Madiba: Our fallible leader

2013-12-08 09:55

Writing about Mandela’s mistakes never seems to be welcomed, but we cannot forget that he was also a flawed man, writes Zama Ndlovu

Retired statesman, prisoner and once-intimidating boxer Nelson Mandela is dead. There was nothing left for Madiba to do but die. He was frail, wheelchair-bound and the gaps between his hospital admissions were getting shorter, while the stays were getting longer as his ailments became more serious.

I was seven when he appeared from what seemed like nowhere. Like many South Africans, I did not know about the international campaign for his freedom until some weeks before he was released unconditionally from prison on February 11 1990.

Suddenly, formerly banned images of him sprang up everywhere. Happiness and hope engulfed black South Africa.

On the day of his release, our elders were so glued to their screens that even a Cup final between bitter Soweto soccer rivals, Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs, would have taken place with hardly anyone caring to switch channels to watch.

That same euphoria would engulf us again four years later as we watched our parents and grandparents vote for the first time.

They were not voting for a saint. The Nelson Mandela they knew was an impressive and committed, albeit sometimes hard-headed, leader.

They told us of a man who had been shaped by challenging circumstances that plagued the nation he was born into on July 18 1918.

This was a man who was willing to die for their freedom. Madiba was undoubtedly a revered leader, standing out in the company of the bravest and greatest leaders of the liberation movement.

On school trips, we black children sang struggle songs on our way to museums and parks we were once not allowed in not so long before.

“Oliver Tambo, Oliver Tambo thetha noBotha akhululúMandela?.?.?.?uMandel’uzobuya, akukhul’uMandela” (Oliver Tambo, speak to Botha so he can free Mandela. Mandela will be back).

We sang those songs as though we were the passionate freedom fighters, even though Madiba had an office at the Union Buildings. Our parents probably don’t remember the moment when they transplanted their highest hopes of Mandela’s presidency into our hearts, but they did.

Soon enough, we knew Nelson Mandela stayed alive in prison for 27 years so he could one day save us, his black people.

Many think the job of questioning Mandela’s legacy can only be that of the older generations, as though we, the young, are oblivious to these expectations that were once set. They fail to realise that we all, young and old, had similar high expectations of Madiba’s presidency.

The ambiguity of Mandela’s legacy has become understated with time and age. It has become unacceptable to ask objective questions that critically assess his legacy, given the present-day consequences of the decisions made in his presidency of the ANC and the nation. Scrutinising any of his past decisions has been viewed as a form of bullying in absentia.

It will probably never be socially acceptable to criticise Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela in this lifetime, but there was a time when he was not deified.

Although history has been kind to Madiba’s presidency, he received mixed reviews, especially from white South Africans, during his presidency.

His easy way with the general public, and his public appearances at sporting events adorned in team jerseys, did not make up for glaring gaps in a coherent plan to move South Africa forward.

Many have forgotten how Thabo Mbeki’s presidency was the welcome antidote to the strategically directionless, but symbolic, Madiba years.

Uninhibited by nostalgia and reverence, today’s youth have questioned the economic condition of black South Africa, nearly 20 years after the first democratic elections.

They were not shy to express their disappointment at the results of the negotiated settlement or to hold the view that it was Madiba’s decision to agree to the terms that eventually created the foundations of the new South Africa. This maintained the economic status quo while handing over an empty symbolic freedom to black South Africans.

In their eyes, Madiba was part architect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), chaired by revered Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, a historical process which is fast losing credibility with the marginalised.

Internationally, the TRC is seen as a victory for humanity, but there is a growing view that it dealt with instances of political violence rather than with apartheid as a system.

True, the TRC provided criminal justice for some, but failed to truly address the question of justice for all.

The most radical saw him as the man who gave himself proxy to decide, on behalf of the black nation, that it could simply forgive white South Africa for its creation and continued support – through democratic processes – of a dehumanising system.

In the end, Madiba did not belong to black South Africans. Not in the way that Steve Biko, Chris Hani, Walter Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe, Joe Slovo and others did. He was a global icon representing the best in humanity, a reminder to South Africans of the role that the international community played in our liberation.

He outlived politics – perhaps even his image as a great liberation hero. But he is also the man we entered the promised land with before something went terribly wrong.

If the plan was not that the oppressed’s forgiveness would lead to the oppressor’s atonement, then what was the plan? Even with legislative changes, why have the biggest benefactors of post-apartheid South Africa been mainly white men?

Asking these questions of the ANC and its leaders was hard enough when Madiba was alive; it’s not likely that answers will be forthcoming now that he’s gone. But the state of black life in South Africa should not be disproportionately blamed on Madiba either.

The ANC must account for the decisions it has made in shaping today’s South Africa.

In fact, broader society must take stock of its own efforts towards driving social change in South Africa.

Crass consumerism and opportunism turned Nelson Mandela into a global brand, a prison number, bracelets and T-shirts, an image to be photographed.

Nelson Mandela the name became an economic entity while Nelson Mandela the man became a sorry figure.

This stripped him of his political authority, reduced him to a tourist attraction for a mandatory stopover by Hollywood stars who were here to shoot a movie or perform.

Madiba’s grand life deserves celebration, but greatness is not achieved without making some mistakes along the way. While appreciating his life’s work, it’s important that we are honest about what worked and what didn’t.

We owe it to ourselves to be open about the state of our nation 19 years after our first democratic elections. We also owe it to ourselves to dispel the fable that we are a miracle nation.

By putting Nelson Mandela on a pedestal, we strip him of his humanity. We also convince ourselves that leaders are divine beings and not ordinary humans who simply choose to risk more to do more.

In a nation in desperate need of brave leaders, there cannot be a better story to tell future generations than the true story of the young herd boy who was born in a village called Mvezo in Umtata, but who died while being counted among the greatest politicians in human history.

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