Mandela and the curse of presentism

2018-06-10 19:14
Former president Nelson Mandela, pictured here at the Convention for a Democratic SA in Kempton Park in the early 1990s, is being unfairly judged by today’s standards. (File, City Press)

Former president Nelson Mandela, pictured here at the Convention for a Democratic SA in Kempton Park in the early 1990s, is being unfairly judged by today’s standards. (File, City Press)

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Writing about former US president Thomas Jefferson, Douglas Wilson reflects on the paradox of Jefferson’s life – that he was both a slave holder and a champion of equality – and grapples with the manner in which the legacies of historical figures are manipulated to suit the trendy dispositions of present-day audiences. He proposes that Jefferson’s behaviour should be judged in the context of his own time, rather than ours. Without delving into the complexities of Jefferson’s life, I find value in Wilson’s basic proposition and similarly plead with audiences debating former president Nelson Mandela to do so in the context of the prevailing conditions of his time, not ours.

The phenomenon of presentism is the application of contemporary and inappropriate standards to the past. It is the inability, when debating the past, to make allowances for prevailing historical conditions. He wisely points out that nothing keeps its place in a world of incessant change. The views and wisdom of Mandela’s time, when he was tasked with negotiating for a new nation in the early 1990s, have not kept their place over the years. But does that mean his significant contributions at that time should be diminished by unforeseen and unintended consequences years later?

I am fortunate to be working on the development of the Museum and Archive of the Constitution at the Hill, which will trace the origins of our Constitution and which will stand at a symbolic place, directly opposite the doors of the Constitutional Court.

An obvious figure in the story of the making of our Constitution is Mandela. Since his passing, there seems to have been a growing resentment against him. Chief among the detractions is that, instead of negotiating, Mandela should have led us to war to overthrow the apartheid government. Presentism means we unfairly judge Mandela by today’s knowledge. The retrospective glance is a relatively easy gesture, especially when time has the incredible ability to blunt the sharpness of yesterday’s pain.

For those among us whose memories remain sharp, we ask exactly whose children, fathers and mothers should have gone to war.

Our research for the museum shows that the early 1990s saw a dramatic escalation in levels of violence in South Africa. I witnessed some of this myself. I remember burning tyres around black necks. Black mothers in unbearable pain clutching their dead black children. It is reported that, from the start of the negotiations to our first democratic election in April 1994, 14 000 South Africans died in politically related violence. I have seen footage of the human carnage of black bodies in Boipatong and Bhisho. Those bodies sprawled in dust had names, hopes and dreams, and also wanted to live.

The cannibalism of the early 1990s that claimed black lives necessitated a considered response from the liberation movement. Former ANC national executive committee member Pallo Jordan soberly recognised that the terrain on which successful movements have to manoeuvre is not necessarily all of their choosing. There are moments of rapid advance, but there are also moments of retreat. Retreat does not mean conceding defeat – it is often a tactical option chosen to put off, until a more opportune time, action one would have preferred to take in the present.

Mandela was weary of the overwhelmingly black death toll and, in certain respects, he had to retreat. For his desire for the cessation of violence, Mandela is unfairly judged by those who will never know the weight of being the singular voice that could either incite war or bring peace. It can never be that today we can sit in our armchairs and judge the decisions of a man who lived in a different and inopportune time. We cannot judge him for what we have the luxury of knowing now, but that could not have been predicted with any certainty then.

A sellout is defined as one who intentionally betrays a cause for personal advancement. A sellout is someone who sacrifices their core values for money. The Mandela sellout label is populism as its best, uttered with no interest in facts or nuance. Populism is built on the irresistible allure of simplicity, and mine is a generation that is easily enticed by simplicity. Where is the proof of this intention to sell us out?

Those who were in the negotiation room rubbish the idea that Mandela went into a room with a bunch of capitalists, emerged with a compromise and then went to lawyers and instructed them to give us a Constitution. Instead, hard years of breakdowns in negotiations were behind the democratic elections in 1994 and the adoption of the Constitution in 1996.

The apartheid government was behind a third force of state security operatives tasked with sowing discord and division among black people. In some instances, government directly sponsored covert violence. Targeted assassinations and massacres were the order of the day.

Fear of a military coup hung over the negotiations. We forget the onslaught facing Mandela from all sides. We forget that Mandela walked away from the negotiating table more than once, driving home the point that he would not continue to engage with an illegitimate government negotiating in bad faith.

In addition to the violence, there were other obstacles on the road to democracy. With the ostensible failures of communism, liberation movements across the world, including the ANC, had to turn away from the doctrines of nationalisation and violent revolution. The prioritisation of economic stability above all else inevitably meant that the white-dominated economy could not be overhauled.

It is said critics are men who watch a battle from a high place and then come down and shoot the survivors. Mandela did the best he could with what he knew then. To judge in posterity is utterly unfair. Building political careers by denigrating an African hero is unacceptable.

To repurpose Angela Davis’ wisdom from her 2016 Steve Biko lecture, I implore that being thankful for Mandela’s legacy does not mean we should receive it uncritically. Mandela did not accord his answers to that era with a permanence that silences today’s generation. Even Mandela would agree that questioning and critical thinking cannot end after victories are won. Labelling Mandela a sellout is not critical thinking, it’s an erasure of the past and a foreclosure of past struggles.

We are at odds with past struggles, yet our present struggle exists in that same continuum because our present activism is enabled by that of the past.

Mandela is part of our genealogy. We stand on his shoulders and, by standing on his shoulders, we are able to see what he saw. More importantly, we are able to see much more than what he could see. Mandela’s questions were questions of a different era and we cannot blame him for our inability to answer the questions of today.

Jordan’s analysis is that liberation movements are sometimes compelled to postpone aspects of their programme in light of an intractable conjuncture and to prepare for a better-planned advance. It is our job to pick up where Mandela left off. We are the ones who should be preparing a better advance if we have now determined that this present conjuncture lends itself to far more creative action.

Even though he is gone, he looms over our nation as the most consequential South African in history. Prisoner 46664 was persecuted, judged and imprisoned for 27 years. Let him rest in freedom.

- Xaso is content curator for the Museum and Archive of the Constitution at the Hill. For comments, please write to


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