Zama Ndlovu

Your 67 minutes are not compulsory

2012-07-18 08:11

Zama Ndlovu

While some will be giving 67 minutes of their time in commemoration of the 67 years Tata Nelson Mandela dedicated in his fight for freedom, others will be using those 67 minutes perfecting their list of convoluted conspiracy theories on exactly how Madiba sold out. But surely, there are easier ways to get out of community service. Like maybe calling in sick with a case of Madiba fatigue?

It’s one of the interwebs most shallow, annoying and repetitive discussions, which usually goes along these lines: "Mighty Madiba manipulated the ANC and used his splendid powers to trick the rest of the ANC to giving power to the white people he so dearly loved and spent 27 years of his life to save". One chap in a discussion went as far as saying "the NEC of the ANC was intoxicated with his (Madiba’s) charm. He out smarted all of them and the material conditions allowed it".

I can see it now, a younger old Nelson Mandela winking his way through the type of rigorous deliberation and robust debate the ANC is famous for, convincing the many comrades who revered him from exile and his cell mates to give everything and their spouses to white people. Come on now, I find it quite implausible that a Xhosa man would voluntarily sign up to spend 27 years in jail waiting for his cut of the deal while wearing shorts.

Judging by this person's faith in Madiba's mad skills, once Madiba adorned himself with his famous Madiba shirts, wiggled his fresh new hip while hooking up that killer Madiba shuffle dance move, it was over for economic freedom for the majority in our lifetime. Once a prisoner, always a criminal and so on and so forth.

Backlash 'understandable'

Anyway, a good conspiracy theorist would target a cadre that had clearly received great material after the transition. Cyril Ramaphosa, head negotiator for the ANC during Codesa, who Forbes estimates to be worth $275m, is one, or maybe the maverick Minister of Human Settlements, Tokyo "I've been approached" Sexwale with his flair for dramatics is another - if you must.

Now, the (not so) sudden Madiba backlash is understandable. Nelson Mandela has turned from a terrorist to an admirable leader to a saint in his lifetime, and made the last transition to sainthood in our lifetime, and this pedestal the nation has put him on has turned into a prison for all of us. Not only has the oversimplification of Madiba’s legacy absolved us mere mortals from the hard work of following in his and others’ footsteps, it makes it hard for us to raise concerns about decisions made on our behalf two decades ago.

It often seems as though Madiba's legacy has also turned into a one dimensional unattainable "saviour" status used to discipline, mute and manipulate the majority.  Madiba the commodity is only to be worshipped and not to be questioned. But we can argue against the pedestals without unnecessarily destroying the legacy of a great man.

It’s unfathomable that a man surrounded by so many equally great men would escape the death sentence, only to hand all the wins of freedom purely to the oppressors of his people. Collectively, the ANC was a very naive party when it took over power in 1994; no one could really comprehend the extent to which the economic and social structures had been severely damaged by the previous government.

Mistakes made

Moreover, market-based growth was a favoured approach to drive development in the country. A liberation movement turned political party would have been reluctant to question the advice of large international funding institutions, offering what seemed like sound advice and economic assistance.

In addition, the ANC had no experience running a government at the time, stability was crucial and it needed to close the tap on skills that were immigrating out of the country at unprecedented speeds. This is also the same government that unwittingly gave thousands of attractive packages to leave the public sector in an attempt to add colour to the sector only to find itself with skills shortages that are still felt to this day.

Lack of foresight and deliberate black sabotage are simply not the same thing. Mistakes were made, and continue to be made while underneath it all deep scars remain unaddressed, exacerbated by growing economic disparities; but creating monsters out of saints will not help address the real issues.

Today young black professionals see themselves in numbers and think, "we could have done this ourselves" forgetting that black skills could only be found in health and teaching, blacks were not engineers, accountants, marketing executives, IT consultants etc, black people were barely administrators. Who would have done this when we had barely anyone at the time?

Raw deal

Hindsight tells us black South Africans got the raw deal but we should separate clearly the difference between unfortunate decisions and conspiracies to cheat blacks by blacks.

The real questions here are that 18 years later how much of this is due to bad decisions before '94, during the negotiations and post-94. But more importantly, do we need to go back to the drawing boards, and if so, how do we do that and are we willing to take the risks of such, being arguable the most open market in Africa whose economic health is so heavily reliant on fickle fluid portfolio investments? In English, do we know much we stand to lose through radicalism (and also what we stand to gain)?

Maybe Mandela's forgiveness came too soon, but more likely, no one man's forgiveness should have been used as a proxy for a nation. Maybe we are sick of the superhero and maybe we want to hear the story of the great joint venture that was the fight against apartheid.

Some want answers about the events of those few years between the unbanning of the ANC and release of prisoners and the elections. Some even want reassurance that Nelson Mandela had nothing to do with the murder of the militant, radical and fiercely revolutionary Chris Hani.

He was a man

Any discussion on social cohesion that glosses over the compromises made by the ANC and the forgiveness declared on behalf of black people fails to realise the full extent to which the direction of the country post-1994 has deepened rather than healed the wounds of the past. But to create a dark alter-ego to the mainstream saintly image of Nelson Mandela does not further discussion either because Nelson Mandela was neither saint nor monster, he was a man. A leader, amongst many leaders, tasked with making critical decisions in order to chart our way forward.

If you don't want to dedicate 67 minutes of your time to Nelson Mandela, whether it is for personal or religious reasons, or an ideological reason, that is your right, but there's no need to make up elaborate conspiracy theories when a ‘No thanks’ will do. And if you really want to give your time to a worthy cause while retaining your priceless street cred, you could always dedicate your time to the late Adelaide Tambo, born on this day in 1929, who also dedicated roughly an hour in years of her life to fighting for our freedom. The feminists will love you for that.

There is much we don’t know about the decisions made in those early days, but let's avoid elaborate fairy tales to avoid 67 minutes of a little labour.

- Zama Ndlovu is a management consultant, managing director of Youth Lab, writer, activist, and anything else you'd like her to be. Follow her on Twitter: @JoziGoddess

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