not the saint the world insisted on making him. And we did see his feet of clay on several occasions. He is not above criticism and his historical record deserves to be critically appraised and examined. But why does a new generation make such an effort to pull down the legacy of one good man while expending themselves in a rewrite of history to shore up the reputations of mass murderers, dictators and far more fundamentally flawed leaders in Africa? What informs this “Mandela was a sellout” refrain?

Partly, it is the erroneous and woolly belief that Mandela’s legacy is somehow keeping them from the freedom to hate, holding them hostage to non-racialism, to an exclusionary economic system, to landlessness. And the esteem with which he is held in the West must mean he is to be treated with great suspicion. How Mandela often scathingly criticised and stood up to the hypocrisy of the West is conveniently forgotten.

There is something infantile in the stridency and malice of the current critique, especially in the student movement and social media. It seems to be stoked by the tremendous pleasure there is to be gained from desecrating a holy cow, from taking sweet revenge on the icon of your parents’ generation to make up for the frustration and disappointed expectations of the current reality. It is also childish and disempowering to vent angrily at one man, the paternal figure – the father of the nation – for not having provided one with a better material world. And then there is the smug self-satisfaction of believing that while the whole world is blind for lauding Mandela, you, his critics, are the great oracles who alone can see the truth.

Where does such a critique take us? It is absurd to think that destroying Mandela’s name will reform the economy. How can it possibly move the nation forward or advance one’s thinking to yet again lapse into a patriarchal discourse that ignores historical processes in favour of blaming great men for shaping history and, by implication, setting oneself up as the ‘new great masculine solution’ to reshape the world.

The danger of destroying our icons


Finally, we need to reflect on the effect of destroying our icons. There is no reason that we cannot be proud of a man while knowing full well his limitations. I cannot see what is to be gained by vilifying one of the only examples in public life worth emulating in the last century. Even with all his warts and failings, he still stands head and shoulders above the iconic figures the rest of the world proffers. And that he was black and African must surely be only more affirming and empowering to the people of this continent.

There is, of course, an element of myth-making to Mandela’s iconic status. It was deliberate and wise; a foundational myth is of great benefit to a nation that is suffering. We should then be extremely cautious if we dismantle such an icon, lest we dismantle ourselves. Our country has lost all credible leadership. Look at the world leaders and compare what we have today with Mandela’s stated creed: “Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others”.

Self-interest urgently needs to be set aside for the greater good or we risk tearing the South African nation apart. South Africa is now sorely missing someone of the stature of Mandela, a man who managed to transcend party politics; who could uniquely get people to do things that often went against their own narrow interests but stood in the greater service of their country, simply because it was he who was doing the asking.


This is part of a series of articles in partnership with Perspectives /Heinrich Böll Foundation, titled The (Un-)Making of Icons in Africa. The other articles can be found below:


Making up our own minds: Reframing Africa’s history and reclaiming our future

Stella Nyanzi: Social Justice and Social Media Icon

South Africa’s Mandela: Icon or aikona?

Africa’s liberation struggle icons and a fading generational consciousness

Making up our own minds: Reframing Africa’s history and reclaiming our future