Guest Column

Ending the Mandela 'sell-out' debate

2018-07-17 12:28
Mandela raises clenched fist, arriving to address mass rally, a few days after his release from jail, 25 February 1990, in  Bloemfontein. (Trevor Samson, AFP)

Mandela raises clenched fist, arriving to address mass rally, a few days after his release from jail, 25 February 1990, in Bloemfontein. (Trevor Samson, AFP)

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There's nothing quite like Madiba magic. You actually feel it, especially around his birthday month with all the random acts of kindness people are doing you can't help but be inspired by.

Having travelled to vastly different contexts like Vietnam, Malawi and Peru it struck me that you can be in a Vietnamese market where few can speak English but when you mention Madiba's name a smile follows and it is equated with our beautiful land.

Almost every citizen of the world celebrates him. In fact, almost every visitor to our country, on every trip to Cape Town, visits Mandela's prison cell and buys a copy of A Long Walk to Freedom before heading back home. The world celebrates this icon, yet, in recent times there has been a growing narrative among the nation and people he had sacrificed his life for that Nelson Mandela was a sell-out.

In recent times, we have seen many defiantly supporting former president Jacob Zuma, and few who spoke out against corruption. Yet, there has been little outcry or a firm stance that Madiba's is a formidable legacy that must be propelled and not torn apart.

Given the failures of our government, there has been a devaluation and disregard for the immense sacrifices each and every hero and heroine played in our history. Sometimes reflection is needed and instead of jumping on the bandwagon, let us ask ourselves where South Africa would be had we not had that Mandela generation?

As I stood at the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington a month ago, I reminisced about a previous trip to Robben Island with Ahmed Kathrada, fondly known as Uncle Kathy. I had never seen Uncle Kathy so angry or express emotion in the way he did when a young person stated that Mandela was a sell-out. He responded, "You have no idea how much of military power the apartheid government had, how difficult the negotiations were, or what would have happened if we did not negotiate. Youth must go and learn the facts and history before making such statements."

On that note and to bridge this intergenerational gap and unfounded rhetoric, I reached out to Patricia Lambert, a well-known legal expert at the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, and one of my favourite veterans of all times Moosa "Mosie" Moolla, who had known and interacted with Madiba personally. 

Mosie, a quiet character and often undetected in our circles, entered the struggle at age 15, endured a life in exile after famously wearing a saree to escape prison, was separated from his family and children for years and until today always wears a hat to be fashionable. His most admirable trait is his sense of humour. Upon meeting Patricia, I was struck by her insight into the South African context and her fond memories of Madiba, who she knew as a legal advisor in the Department of Justice and through her time at the Ministry of Health. I asked each of them a question:

What are your thoughts around whether South Africa should have gone in another direction instead of the course of action taken in 1994?

Lambert: "Hindsight is, of course, perfect vision. As Mandela and others in the leadership of the ANC and the other political groups negotiated a political and economic settlement for South Africa, a number of hard choices had to be made and some of those involved compromise with the apartheid regime. Perhaps, with hindsight, different decisions might have been made but I do not doubt that the negotiators did the best that they could under sometimes difficult and personally painful circumstances. And so I am disturbed when I hear that numbers of young people think of Mandela as a sell-out. How can that be? Mandela did not make the decisions alone. And had compromise not been reached, what might have happened? A prolonged and increasingly violent civil war? Could South Africa's freedom fighters really have taken up arms against the apartheid military with any hope of victory? How many more people would have died? So much blood had already been spilled and so much misery experienced."

What is your take on this debate that Mandela was a sell-out?

Moolla: "To suggest that Mandela is a sell-out is very painful to millions of South Africans who are enjoying the freedoms they enjoy today. Mandela played a seminal role in the struggle for human emancipation and dignity in our country which has been acknowledged as such by not only South Africans but the world at large. As a matter of fact, the very thought of Mandela being a sell-out is outrageous. It is an insult to a man who spent his entire life (a large slice of it in prison where the authorities made every attempt to break his indomitable will and dream) to bring a free and a democratic country and was instrumental in laying the foundations to transform South African society into an egalitarian, prosperous and peaceful one. Instead of calling Mandela a sell-out our peacetime revolutionaries and armchair critics should take a leaf out of this great man's history and help to realise his dream for a free and just society."                                                                                                                 

These responses clearly show there is no room for any further argument on the sell-out issue. For those in doubt, compare yourself to Madiba or perhaps sit down with the knowledge and leadership that still exists and have been part of history to learn more.

- Dr Shakira Choonara is the Obesity Prevention Coordinator for South Africa at the Washington based NGO, Global Health Advocacy Incubator. She was chosen as one of News24's 100 young Mandelas of the future. Follow her on Twitter: @ChoonaraShakira

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    nelson mandela  |  mandela100
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