(Mis?) Remembering Madiba: The Contested Legacy of Nelson Mandela

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“If Mandela’s legacy is beyond reproach internationally it is more contested than ever before within South Africa itself.”  


Few figures have loomed as large over a nation’s identity as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who would have turned 100 today.

South Africa’s first black, and democratically-elected, president, Mandela’s name adorns street names in virtually every city in the country. His statues overlook towns, cities, public spaces and government buildings and often depict their subject with his arm raised and fist clenched in the anti-Apartheid Amandla! (Power to the People!) gesture. So central is Mandela as an emblem of the modern, multi-racial South Africa that his face is imprinted on the country’s currency. Indeed, South African bank notes are informally referred to by South Africans as ‘Madibas’ – the name of the Thembu chief Mandela’s family descends from.

But the meaning of Mandela goes beyond South Africa. During the Apartheid years, he became the global face of the African National Congress (ANC)’s struggle for freedom and democracy, even if his 27 years in prison meant that others, including his then wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela were the de facto protagonists. His willingness to negotiate a peaceful transition to a democratic South Africa with those who had jailed him and pushed implicitly for his execution in the 1963-64 Rivonia Trial inspired people across the world. So too did his consistent calls for a post-Apartheid ‘Rainbow Nation’ based on inclusivity, democracy, forgiveness and reconciliation, rather than revenge.

But if Mandela’s legacy is beyond reproach internationally it is more contested than ever before within South Africa itself. For many he remains a national hero – on a par with Gandhi or Lincoln – and the architect of a free South Africa. For others, however, he is a ‘sell-out’ who sought compromise where he should have sought reparations, and who secured political freedom for black South Africans but left socio-economic inequities for others to fight for.

Julius Malema, former ANC Youth League president and current leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters party, has been perhaps the most vocal proponent of this viewpoint. In a September 2016 address to the Oxford Union, Malema explained that ‘when Nelson Mandela returned from prison, he got separated [from] Winnie Mandela and went to stay in a house of the rich, white men….Nelson Mandela used to attend the club meetings of those white men who owned the South African economy at the time. He stayed in their complex…they had access to him 24 hours [a day] and…that’s when he turned against himself. Because the Nelson we are celebrating now is not the Nelson we celebrated before prison and during prison. It’s a stage-managed Nelson Mandela'.

Certainly the racialised, socio-economic inequalities of Apartheid South Africa remain clearly visible nearly 25 years after the historic 1994 elections. This April, the World Bank announced that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world, a consequence of the ‘enduring legacy of Apartheid’ and successive ANC leaders’ failure to tackle this. Indeed, Amandla is used today more often to criticise government policies and neglect than to celebrate the Mandela legacy.

But a ‘stage-managed Mandela’, to use Malema’s words, continues to serve a purpose for the ruling ANC. Like many liberation movements-turned-governments, the party is riven with factions; the December 2017 ANC election was deeply divisive and saw the eventual victor, Cyril Ramaphosa, win by only 179 votes out of a total of 4,701 cast.

ANC attempts to position itself as the embodiment of the liberation struggle – and thus the guardian of modern South African freedoms – is also more debated than ever. The ANC’s armed wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) is memorialised in a range of sites – including Freedom Park in Pretoria – as a central plank of the anti-Apartheid struggle. In reality, though, most MK fighters spent their days in camps outside South Africa’s borders, never representing a significant threat to the Apartheid regime. Moreover, much of the ANC leadership languished in prison or exile during key periods of the fight against Apartheid, particularly after the movement was banned in 1960. Groups like Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement and Desmond Tutu’s United Democratic Front were instead at the frontline of the struggle during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, though their role is significantly under-played in official ANC narratives.

In this context, Mandela’s legacy is more important than ever. Partly by virtue of his long period in prison, Mandela avoided becoming entangled in underground ANC factionalism during Apartheid and emerged by 1994 as a mythical figure almost above politics. He cannily managed his image both during, and after, Apartheid to allow others to invest in him their hopes and aspirations for the future of South Africa, personifying not a political party or institution but a country and nation itself. His statues and images do not, therefore, stand for a particular aspect of, or event in, ANC or struggle history but for a linear, flattened and depoliticised version of the past – and, perhaps, future – which diverse groups and communities can subscribe to.