The great race debate: Beyond Madiba’s bubble

2015-01-26 08:00

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Nelson Mandela created an artificial world for the handful of whites in his circle. And that is the bubble in which individuals such as Zelda la Grange operated.
Picture: Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive

Let me begin by way of full disclosure.

This is one of the most challenging pieces I have had to write. That is what happens when one’s duty to a broader public transcends personal bonds.

This is not the first time I reluctantly write to criticise a friend, or someone with whom I have some kind of personal connection.

One of the most difficult articles of my career was penned when Steve Tshwete accused Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa of plotting to overthrow President Thabo Mbeki. I had grown up knowing and admiring Tshwete in King William’s Town, Eastern Cape.

I had to do the same with Smuts Ngonyama, whose rugby kitbag I carried as a boy in Ginsberg. So, thank you, Zelda la Grange, for putting me on the spot, my friend.

Oh no, I am not running away from you because of your ill-considered rant. I believe your remarks speak to something that I often complained about when Nelson Mandela was alive.

In a couple of articles, which were put on the Nelson Mandela website, I wrote that in his desire to bring about a stable transition to democracy, Madiba presented an “overly generous reading of the racial situation in this country”.

As part of his symbolic leadership, he created around himself a model of black-white relations that was far from the reality of race relations in broader society.

In that respect, he may have overestimated his capacity to change attitudes that have been concretised over centuries. No single individual could achieve such a feat – not even Mandela.

He also created an artificial world for the handful of whites in his circle. And that is the bubble in which individuals such as Zelda operated.

It would not be surprising that those whites close to him never developed the discursive and idiomatic capacity to engage in the rough and tumble of racial politics outside of the bubble, and explore the complexities of race in everyday life.

When she tried to weigh in on the most nettlesome topic in the history of our country – race – Zelda fell short because nothing in the artificial world that Madiba created prepared her for this.

But Zelda is not alone. Not long ago the journalist and producer of the movie Invictus, John Carlin, wrote that the black experience under apartheid was not that distinct after all, and that as a poor white, he “endured much the same hardship and discrimination as the most unfortunate of his compatriots”.

I suppose that is what having the rights to Mandela’s story gave him – a sense of entitlement to an interpretation of the entire black experience. Question him about the racism in all of that, and he will tell you Mandela was his friend.

This is the new chorus among many white South Africans for whom history and politics are written in shorthand. The shorthand is that black people should stop talking about race because Nelson Mandela told them to.

In this, they forget that Madiba was not a god who had the final word on interpretations of the racial experience in this country.

Debates about race are not new in the black community, and Madiba represented only one side of them. The historian Phil Bonner describes the history of these debates as “a recurrent trope in South African resistance history?...?This tension will probably always be with us: even when the one political tradition gains the ascendancy, the other lurks with less public profile below.”

At one point, Madiba himself was not to the liking of many white people in this country. Distinguished anthropologist Archie Mafeje described the young Mandela as “u-nkomo iyahlaba” (a raging bull) because of his militancy.

It was only much later in the 1950s that Mandela came to accept collaborating with members of other groups, particularly white communists and Indians, and it was much later still that he became the face of reconciliation.

In short, those of us who do not have short memories remember that he was brandished as evil incarnate in white society. And now, rather miraculously, he is universally loved because his message of reconciliation could be twisted into an instrument of silencing black people from speaking about their racial experiences.

Thus the irony of a Mandela who is loved more than the black people for whom he spent all those years in prison.

Unless and until white South Africans are exposed to the diversity of the narratives of race outside those offered by Madiba, they will continue with the shorthand of racial politics that continues to offend black people. In so doing, they will stoke the fires of what James Baldwin called “the fire next time”.

The challenge is to engage with the other ways of thinking about race that “lurk with less public profile below”. These ways of thinking can be helpful in building mutually respectful relationships between black and white people.

But I am also afraid that these tensions will blow up in our faces sooner than we think. Because I live and work in white spaces, I feel the resurgence of white supremacy daily.

I also feel the anger welling up with a frightening intensity in the black community with each racist utterance and slight.

We owe it to all of our children to forestall those outcomes by questioning the effect of our words. Ironically, we do well to remember Madiba’s own observation that words can be just as deadly as guns.

As your friend, Zeldina, I would be the first one to forgive you. But mine would not be Madiba’s kind of forgiveness. It would be Steve Biko’s kind.

Biko’s friend Aelred Stubbs described it as follows: “And at the very heart of this man’s life was the quality of compassion – not the emasculated word of white society with its paternalistic connotation of ‘feeling sorry’ for someone in a worse situation than yourself, but the ‘suffering with’ that is the word’s true meaning. Steve extended this compassion not only to his fellow blacks, but also to whites whom he came to know.”

This is not forgiveness as carte blanche, but forgiveness that asks the question Madiba never asked: how will you reciprocate my compassion to you? And if black people extend their compassion as they have done all these years, what will white South Africans give back?

If the answer is nothing, then I am afraid there will be no way of dousing the flames of “the fire next time”.

In short, we can all either be stupid and think about our short-term interests or treat Zelda’s outburst as a teachable moment that takes us beyond the familiar shorthand to engage seriously with each other about what it will take to build a collective future for all our children.

And that will begin with exploring the black world beyond the bubble created by our beloved Madiba.

Mangcu is associate professor at the University of Cape Town

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