In mourning former South African President Nelson Mandela, everyone will want to claim him for their own. And that is a good thing.
Some will want to claim him as part confessionals about their own countries’ complicity in aiding apartheid. Others as participants in domestic, continental and global struggles that brought down the last bastion of settler colonialism in Africa. Others still in their own failures and fervent desire to be judged as better players in the struggles against colonialism and imperialism.
Like everyone else, I will join the queue. I will however claim Nelson Mandela as an African icon before being held in awe by his global reach. An African icon in the sense that before we were enamored to Mandela as a global brand (as they say in marketing) he was an African leader faced with decisions as tough as those that faced other African icons of his and later times. He was never a leader to be deemed the ‘acceptable type’. Otherwise they would not have had him and others imprisoned on the infamous Robben Island for so many years.
Neither was he one to betray either his cause or his comrades in the fight against apartheid. He was not a romantic who viewed people from either a religious or a messianic standpoint. He was a leader who was cognizant of his placement in history, even before the age of satellite television, internet and mass marketing. The ‘feel good’ portrayals of this African icon, came long after he had decided that the struggle for his people’s freedom shall be his life.
Like all icons of Africa’s broader struggle against colonialism of the post World War II period, Mandela and his colleagues (Sisulu, Tambo, Govan Mbeki, Slovo, among others) knew that even though inevitable, liberation would require great personal sacrifice.
I do not for once think that Mandela envisaged himself becoming the iconic figure that would adorn murals, cups and t-shirts, Che Guevara (whom he greatly admired) style by the 1970s. His primary task was, together with others and in a multi-racial fashion the pursuit of the goals of the Freedom Charter.
That he was freed at a time the Cold War was ending while the global media and its attendant capitalism were reinventing perception and reality does not take away the seriousness of the historical task that was African liberation and independence. He could have been Cabral or Nkrumah or Nyerere and the task would still have been an enormous one. Even while shaking the hands of his oppressors.
I am however aware that there are fellow Africans who will attempt to mistakenly view Mandela from the perspective of not having achieved the goals of the Freedom Charter as though he wrote it alone. Or those that will argue that he made mistakes in relation to the CODESA talks that led to majority black government in South Africa. Apart from theirs being an opinion that we must respect, we would have to point out that this is a mistaken and ahistorical view of the man.
Mandela and even Oliver Tambo’s revolutionary and generational task was to lead the ANC and South Africa to attain independence as a first stage of what is still referred to as the National Democratic Revolution (NDR). And because there is no politics without stages, they were correct to negotiate with the white Nationalists for an inclusive and ceasefire constitution.
That initial task of the revolution done, it was and remains up to subsequent cadres of the NDR to continue working towards the fulfillment of the rest of the aspirations of the anti apartheid struggle. In Nkrumahist parlance Mandela sought first the political kingdom in anticipation that everything else will follow. It has been slow for the South Africans, but it is a process that remains democratic and is most definitely underway.
There was never going to be a complete departure from the past in South Africa just as there has never been a complete departure from the same in Zimbabwe. We all still grapple with the vagaries of colonialism and imperialism. We however are not beholden to them. Nationalist sentiment alone is not enough either for South Africa or for Zimbabwe. Mandela, like Nyerere and Cabral, taught us that we must navigate our ideals with what is most pragmatic while ensuring that future generations do not forget that their task is to take our revolutions to higher stages and within generational contexts.
And as a member of subsequent generations of Africans, I first encountered the political (not branded) Nelson Mandela via a collection of his speeches and writings edited by South African revolutionary, Ruth First in my early years of high school. It was a booklet published by Zimbabwe Publishing House tilted, No Easy Walk to Freedom.
Through reading and re-reading it, I learnt, without knowing a lot else about the ANC or his personal life, that somewhere in Africa was still a man of democratic principle and full commitment to the liberation of his people.
When he became President of South Africa, many thought that he had become an ‘acceptable’ African leader either on the basis of either the constitution or deciding to pass on the baton stick after only his first term. He however remained true to his ideological and historical origins. Even when he met with Fidel Castro and invited the latter to a state visit ( to much international superpower chagrin).
Or where he hugged Muammar Ghadaffi of Libya and thanked him for Libya’s support for the anti-apartheid struggle. Then one knew that yes Mandela was affable to the global eye, sometimes viewed as a saint, but whatever else we might think of him as, like many others, he was an African icon, in African terms and in African time. Before he was anything else that we all wish him to be.
Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity. This article and others can be view on his blog takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com