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Winter in South Africa: Mandela’s Contested Legacy in a Divided Nation

What makes an African icon? Richard Poplak interrogates Nelson Mandela’s contested legacy in a divided nation.



I want someone who is going to

look at me
and love me the way white people look at
and love
A TRC kind of love
You don’t love until you have been loved like Mandela.

– Koleka Putuma, “1994: A Love Poem”

On a spring evening in August of this year, a party was underway within the sedate corporate confines of Johannesburg’s Nelson Mandela Foundation. Books are a very big deal in South Africa, and this high-end gathering served as a launch for the the sequel to the biggest book of them all: Mandela’s quazillion-selling memoir Long Walk to Freedom. While the country’s legendary first president passed away in 2013, we were now being introduced to a handsomely designed volume titled Dare Not Linger, featuring a stunning black and white portrait of Madiba captured by the photographer Jillian Edel- stein.


Effectively a sequel to Long Walk, the new book offers something of a summary of Mandela’s years in office. He had failed to complete the text before his death, and so its disparate parts were painstakingly knitted together by one of the country’s preeminent novelists, the wise and stately Mandla Langa. Not so long ago, Dare Not Linger’s launch would have been Johannes- burg’s party of the year – a jazzed-up, jazzy celebration of Madiba’s legacy. And yet, the function felt gloomy, funereal. Langa himself appeared wiped out, as if serving as Madiba’s medium had exsanguinated him, emptying him of his own lifeforce. The faces perched on top of the fancy dresses were long and drawn, perfect re ections of the nightmare that South Africa was staring down: economic recession; Mandela’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) in terminal decline; a rogue president stealing the country into penury.

“What would Mandela have made of this mess?” is no longer a question South Africans seem interested in asking. Rather, it’s “How much of this mess did Mandela make?” History has cast Mandela as the saviour, as the liberator – a single righteous man who, through his unwavering belief in the oneness of humanity, reconciled black and white in order build a nation on the ruins of apartheid.

But South Africa, 23 years after Mande- la’s inauguration, is not a nation, or not in any accurate sense of the term. It is a house divided – by race, by class, by ethnicity, by outlook. The country now finds itself at a volatile turning point. After more than two decades in power, the ANC has become a sclerotic monolith, run by a president who treats state coffers as his personal bank account. Meanwhile, a black intellectual movement has rejected Mandela’s notions of forgiveness and reconciliation, with the #RhodesMustFall movement demand- ing the removal of all apartheid and colonial iconography from public spaces and #FeesMustFall calling for the elimination of impossibly high university fees and the decolonisation of the curriculum.

In the last year or two, a series of racist statements posted by white South Africans on social media sites has exploded the conversation about who “belongs”. The consensus position is that whites got a free pass after the fall of apartheid – they were absolved of their sins by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and in turn were allowed to maintain and increase their economic power in service of the ANC’s “trickle down” theory. While Mandela’s ANC successfully managed the political turnover, he and his comrades badly botched the economic transition. Black Employment Empowerment initiatives, along with other ill-conceived affirmative action pro- grammes, replaced a narrow Afrikaner elite with a narrow black elite, all underwritten by old white money. In the event, the bulk of the country’s wealth has stayed in white hands, with only enough dribbling down to maintain South Africa’s position as the most unequal society on earth as measured by the Gini coefficient.

#FeesMustFall protesters clash with police outside of parliament. © Onele Liwani

Was this Mandela’s fault? Was there something inherent in his outlook that was causally linked to the entitlement of those who saw fit to post racist statements on Facebook? Were the luminaries at the Dare Not Linger launch there less to celebrate the great man, and more to watch as he teetered on his plinth, another great icon soon to hit the dust before the jeering mobs?

Mandela had a genius for generating symbols. He understood the power of political gestures, but he also understood how dangerous were the sigils politicians carve into the psyche of their people.

Mandela had a genius for generating symbols. He understood the power of political gestures, but he also understood how dangerous were the sigils politicians carve into the psyche of their people. If Twitter were around, he would have used the medium conscientiously, with great care, understand- ing the febrile nature of the body politic.


His greatest political gesture was the creation of the “Rainbow Nation” – the idea of a country united in its diversity. The idea is a good one, largely because it works: diverse populations are, for the most part, more successful than homogeneous communities. Democratic South Africa was born with eleven official languages, and the new national anthem was an amalgam of the old Afrikaner nationalist anthem, Die Stem, and the struggle hymn Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, an act of generosity so astonishing that it wove forgiveness into the South African mainframe.

