Freedom: but at what price?

2010-03-17 00:00

DEVELOPMENTS in the past week put a sharp spotlight on the state of our nation. Earlier in the week, the press reported on an interview Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is purported to have given to Naira Naipaul, the wife of the acclaimed writer, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, about Nelson Mandela and the state of South Africa. Naipaul’s record of the interview shows that while Madikizela-Mandela is triumphant about the defeat of apartheid, she is dissatisfied about the outcomes of the settlement negotiated by her former husband’s leadership team at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa).

The SA press zeroed in on her alleged denigration of Desmond Tutu as a “cretin” who turned the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process into a religious ritual, and Mandela for bending over backwards to accommodate white fears.

As if to suggest that Madikizela-Mandela is out of her mind, by midweek the press published a beautiful speech she gave at an event held to commemorate Mandela’s release. It projected Mandela as larger than life, a courageous and brave leader who carried the movement on his shoulders through the difficult period of transition from apartheid to democracy.

By the end of the week, the woman Madikizela-Mandela is said to have extolled as one of the many forgotten heroines in the mould of Mandela, Dr Fatima Meer, died. This sad loss was overshadowed by controversies around Madikizela-Mandela. The public, especially outside KwaZulu-Natal, has been robbed of an opportunity to know about this erudite woman of great integrity.

A close scrutiny of statements Madikizela-Mandela is alleged to have made reveals some hard facts about our freedom. According to Naipaul’s record, Madikizela-Mandela views the terms of transition agreed to with the apartheid regime as a betrayal of the struggle. She reiterates the fact that national reconciliation was largely onesided in that the black oppressed were expected to pay the price by forgiving the system that brutalised them for decades.

Observers also decried the lack of balance between truth and reconciliation in the TRC process, and have pointed out that the negotiated settlement Mandela was part of came short of the revolution that the poor masses had anticipated. It was pragmatic. But it meant that one side needed to give more than it could ever receive for the sake of principle, the higher goal.

Naipaul may have invented the interview; however, the sentiments expressed, minus insults, are not atypical of a struggle activist who has decided to stick with the poor in townships and slums. Madikizela-Mandela and the late Meer are but two examples of such activists who have not abandoned the poor.

Meer used her space at the Institute for Black Research to argue for alternative models of development and politics. She nurtured future leaders, hoping that they would epitomise a blend of erudition and compassion, ideas and principle, and vision and passion. In the past decade, she has been seen among the poor, helping to open doors for development opportunities and marching with them against injustice.

I can imagine that she died happy that the country had been rescued from apartheid, but she probably felt that the freedom attained was inadequate, for the poor in and around slums have not seen its dividends. She probably also had second thoughts about work done towards nation-building, seeing that this is still a country divided along class-come-racial lines. She believed in this idea of unity in diversity, but had witnessed the poor tear each other apart along colour lines and over citizenship.

Like Madikizela-Mandela, she must silently have felt that her contribution would be easily forgotten because she fought and stayed among the poor. Mandela and other prominent leaders were and are still overcredited for victories, although Mandela has always graciously acknowledged the role of others.

But these heroines are not mere populists seeking affirmation for their role, for history will vindicate them. They embodied the undying hope of the oppressed for a better South Africa, in whose development and economy they would actively participate in the pursuit of a better life for all.

The obituary on Meer’s grave should end with the following phrase: Aluta continua. And Madikizela-Mandela should feel that her friend left her behind to take the work forward.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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