Where is the scholarship?

2014-01-05 14:00

How does a country built on a narrative of victory survive its first moment of collective loss?

Since the concept “country” is an abstraction, I should perhaps rephrase the question: how do people held together by the narrative of triumph of good over evil carry on in the absence of the narrative’s chief author?

The short answer is that I have never felt prouder than I did at the outpouring of love for former president Nelson Mandela by people from all walks of life. It was a sight to behold as I sat in a bus for six hours for that final glimpse of a man who had given so much to give life to others.

But I could also not help noticing the different ways in which white and black South Africans appreciate Mandela – this is South Africa after all.

To the white people who were raised on a staple diet of Mandela as a terrorist with horns on his head, he was a revelation.

This is perhaps best captured in a radio ad featuring a voice that sounds like Helen Suzman’s. In it, she says she had always heard of Mandela as a “black resistance fighter”; but when they met, she was surprised to find an intelligent, courteous, well-spoken, wonderful man – as if all these qualities were antithetical to freedom fighters.

That got me thinking about whether white people love the rest of the black population – those who are not intelligent and well-spoken – as much as they loved Mandela. In other words, these white people never had anything against blacks, as such, if they could all just be like Madiba.

This also got me asking myself endless questions about whether Mandela might have served as a useful decoy for those white people who wanted to make the transition into the new world without losing face to family, friends, neighbours and even the domestic servant.

Could he have made it possible for white people to go through a loss of political power without a loss of social status and thus undergo change without pain or sacrifice?

Suffice to say that if white South Africans are to follow Mandela’s example, they ought to extend their love for him to his people. If Mandela teaches us anything, it is the idea that there is no change without pain.

This is a message I hardly need to preach to black people, whose history has been about dealing with collective loss.

So what does it mean to love Mandela for black people? If Mandela was a revelation and a decoy for many white people, he was for many black people a source of pride and validation.

Even as the newscasters and analysts went on sonorously about Mandela as the avatar of racial reconciliation, black people in the streets and in stadiums were singing a different tune, literally and figuratively.

Songs such as “Nelson Mandela, akekho ofana naye (there is no one like him)” or “iqhawe lamaqhawe (hero of heroes)” have nothing to do with the overwrought theme of reconciliation. The abaThembu of the Transkei claimed him jealously, and buried him according to their tradition. It was as if to say: “You may have deprived us of everything, our land and our cattle, but this is our Mandela.”

One of the best examples of Mandela as self-veneration is contained in a 1998 speech by Henry Louis Gates Jr on the occasion of Harvard University’s Special Assembly to award an honorary doctorate to Madiba.

This was the first time Harvard had bestowed such an honour on an African person, and it was only the third time it had bestowed it on anyone in all of its 400-year history – with the first two recipients being George Washington and Winston Churchill.

With his voice cracking, Gates?Jr addressed himself to Madiba about the meaning of his release: “When you finally emerged, we were so excited and so teary-eyed at your nobility, your princeliness, your straight back, your unbowed head! I felt?...?there walked the whole of the African people, as regal as a king.”

But I am struck by the paucity of black writing about Mandela over the last 23 years of his freedom. Fatima Meer wrote a biography shortly before Madiba’s release, Jabulani Buthelezi did an ecological study in 2002, and I edited a collection of essays by Wole Soyinka, Cornel West and Gates Jr. But that can hardly be the basis of sustained scholarship about a man universally hailed as the greatest icon of the 20th?century.

We should indeed be ashamed that we now rely on Madiba’s own efforts at recording his presidential years. Four presidents later, and South Africa still doesn’t have presidential historians.

And we blame white folks for it? Give me a break.

After all the politicians have made their speeches, the musicians have belted out their songs, and the priests have said their amens, the question will remain: where is the scholarship? We love him, no doubt, but what is this love without commitment of pen to paper.

»?Mangcu is the author of Biko: A Biography

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