Cuban President Fidel Castro (R) expresses his joy in meeting former South African president Nelson Mandela (L) at Mandela’s office in Johannesburg on Sunday 02 September 2001. Castro who took part in the UN World Racism conference in Durban used the opportunity to visit Mandela, whose health is effected by cancer. Phone: ANP/EPA Yoav Lemmer.

But forgiveness for what? And what was the old oppressor made to give up in order to square the deal? Mandela didn’t see it this way. His mission, as he figured it, was to “liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both” (Long Walk to Freedom, 624) – an impulse that was central to the idea of reconciliation, and formed the spine of the Rainbow Nation. But a new generation of black South Africans no longer seems interested in the oppressors’ liberation, neither from the white supremacism that was at the crux of apartheid (and, many would argue, defines the democratic dispensation as well) nor from the fears that attended being a white minority amongst a black majority.

The following was, of course, inevitable: in generating this new lexicon of symbols, Mandela in fact became a symbol himself. On the walls of old white businessmen were pictures of the benevolent smiling president in his signature button-up shirt, arm in arm, hugging into a new world. This willingness to bridge the divide between the old and the new came at a cost – he became the bridge, without the requisite testing to see how much weight he would need to hold. As it turned out, the weight was too much for anyone to bear.

T-shirts, coffee mugs, wall clocks – Mandela’s face was emblazoned on a host of consumer items. He became a brand. To no small extent, it was becoming difficult to distinguish him from Morgan Freeman, the Hollywood actor who played him in one of the innumerable dramas based on his life. In these adaptations, he was always too good to be interesting, and the movies were sunk by the weight of his righteous behaviour, while all of the historical context happened off-screen, in some other dimension.

Following his presidency, he became a roving ambassador, a celebrity statesman. At home, everyone claimed him for their own. Like God (whom Morgan Freeman has also played on numerous occasions), Mandela could be used to justify any cause – everything from selling hamburgers to covering up economic racism. As a student statement recently noted, “[As a] a freedom fighter and our first legitimate president – our ‘dearest Madiba’ – is now used to rehabilitate and mask the re-inscription of brutality, control, domination, abuse and conquest: the conquest of your future by a handful of military, gun-crazy lunatics.”

If everybody owned Mandela, then nobody owned him, least of all himself. As he aged, he was portrayed more and more by the ANC as the country’s founding father, and therefore as its glue. Even if Mandela hadn’t served as a politician in a decade, a vote for the ANC was still a vote for the man who saved South Africa. Meanwhile, young “born frees” – those who were born after the end of apartheid – didn’t feel free, and nor did they feel liberated. If that was the case, then who was Mandela to them but another version of Mickey Mouse – a corporate mascot shilling a theme-park experience?


And yet, this divide became generational because, to a majority of older black South Africans, Mandela remained the key to both the past and the future. For white South Africans, he was the only thing they shared. When he faded as a political force, the bonds evaporated as if they were never there. And the country reverted to its factory setting: a simmering racial warzone rife with inequality.

He is a tarnished icon, a man who chose forgive- ness and reconciliation over levelling the playing field – but one who did so in order to avoid a race war that could have ended the new country before it began.

The Dare Not Linger launch was thus facing an uphill battle in terms of the zeitgeist. Nonetheless, the speeches were pleasant and so was the African jazz. No one yelled, no one got too drunk, no one argued. Still, it felt oddly like it was taking place in another historical time zone. The previous week, hundreds and hundreds of people had turned out to the launch of a book that pro led President Jacob Zuma’s rape accuser, a former family friend named Fezekile “Khwezi” Kuzwayo. The book blew up the bookshops and the airways, and was shortly followed by an exposé of the gang- ster state called The President’s Keepers. Those books, among others, felt urgent and necessary.

Dare Not Linger felt like an artefact.

But we must be careful not to write Mandela out of South Africa’s explosive present, because no real reckoning with his legacy has taken place. He is a tarnished icon, a man who chose forgiveness and reconciliation over levelling the playing eld – but one who did so in order to avoid a race war that could have ended the new country before it began. As South African culture shifts, so too does Madiba. The figure that emerges will be very different from the Mandela that exists today – more complex, more nuanced. More dangerous.

The article is part of a series of articles by This is Africa in partnership with Perspectives /Heinrich Böll Foundation, titled The (Un-)Making of Icons in Africa: