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Mandela centenary: South Africans must not let trifles undermine his legacy

Nelson Mandela embodied South Africa’s long, arduous journey to freedom and equality. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

This year marks a century since liberation struggle hero and global statesman Nelson Mandela was born. Throughout 2018, celebrations and events are being held in his honour.

The centenary is a good chance for South Africans to reflect on Mandela’s selfless leadership, which embodies the country’s odyssey towards a better society. He is one of those, to paraphrase the Tanzanian author Issa Shivji, whom history continues to remember because his “ideals and actions remained aligned with the people”.

A better society is about harmonious coexistence, where equality is the organising principle; and all have a fair chance at opportunities to enhance their well-being. Mandela knew that this doesn’t occur by chance, but through a historical process that’s in “perpetual evolution”. His leadership laid a foundation for a better society.

But, over two decades later, poverty and inequality continue to stratify South Africa along racial lines. The country still has a long way go in achieving the ideals he stood for, as enshrined in the Constitution.

Mandela’s imaginative foresight in leading the country to democracy is distinctly indelible in history. That’s why it’s worth repeating as part of the centennial celebrations of his life and legacy, lest trifles trump history and spawn national amnesia.

The meaning of Mandela

Mandela’s essence lay in service to humanity. In the parlance of the theory of the state, he represented the “whole”, “not (his) own personal will”. This was an exception to many post-colonial African leaders’ rule. His struggle for justice was always altruistic, pursued for the good of humanity.

After many years of colonialism and apartheid, democracy finally became the principle of organising South African society in 1994. Mandela’s incarceration for 27 years after being convicted of terrorism was not in vain. History has vindicated him: the United Nations later declared apartheid a crime against humanity. The policy of racial segregation and oppression could not be sustained, and was dismantled to give way to inclusive democracy.

The hallmark of this was his inauguration as the first black democratically elected president of South Africa. This earth shattering moment marked the intersection of fate with choice, where – in the words of the former prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru –

the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finally found utterance. It enhanced the profundity of a nation’s history, following its tryst with destiny.

Tale of two speeches

Mandela’s inaugural speech powerfully instilled in the new South African nation optimism about its future. Its major thread was reconciliation and unity.

The speech secured the commitment to cross the Rubicon to democracy. It was a corollary of one he made in 1964, which galvanised national consciousness about the insidiousness of the apartheid system and the significance of the struggle for a democratic society.

The two speeches were made in different historical epochs in the fight against racial oppression. Both show the same imagination of humanity’s future, where social equity as a function of equality is the organising principle for common existence.

Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president. /Flickr/PresidenciaRD

Mandela’s approach in shepherding a fledgling democracy was that – for it to take root – the highest office in the land should represent, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. He brought to the office of the president the ideals that shaped his political beliefs. He did not exact retribution against those who had jailed him. Instead, he invited them to work with him in building a non-racial, prosperous society.

This showed the magnanimity of his personality as a leader. He led the task of reconciling South Africans, and allayed the fears of many, especially of the white populace. He created the opportunity for the post-apartheid state to evolve.

Amnesia and distortions

But, are the centennial celebrations of Mandela’s legacy being used as the opportunity to adequately tell South Africa’s history – especially for younger generations to understand the painful path traversed by the progenitors of the liberation struggle?

I would argue not, since the falsehood that Mandela “sold out” persists.

The extreme view among mainly young South Africans, inspired by the radicalism of demagoguery, is that Mandela went beyond reaching out to whites during the multiparty negotiations that ended apartheid. This view suggests the concessions he and the ANC achieved amounted to political freedom without economic power – “selling out”.

But this argument is simply wrong. It ignores the context of that time, and is also oblivious of the complexities of what it takes to build a united nation out of a pariah state. The very delicate transition required ingenuity – not populism – to avert the possibility of plunging the country into war.

The concessions made were necessary to secure political stability. The military solution that Mandela’s detractors would have preferred wouldn’t have been an option. Besides the lethal implications of war, the country’s liberation armies wouldn’t have stood up to the apartheid state’s military.

The only option was to dismantle apartheid through negotiations. This had to be done in a way that appealed to many across the political spectrum and colour line. These are facts of history that shaped post-apartheid South Africa thus far. But they do not seem to be fully appreciated.

The centenary of Mandela’s life offers an excellent chance to bring these facts to the fore, once and for all.

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