Ralph Mathekga

Ralph Mathekga: If Mandela wasn't from among us, his legacy would be taken more seriously

2020-02-11 07:00
Nelson Mandela and Cyril Ramaphosa at the signing of the Constitution on 10 December 1996. (Media24)

Nelson Mandela and Cyril Ramaphosa at the signing of the Constitution on 10 December 1996. (Media24)

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By attacking principles such as reconciliation and tolerance as we walk away from Mandela's legacy, we are effectively desecrating our own history, writes Ralph Mathekga

It has been 30 years since Nelson Mandela made it out of prison after 27 years of incarceration by the apartheid regime.

I remember vividly as a secondary school student when the news of Mandela's release reached Limpopo province; it was a euphoric moment and the songs of freedom filled the air. 

Mandela's release was so significant that it symbolised immediate freedom for many citizens who were oppressed by the then regime.  

During that historical moment of Mandela's release, little did I know that 30 years down the line I’ll be responding to the questions about the significance of Mandela's legacy for South Africans and the role he played in contributing towards the liberation movement in South Africa.  

Like many people, I took it for granted that Mandela's release was always going to be revered by South Africans throughout history simply because it was obviously a watershed moment for the country.     

Today as one plays back the memories of Mandela's release, one cannot help but recall the cardinal rule that it is not the future that is the source of contention in societies, but rather the past.

The legacy of Nelson Mandela and the political developments that led to his release have become a subject of contention among South Africans, with the brave ones even willing to go further and conclude that Mandela was a "sell out" and that his legacy leaves much to be desired.

I beg to differ with this assertion, although I understand and empathise with the frustrations that have driven this kind of thinking.  

South Africans are willing to walk away from Mandela's legacy much faster and sooner than I thought possible.

Our reflections on South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy is filled with such angst and guilt that for some it is appropriate to blame Mandela for the "unfinished revolution" that South Africa is seen to be.

The question is this: did Nelson Mandela fulfill his part in history, and did he deliver to the majority of South Africans the promised land of milk and honey?

There is nothing wrong in critically assessing the legacy of our heroes, particularly someone whose whole life has been as significant as Nelson Mandela's.

This exercise, however, requires honest self-reflection on our part as a generation.  

We have become a generation that seeks to rewrite history instead of confronting our own shortcomings in contributing to it.

Mandela did not give us a blueprint on how to manage a modern state with a history of racial conflict.

There are a few things, however, that we should have learned from Mandela.

Among those things is the idea of tolerance, a value which is currently lacking in our political engagements. Being tolerant of the other and their views in the current South Africa is seen as being weak and even indecisive.   

I have heard people saying reconciliation, one of the principles propagated by Mandela, has failed in South Africa and we need to begin to think hard regarding a way forward, thus we need more confrontation.

Any nation that gives up on overarching principles that provide a foundation of virtue is certainly navigating blind.

By attacking principles such as reconciliation and tolerance as we walk away from Mandela's legacy, we are effectively desecrating our own history.  

It is unfortunate that whenever we are confronted with immediate challenges such as high unemployment and other societal ills, we get more and more tempted to blame our fallen heroes and absolve ourselves of any responsibility.

In simple terms, how does Mandela's legacy connect with rampant corruption that is tearing apart our society?

It is difficult to see how Mandela failed us in dealing with the land issue, if we take into consideration the fact South Africa was a negotiated transition borne out of a compromise.  

As we commemorate Mandela's release, we should ask ourselves how we have tried to live up to some of the principles that were espoused by Mandela, instead of trying to rewrite history to absolve ourselves from responsibility.

We cannot as a society blame Mandela for our ineptitude.

That would simply be ungrateful and pompous!  

Sometimes I am tempted to conclude that if Mandela did not emerge among us, we will most likely take his legacy more seriously.  

Sadly, this means the problem with us is not Mandela's legacy, it is just the collective sense of low self-esteem that we have as a nation.

We don’t believe in ourselves, even where we do well. 

- Dr Ralph Mathekga is a political analyst and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa's Turn.

Read more on:    nelson mandela  |  apartheid  |  democracy  |  freedom


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