Why the heroes and villains dichotomy?

2018-07-15 10:15
Former president Nelson Mandela (Photo: Gallo Images)

Former president Nelson Mandela (Photo: Gallo Images)

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Recently I was at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory to listen to a panel discussion about the legacy of Nelson Mandela. The panellists were Xolela Mangcu, Jay Naidoo, and young lawyer and archivist Lwando Xaso. Xaso is emerging as one of the sharpest minds in this country in the reappraisal of Madiba and the democratic project.

They were joined later by a leftist scholar, critical of Madiba’s abandonment of the “nationalisation” catechism.

Mangcu and Naidoo made some persuasive points when explaining and defending the Mandela legacy from the carping and calumny of the “woke” brigade, who seem to have recently discovered the appellation “sellout”.

Mangcu asked: Why is it that we black folk always feel the need to contrapose our heroes against each other?

In an echo of Zenani Mandela’s funeral oration, he asked why was it so difficult for us to love both Madiba and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe.

Why do we feel the need to worship one at the expense of the other?

If one loves Biko, why does it make the demonisation of Madiba necessary?

Why can’t we celebrate all our heroes who battled apartheid?

Mangcu is a product of Biko’s black consciousness philosophy and grew up around the corner from the Biko family home in Ginsberg. He also loved Madiba and Madikizela-Mandela, both of whom he was close to. And he worships Sobukwe.

This reminded me of a speech by Graça Machel last December, on the occasion of the fourth anniversary of Madiba’s passing. In response to the despair that had engulfed the country owing to former president Jacob Zuma’s misrule, she declared that South Africa will re-emerge from this abyss because we know how to defy the odds.

She said of all the countries on the continent, none has been more richly endowed with a leadership quotient than South Africa. In this regard this country was the envy of the African continent. She started a roll call of these leaders – Charlotte Maxeke, Albert Luthuli, Sefako Makgato, Moses Kotane, Madikizela-Mandela, Lilian Ngoyi, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Desmond Tutu, Biko, Sobukwe, Albertina Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Mandela – the list went on.

In her peroration she said a country that could produce this cornucopia of leadership is uniquely capable of producing another Mandela, another Chris Hani.

A hush fell over the hall. I found myself musing that we may indeed not be good at maths and football, but political genius and statecraft is something we have always had in spades. It is perhaps this fecundity of political talent that has made us take it for granted.

In Ghana, Mangcu said, no one calls Kwame Nkrumah a “sellout”. This is in spite of the fact that by the time Nkrumah was overthrown in 1965, he was beginning to display all the familiar tropes of post-colonial rule – paranoia, intolerance and tyranny. But when he died, the Ghanaians reclaimed his iconography, and today he is a national hero there.

Similarly with Julius Nyerere who, at the time he left office, confessed that his “Ujamaa” policies had been a mistake and had unnecessarily imposed economic hardship on his people. However, Nyerere remains the founding “myth” of Tanzanian nationhood.

Samora Machel was forced by the Boers, via the Renamo insurgency and economic sabotage, to sign a “sellout” deal – the Nkomathi Accord – behind the backs of his comrades in the ANC and the leadership of the frontline states.

However, the leadership of the region, the ANC and the Mozambican people intuitively understood that the Mozambican revolution was under siege, and thus understood Machel’s tactical retreat. Today no one questions his indubitable revolutionary credentials.

The highlight of the panel discussion was an encounter between Xaso and a critic of the Constitution.

In her opening address, Xaso had decried a discourse over the democratic breakthrough and Constitution, which was long on populist posturing and fulmination, but short on evidence.

Her point was spectacularly proved.

An audience member, in high dudgeon, criticised our “globally vaunted” Constitution that left our people hungry and sick. She proposed there should be a referendum to decide if we should “junk” it and come up with something new in its place.

Xaso asked the indignant audience member to name a clause in the Constitution that she was not happy with so they could have a meaningful discussion. However, this sister could not name any part of the Constitution that offended her sensibilities and may have been a fetter to our democratic advance.

The room fell quiet. You could hear a pin drop.

When she recovered her poise, the audience member could only muster a sentiment that the Constitution is a fetter to transformation.

Xaso replied: “This is my challenge with this discourse. It’s difficult for me to argue against a sentiment. I need facts.”

Why is it that the progenitors of our democratic breakthrough, such as President Cyril Ramaphosa, who negotiated the democratic settlement and chaired the Constituent Assembly that produced the Constitution, have not pushed back against this narrative with the aim of educating our youth, who are clearly frustrated and angry about the current malaise in our country?

Perhaps the feeling has been that this nihilism is a function of the times and will blow over as we recover our bounce as a nation.

My concern is that if the democratic breakthrough and the Constitution that is its undergird is seen as a “sell out”, that has implications for patriotism in our country.

If folks feel the state is a product of a “treacherous” settlement, how are they expected to be loyal to it? The majority of those who feel this way are the youth, who are the future of the country. Their erroneous perception has dangerous portents for our future.

In conclusion, I would like to engage the lament from the “left” about Madiba and his comrades “betraying” the Freedom Charter by failing to nationalise our economy. I want to answer this critique with an anecdote about a friend of mine.

My friend Kgomolemo’s dad lived in Durban, and on September 30 last year he was admitted to King Edward VIII Hospital to be treated for pneumonia.

The father had been treated at Life Westville Hospital for the same ailment the previous month, but by the time he had a relapse, Kgomolemo had been kicked out of the Discovery medical aid scheme for late payment. This necessitated his father going to a public hospital.

His dad received good care at King Edward and was due to be discharged on October 13.

On October 10 there was a freak storm in Durban which damaged the lift system at the hospital. Because of the lift malfunction, Kgomolemo’s dad could not be discharged on time. It took five weeks before the lift was fixed.

While the lift went unfixed, the old man was reinfected with pneumonia. He was finally discharged from hospital on November 22, but he could barely walk by then, and within two weeks he was dead.

The postmortem revealed that he had died of septic shock as a result of being reinfected with pneumonia, gastroenteritis and infection from bed sores. All this would not have happened had he been discharged on October 13.

In the private sector a lift would not have taken five weeks to be fixed, but this decrepitude and ineptitude is common in our country’s public service. And it costs lives.

This is why the National Development Plan calls for a “capable” state. A state that can capably deliver the democratic dividend to our people. However, until the state has developed that capability, does any one of us really – hand over heart – want the state to take over all parts of our economy?


What do you make of those who deem Mandela a sellout? SMS us on 35697 using the keyword HEROES and tell us what you think. Include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

Read more on:    nelson mandela  |  democracy

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