‘Share Madiba’s life, don’t own it’

2013-07-07 14:00

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Nelson Mandela didn’t speak about his legacy often, but when he did, he didn’t mince his words. In the years before he retired from his post-presidential office, he gave his staff at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory three clear directives.

The centre’s director and historian, Verne Harris, explains: “The first one is, and these were his words: ‘Don’t turn this into a mausoleum.’ Secondly: ‘Don’t make this all about me.’ In other words, create space for others. And the third one was: ‘You don’t have to protect me.’ Which, for me, is a mandate to do the difficult memory work, to look at the real human being.”

While Mandela’s grandson Mandla was airing the family’s dirty laundry in a glare of publicity this week, and his aunt Makaziwe was laying charges against him for grave tampering, staff at the centre were facilitating hospital visits for Madiba’s friends and launching the Nelson Mandela Sports Day, to be held in August.

The Houghton base houses Mandela’s writings, awards and personal archive, and is the go-to place for anyone researching the former president’s history. It is also tasked with keeping his legacy alive. And that is a dynamic process that will be steered by new CEO Sello Hatang.

“It’s not about concentrating on past legacies, but about building new legacies,” Hatang says. “A legacy is built not by owning it, but by sharing it. When Madiba retired, he made it clear that this centre needs to remain relevant. It needs to address current social-justice issues. So we have two main focuses – one is a dialogue programme and the other is Mandela Day, which we are taking international.”

In the centre’s new display section, visitors will be able to see Mandela’s prison diaries and his Nobel peace prize. They will be able to visit his old office, preserved as it was the day he left, and the auditorium where he made his “Don’t call me, I’ll call you” retirement speech.

But there is also a dialogue room with a big round table where conflicting parties can come to negotiate solutions.

“So if there’s some difficult issue, people should say ‘first port of call, the best convener of dialogue who can be trusted is the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory’.” While Mandela’s legacy is that of unifier and reconciler, Hatang sees that role evolving.

“The dialogue will not only be around reconciliation, but around issues that relate to social justice and inequality. For example, we are exploring dialogues now on the youth and unemployment ... Young people feel they don’t have a voice.”

Where there is injustice, like xenophobia or hate crimes against lesbians, the centre will respond with dialogue initiatives.

“I think,” says Harris of Mandela’s last years at the centre, “he was feeling this concern, that in the 1990s he seduced us into thinking we could fix things very quickly. And I think that all of us are now having to come to the reality of how extensive the (apartheid) damage was. And it’s now time for us to learn those lessons and begin to understand what the long haul is going to take. For me, that’s right at the heart of his legacy actually – the long walk never ends.”

Hatang speaks passionately of Mandela Day on July 18, Madiba’s birthday. By calling on people around the world to give back 67 minutes to help their communities, he believes Mandela’s legacy will evolve. “We are saying it’s not just about the man; it’s about creating a new society when we reimagine our roles in it.”

Harris says Mandela’s legacy “cannot belong to one institution, to one family, to one country. It belongs to all of us. And it only has meaning if we’re interrogating it, if we’re interpreting it, if it’s a living, dynamic, changing thing.”


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