Passing the baton: Mandela's legacy and today's student protests

By Andrea Teagle

A short way up the road from where a conference was taking place about the making of Mandela, opposite a war memorial, an art museum containing traditional artifacts and fashion items welcomed visitors with the name “Nelson Mandela Art Museum.” A little further along, a quirky coffee shop with a Nelson Mandela quote scrawled on the wall “it’s always impossible until its done”.

Nelson Mandela Bay has no shortage of references to South Africa’s former president. During the “Dalibhunga: This time? That Mandela?  colloquium”, jointly hosted by the HSRC and the newly renamed Nelson Mandela University, Vice Chancellor Dr Sibongile Muthwa argued that carrying a name means carrying a great responsibility. But what does the name stand for? Who was Mandela, the man? What does Mandela mean, and to whom? What meaning might have been lost, and what possibilities remain? 

The enduring image of Nelson Mandela is that of “the cuddly old man who dances at concerts”, argued Sumeya Hendricks, an analyst at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Partly, this limited narrative of South Africa’s former president may reflect a shortness of memory, Hendricks suggested. Indeed, research shows that people tend to remember an event by its peak and its end. When applied to Mandela’s life, the (albeit rather extended, dare we say, “Table Mountain” - esque) peak is arguably the 27 years he spent in prison, and the end, the smiling old man. Both contribute to a particular narrative of Madiba: Madiba the peace-maker, Madiba the reconciler. This was the public figure that the ANC held up to lead a divided nation into democracy, at a time when revolution seemed inevitable.

A warped version of this de-clawed  or less threatening Mandela is convenient, today, for those who retained their privilege through the early days of democracy. For the white, middle to upper class, embracing this Mandela can be seen to mean embracing change – as long as the individual’s own privilege remains intact. And for business people looking to make profit, the feel-good unifier is an easy sell, as Professor Ciraj Rassool of the University of the Western Cape illustrated with his rendition of Merc’s version of the story of Mandela’s Mercedes. 

The growing counter-narrative, of Mandela the sell-out, is perhaps necessarily skewed in exactly the opposite direction.  “In the same way that [Cecil John] Rhodes was a symbol of the decolonisation movement, Mandela has unfortunately also become this symbol around the things that we need to reject around our tradition,” Hendricks said. 

HSRC CEO Professor Crain Soudien argued that Madiba could be used as a prism through which to understand the issues we face today. But it could also be said that the prism is two-directional. On the brink of democracy, Mandela was viewed through hopeful eyes, and became a symbol of hope. Twenty years later, stagnant transformation has led young people view Mandela through a lens of frustration. As speaker Patronella Nqaba, from the Wits Public Affairs Research Institute said, Mandela is the promise that was never realised.

Talking about higher institutes as a microcosm of the problems that affect the wider economy, Pedro Mzileni, Research Assistant and former SRC President at NMU (2017), pointed out they have not reformed meaningfully since Apartheid; for many potential students, they remain inaccessible. 

“The basic structure of an economy that is based on exploitation remains an intact structure,” agreed Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi of the High Court. “So, has Mandela been impactful in transforming the economy? I think Pedro [Mzileni’s] answer would be, no, he has not been. Even if he is not to blame for the stubborn nature of the extractive structure of the economy.” 

Outside, students protested remaining barriers to higher education, a reflection of this frustration. Their actions have elicited a spectrum of reactions, from admiration to anger and contempt for strategies that some consider unjustified. Yet, “Mandela,” Ngcukaitobi argued with an appreciative chuckle, “was the original Fallist… If Mandela was here he would not have come to this meeting. He would probably have been outside organising and mobilising.”

In this way, the students, some of whom reject Mandela, are arguably more true to his legacy “of finding my own way” as Soudien put it, than the older generation that so readily embrace the icon. 

When, as a young man, Mandela defied the law and those in power – sometimes with violence, yes – he was not a giant in history. He did not have the support of the nation. His actions were not yet understood in the context of a life held at arm’s length to be admired, angled just so, such that its brightest facets may catch the light. To carry forward his legacy, ironically, means moving past him, as he moved past the generation of struggle heroes that came before him. 

“When I think about the courage that it took for those students to face power down and to negotiate… I think about courage to leave a legacy,” Nqaba said. “Because in every action… you have no control over how people perceive it.” 

So where did Mandela the revolutionary go? Where are the stories of Mandela the person, with shortfalls as well as strengths? Where are the renditions that pay homage to “Mandela’s complexity, multiplicity and Mandela’s contradictions”, in the words of Professor Relebohile Moletsane? According to the historian Xolela Mangcu, who was also present at the colloquium, despite the ubiquity of his name, there is a dearth of scholarly work on Mandela, and on black political history. 

“I think that lack [of biography] has come at a huge cost to our understanding of Nelson Mandela,” Mangcu said. “I think the [existing] biographies are so flawed, all of them, including Madiba’s own long walk to freedom…. So flawed, conceptually and methodologically.” 

Mangcu pointed out that despite the narrative that fondly describe Mandela’s humble beginnings in a “tribalised and traditionalised” African village unsullied by modern life, Mandela in fact belonged to a royal house that was allied with the colonial leaders. The fact that his father served in the Bungu, arguably South Africa’s first black parliament, is critical to understanding Mandela the leader, and yet is never mentioned in biographies. Fellow speaker, Executive Director of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) and ANC veteran Joel Netshitenzhe emphasised that the evolution of Mandela’s social consciousness needs to be understood as part of a constellation of his peers and mentors. 

“When you situate Mandela in this history,” Mangcu said, “he stops being a miracle maker. If you understand black political history, it stops being a miracle.”

Much of the Mandela archive today remain fragmented, incomplete and unexplored, argued archive specialist Professor Carolyn Hamilton and Nelson Mandela archivist Verne Harris, both from the Nelson Mandela Foundation. For example, extensive Mandela records in possession of the CIA were released just last year. Some material remains unexplored, questions unasked, and stories untold. To do justice to the complexity of Mandela, the excavation and remaking of the archive needs to be undertaken boldly, in the way of Mandela himself. 

“How do you escape the limits of what’s been given as the inherited archive?” Hamilton asked. Recalling previous discussions, she added, “We will be interrogating this archive for a hundred years. The work of critique and investigation has only just begun.”

While there is important work to be done by academics and within Universities to revisit the past and contextualise and conceptualise today’s decolonisation project, this should not undermine the fact that students have knowledge and insights, born of their own struggles, that others do not. As speaker Moletsane put it, quoting a Xhosa proverb: “It is the one who lives in the house who knows where the leak is.” 

The youth in South Africa have historically been instrumental in leading the struggle for equality, from Mandela at the inception of the ANC youth league in 1944, to the youth-led resistance from the time of the Soweto uprising to the early nineties, to today’s #Mustfall protests.  

Referring to Mandela’s 1997 speech, in which he handed over leadership to Thabo Mbeki, Hendricks said, “What resonates throughout that speech is that he’s saying, ‘I’m handing over the baton’ … He’s essentially saying [that] he’s a runner in a relay.

“It’s my contention that it’s students who weren’t given the baton, but they found the baton lying on the floor… and they picked it up. And they are really the ones who took forward this race.” 

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