Usithengisile? – Legacy of Mandela

Cultural activist and playwright Mike van Graan (middle) shares his thoughts on the legacy of Nelson Mandela, as panel director Yazeed Kamaldien (left) and (writer, human rights activist and political analyst) Elinor Sisulu (right) look on. Photo: Mandisa Mpulo/Cue

Usithengisile” (he sold us out) – a word that seems to be Mandela’s legacy in the social media public sphere and, among those “born free”. The incendiary term “sellout”, provided a fiery hearth around which to discuss “The Nelson Mandela Legacy”.

In her opening remarks, Elinor Sisulu, described that identifying with different geographical contexts on the continent – from South Africa, to Zimbabwe and the overall continental perspective – provided her with multiple vantage points from which to consider Mandela’s legacy.

So what exactly is this legacy? First, that of an entire generation of political leaders who – as part of a broader liberation front – emerged in the early 90s as the chief negotiators in “talks about talks”. These talks were, of course, those soft jabs between the agents of the apartheid regime and the liberation front, sussing out the readiness for transition talks, transition talks, and the negotiation of the Constitution.

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa enters the debate as something of a paper elephant in the room – the founding document promulgated as law in 1996, following a deadlock over the three clauses in the draft Bill of Rights, relating to labour relations, property and, education.

In the 100th year since Mandela’s birth and 28 years since he was released from prison, the legacy of the man described last week by Professor Xolile Mangcu as sharing traits associated with boundary pushing jazz musician Miles Davis – “somebody who is constantly at the cutting edge” of political positions, in the case of Mandela.

At the panel held on the first Friday of the Arts festival, Elinor Sisulu (writer, human rights activist and political analyst) remarked that the problematic of “Mandela and Mandela-mania” centers the man affectionately known by his amaXhosa clan name of Madiba.

Expanding on this, Sisulu remarked that the ANC is implicated in the failure to convert its history, into a living text – a guiding handbook for contemporary activism. In his comments cultural activist and playwright Mike van Graan elaborated on the opening remarks by raising another phenomenon of our socio-political culture – the national holidays commemorating historical events in a contemporary South Africa that continues to live with human rights abuses on Human Rights Day.

A contemporary moment where striking miners are shot down during a prolonged wage protest, bearing resemblance to the Sharpeville Massacre (a protest against the “pass book” which controlled the freedom of movement of Africans under white minority governance), in which Africans were shot down – the culprits wearing South African Police Service uniforms in events that are 50 years apart in the continuum of history.

Noting the statistical evidence of present-day failures to improve upon the conditions inherited from the apartheid system, Van Graan reads the negative sentiment towards the transition period as the scapegoating of the past due to the poor governance of the present.

In her remarks, Annali Dempsey (curator, gallerist and manager of the UJ Art Collection), raised the third critique of the opening remarks – the superficial engagement with the icons and stories of the transitionary period. Using the metaphor of the portraits of Mandela, Dempsey elaborated on the limited range of poses and creative representations of Mandela, almost always depicted as the archetypal “smiling/laughing grandfather”.

Likening the Mandela narrative to the “hero” pattern of celebrity culture, Dempsey referred to the narratives of US president John Fitzgerald Kennedy and actress, director, human rights activist Angelina Jolie – images curated and rehabilitated through the hero narrative structure perpetuated about these complex human beings.

The session unfortunately took the views of “youths on Twitter” to account for the sum of the negative sentiment against Mandela and the transition project. This brings to mind the current discussion around a proposed basic education policy change, which would make history a compulsory subject in South Africa’s schools.

Whose history? The details are not yet clear. Will it be the critical engagement with the stories in the great book of South Africa’s rehabilitated image or will basic education lean towards hagiography?

One thing is certain, a critical component to how we understand the legacy of Mandela, the revolutionary movement, and our contemporary stories, is in how we flesh out the significant actors (beyond heroic portraiture), the events that present the stage upon which our story unfolds and above all else, the positioning of the public.

A prescription for the current youth cohort scapegoated as being the originators of the “sellout” narrative and, for age demographics that preceded them. With a strong enough critical engagement with our past, we may be able to draft a new narrative for the nation born without a clear understanding of its family history. Our collective 24 year old responsibility – a youth hurtling from one crisis or massacre, to the next, without strong guidance from the community that raised it.

By Mandisa Mpulo