Debating Nelson

2013-12-13 10:37

Much digital and real ink has been used to eulogise and commemorate the life of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. It should come as no surprise. It is a rarity that a man may live his life for the cause of freedom and defy every human expectation in doing so. Mandela’s call for peace and reconciliation, after a lifetime of struggle, won him begrudging admirers on both sides of the colour divide. To not seek revenge and dispense severe retribution, particularly in our African context, is as rare as it is remarkable. The role he, and others, played in attaining majority-rule for the people of South Africa – and the message of hope and peace that sent to the world – is befitting the global mourning his death has received. He was, and always will be, a giant of our generation.

As with grief in general, part of the healing process necessarily involves some sense of self-reflection. In the face of death, we reflect not only on the person that has departed or the legacy that they may have left behind; we reflect on our own mortality, our own legacy and what the future may bring. For South Africans, the passing of Nelson Mandela offers us the ability to do the same. Through the heady emotion of struggle songs, the deep and pitying sorrow and the celebration of a life well-lived, our national identity, what it means to be South African, continues to change.

Part of the healing process is being able to have a frank discussion about someone whom, despite being canonised by the people of the world, himself maintained that he was no saint. In such dialogue, we should be able to think, reflect, discuss and disagree. As a ‘free-marketeer,’ I strongly believe that the way in which we progress is through an exposure to and engagement with a wide berth of ideas and opinions. It is only when our beliefs are truly exposed to scrutiny of the fiercest kind – possibly leaving us at our most vulnerable – that we may find strength: either in the correctness of our own beliefs on in the ability to change them for the better. The debate and the anger, the dialogue and the relief are cathartic means to move on.

This is something that is not new to South Africa. Indeed, many will have a sense that the new South African identity was shaped by a similar process during our transition to democracy. Those who do so would not be incorrect. CODESA and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for example, were representative of the kind of change that was happening on a micro-level, between and among people. As they grappled with what had happened and what needed to happen for their own self-preservation, so these forums, and others, engaged in the same process on a macro-narrative level.

And that is why, like the United States of America, people from as diverse a background as us can genuinely identify with being South African. Through the ‘conflict’ a genuine consensus can be reached and it is in that consensus that each of us sees ourselves.

Nelson Mandela was many things to many people. He was, variously, a saint, an icon, a cunning opponent, a terrorist. Your vantage point determined how you observed and reacted to his life. The consensus in his case was formed while he was alive and it is largely that he remains beyond critique. South Africa needed a hero they could believe in, someone whom we could invest our hope and dreams in – and he was that man. It stands to reason that people should so fiercely defend him from any rebuke: in defending him, we defend ourselves and what it means to be South African.

But there is a danger in having deified him to this extent. It means that those with differing views run the risk of being drowned-out, shouted-down or made to self-censor. It is a daunting task to try and express an opinion which runs contrary to the’ consensus’: inevitably you are a minority of one. Opponents can settle on what the status quo should be, usually in their own interests, and anyone who does not agree is bound to accept it. Our very own state-forming process is a classic example of that doctrine – a critical mass of people support an idea and anyone else who presents any rival explanations or answers is cast out. Think of Buthelezi and his (self-serving) penchant for federalism.

In a mature democracy, no matter how uncomfortable the truth may be, it must be given a chance to be heard. Especially where no one can – nor should – hegemonically determine what the truth is. That is not to say that those whose opinions’ are questionable – if not undeniably wrong – should have their arguments given credibility it does not deserve. Quite the contrary. It must be rebutted fully. But, it must be rebutted. It cannot merely be excluded because we wish not to hear it. It is the only way in which we can test the validity of our own beliefs and cast doubt on the spurious and wild claims which deserve to lie at the fringe. It is the best way in which consensus can be reached.

That is why I welcome those who denounce Mandela. I welcome those who think that South Africa – after his passing – is on the brink of civil war. I want to hear from those who think that white people in this country are going to be the subject of a genocide. Not because I agree with them, but because I wish to have the opportunity to show them otherwise. It is something I hope that he would approve of.

Nelson Mandela was a great man. He deserves utmost praise. We can honour and love him deeply. But his stature and benevolence, his grace and his dignity should not affect the question of how his legacy is debated and negotiated. In that sense, like he knew, he was an ordinary man and should be no different.

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