OPINIONISTA

Judith February: Mandela, man of many names, Tata for us all

It has become easy and intellectually lazy for many to label Mandela as a “sell-out” for his role in negotiating South Africa’s transition. It is a view ignorant of the historical moment and the sacrifices Mandela made for our collective freedom.

There are parties for Tata today,” Wilson the shuttle driver says casually as we make our way to Pretoria and listen to radio news of Mandela Day.

Across the country, South Africans in different ways celebrated what would have been Madiba’s 100th birthday by acts of kindness – or 67 minutes of kindness if we want to follow the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s entreaty to us all.

Many have criticised the initiative as a cynical use of “corporate social responsibility” funds by corporate South Africa that seems to engage in 67 minutes of random kindness. The criticism levelled has often been that these very corporates may well continue with exploitative practices thereafter or do not fully grasp their role in creating inclusive and sustainable economic growth.

This may well be – after all, business and civil society, like government, is often also filled with charlatans or those with a careless disregard for the most vulnerable in our society. Yet, to the cynics, the message must surely be that engaging South Africans in acts of kindness towards one another can surely be better than us all mauling each other – literally and figuratively on social media and other platforms?

The challenge of course is that given “Brand Madiba”, we have come to sentimentalise Mandela the man and often forget that Mandela the leader was a complex man, a thinker, a pragmatist, a reconciler and a bridge-builder but above all a constitutionalist and a president committed to the rule of law. In the sentimentalisation of Madiba, we see him laughing with the Spice Girls and Princess Diana, wearing the “Madiba shirt” and doing the jive. He earned the right to the light-hearted moments, surely?

And so it has become easy and intellectually lazy for many to label Mandela as a “sell-out” for his role in negotiating South Africa’s transition. It is a view ignorant of the historical moment and the sacrifices Mandela made for our collective freedom.

Who can forget Mandela’s televised address when Chris Hani was assassinated? Our country was at the brink of civil war. It was Mandela’s act of leadership that pulled us back from the brink. And who can forget Mandela’s statesmanlike speech to a 200,000-strong crowd in Durban at the height of IFP-ANC violent clashes, when he said:

Take your guns, your knives and your pangas and throw them into the sea. End this war now.”

He urged peace at a time when we thought peace was impossible – let alone a free and fair election.

And then the oft-cited yet important reminder of Mandela’s commitment to the rule of law when he appeared in court and gave evidence in the SARFU case in 1998 on whether he had “applied his mind” when setting up a commission of inquiry into SA Rugby’s affairs. In doing so Mandela showed that no one was above the law and that even his actions as president were subject to constitutional scrutiny.

So Mandela’s legacy is one which, while imperfect, provided a solid foundation for building a representative and participatory democracy which ensures that all South Africans live with the dignity the Constitution, our aspirational founding document, envisages.

As a record crowd gathered for the Annual Mandela Lecture at the chilly Wanderers stadium on Tuesday, Mandela’s virtues were being extolled. Yet, as Graça Machel said in her introduction, Madiba would be the first to acknowledge his imperfections.

The speeches to introduce the event and Barack Obama, the keynote speaker, were rather lengthy for a crowd that had literally, in some cases, scrummed its way into the stadium and fought snaking queues. The poor organisation and some who jumped the queue shamelessly were just another bit of South African irony.

Nelson Mandela Foundation Chair, Professor Njabulo Ndebele, spoke with the greatest clarity about Madiba, his legacy, his ability to laugh at himself and stay calm under pressure and his integrity. Ndebele is truly one of our country’s greatest thinkers. He was pointed in his criticism of the “years of predation” under Zuma and clear-eyed when he said that we finally had a president we need not be embarrassed about. Indeed.

Michelle Obama was often criticised when speaking about Barack Obama and saying he’s just an ordinary man. And so Graça Machel reminded us all that Madiba saw himself first as part of a collective and was genuinely perplexed by the admiration he attracted.

And while many questioned Obama’s “right” to deliver the lecture, citing US foreign policy choices Obama had made, it may well be a case of campaigning in poetry but governing in prose. Reading David Axelrod’s brilliant memoir, Believer, one gets some sense of what it was like for the first African-American US president to usher his country out of a financial crisis the likes of which had not been seen since the Great Depression and his ongoing struggles with Mitch McConnell and the GOP over eight years.

Axelrod, who was a special adviser to Obama and along with David Plouffe helped Obama win both his election campaigns, provides an honest and thoughtful reckoning of the mistakes made during Obama’s tenure. He also provides a fascinating account of the struggle for healthcare and the passage of the Affordable Care Act and Syria and other foreign policy mistakes which haunt the Obama years.

Obama, for his part, in his interview with American presidential historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin in retrospect grasps the limitations of his own power and is thoughtful about his place in the march of history and in trying to bend the arc of the moral universe towards history, as the saying goes.

As Obama started to deliver his lecture, a lone cry rang out in the stadium – “We love you!”.

One almost expected #44 to reply in his trademark, “I love you back!” but Obama had other things on his mind, though he has certainly not lost his “swag”, as Mrs Obama would say. Much has been written about how inspirational the speech was and Obama’s sheer oratorical brilliance.

Much has also been written about the content of the speech and what Obama called the “strange and uncertain times” we live in. He had probably seen President Donald Trump’s disastrous press conference alongside Vladimir Putin the previous day.

But if we were to take anything out of Obama’s speech it would naturally be his call for an adherence to facts. Yes, facts still matter. He needn’t have mentioned Trump – everyone knew what he meant.

But, the most compelling point may well have been the underscoring of Madiba’s ability to grasp complexity when dealing with the “enemy” by, for instance, learning Afrikaans and trying to understand his political adversaries. Mandela understood, above all else, that compromise was often at the heart of democratic deliberation. As Obama said:

So those who traffic in absolutes when it comes to policy, whether it’s on the left or the right, they make democracy unworkable. You can’t expect to get 100 percent of what you want all the time; sometimes, you have to compromise. That doesn’t mean abandoning your principles, but instead it means holding on to those principles and then having the confidence that they’re going to stand up to a serious democratic debate.”

It is a singular lesson for the historical moment South Africa finds itself in. If we are to truly understand and grapple with Madiba’s legacy, we will need to engage with the complexity which building an inclusive, sustainable democracy demands. Easy populism, be it on land, jobs or anything else, will take us no further than the cul-de-sac of thought we often find ourselves in. Complexity also means seeing our “adversaries’ and those with power as those we need to draw into the conversation. It’s a hard lesson but Mandela’s life of sacrifice and principle showed again and again as we slogged through our negotiated transition. And a slog it was for those of us fortunate enough to have lived through that time and witnessed its fraught politics.

But mostly Obama’s message was a call for active citizenship and that all leaders, be it Madiba or Obama, are inevitably flawed and constrained by their office or the objective conditions of their time. Democracy is a collective effort, after all, and “we are the ones we have been waiting for” has never seemed more apposite.

Despite the cynicism of those who scoff at Mandela Day and the hype, there was a stark reminder in Wilson’s gentle comment during the drive to Pretoria. Our different lived experiences made no difference then because the party for Tata was one for us all to remember and be thankful that hope and history rhymed for us in 1994. We are not so naïve as to believe the journey ended in 1994 – but he was then and is now “Tata” for us all.

Rolihlahla, Nelson, Madiba, Dalibhunga – man of many names, your people are grateful. Perhaps a little more jaded but grateful nevertheless. DM

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