SOMEONE I know, a senior employee in a government owned entity, said this during a recent dinner conversation: “The biggest mistake we made at the dawn of our democracy was to iconise Nelson Mandela by placing him at the centre of everything South African, as if this country would be nothing without him.
“We got the rest of the world to get used to the idea of Mandela to the point where many thought it would go down in flames after he left. Placing him at the core of our national identity has now come to bite us, as it makes it hard for us to get the world to accept that we have a different president who doesn’t have to be Nelson Mandela.”
More recently, I’ve heard people blaming Nelson Mandela for lack of economic transformation; for bending over backwards to accommodate the concerns of Whites at the expense of those of Blacks; for having failed to place land ownership at the heart of multi-party negotiations; for letting apartheid era white collar criminals get away with the loot they stole without being made to pay for it.
At the going rate, someone will soon blame poor Nelson Mandela for state capture. The levels of impunity, arrogance, desperation and paranoia are sufficiently elevated for the criminals still running our affairs to keep going, fingers pointed elsewhere and avoiding all mirrors.
In the absence of the kind of inspirational, balanced, ethical, mature, emotionally intelligent leadership such as the one Nelson Mandela made us taste of, no one – even those who were actively involved in those complex multiparty negotiations – seems to be willing to come forward to correct the lies that are being told about Mandela.
It seems to serve the current crop of leaders right, especially those directly implicated in state capture and other forms of corruption, as it helps them deflect at the expense of an upright man who is no longer here to defend his exemplary legacy.
Those who are still around should stand up and remind their followers of the complexity of the climate that led to and reigned during the multiparty negotiations. They should remind them that not only did the anti-apartheid guerrilla forces not stand a chance to win a conventional war against the erstwhile South African Defence Force, they never did.
They should also tell them that in complex negotiations such as the ones we had in South Africa, no one ever walks away with everything they wished for. For that reason, there isn’t a single party that walked away having ticked all the boxes in its wish list. That is the price we all paid to keep our nation together in order to rebuild to eventually benefit all.
They should also remind them that Nelson Mandela was a figurehead, not the sole negotiator on the part of the broader mass democratic movement. And he was neither a dictator, insisting that everything be done his way, nor a traitor who nicodemously gave away some things to the parties on the other side of the negotiation table without first seeking consensus from his comrades. Had any of this been the case, we would have been told about it long ago.
To my friend who laments the towering Mandela effect, I say the following: I have been part of discussions in the past that aimed to use the glowing image Mandela projected in order to elevate the place of South Africa higher to attract more tourists and investors.
I believe that strategy bore good results. In fact, Nelson Mandela’s name and symbol had been used before, long before he was released from prison, when the ANC, still in exile, agreed to place his face at the centre of its global efforts through the “Release Mandela Campaign”.
It was hoped at the time, with reason, that the spinoff effects of using a famous face to rally worldwide sympathy would eventually benefit other – less known – political prisoners. History will confirm that it was a smart move, as the campaign managed to get much of the world talking about the plight of black people under apartheid.
Emulate Mandela, don’t tarnish his legacy
We cannot blame Nelson Mandela for the inability of leaders who came after him to live up to the high standards he set. And we cannot blame him for our self-destructive tendency to be guided by misplaced emotions, and not our heads when we chose leaders.
The challenges we face today can never be overcome by perpetually pointing fingers elsewhere and refusing to acknowledge our role in the mess we’re in.
I would also remind my friend that when Nelson Mandela was president, famous sports people, politicians, academics, authors, fighters for human rights, religious leaders, Hollywood, Nolly Wood and Bollywood stars, artists, and many others flocked to South Africa just to be part of the magic; our magic.
In him we had a leader who generated the kind of goodwill that presidents should attract because, as number one citizens, they’re also like CEOs and Chief Country Brand Ambassadors who embody what their brands stand for.
Mandela was consistent in his leadership. He understood perfectly well the need to rally all South Africans around a shared dream, irrespective of the dream still being young at the time and the nation still fragile, fresh from a messy, divisive past. He did not use our weaknesses to score narrow personal and political points.
Mandela had the emotional intelligence and the maturity to understand at all times that the people of South Africa, the rest of the African continent, indeed the African diaspora from right across the globe and others had their eyes on him. Were he to trip, ethically, so would the goodwill that was being created at home and abroad, and the dream would have been deferred much earlier.
He knew that he was not placed in that position for his own personal glory and for the material benefit of his family and close friends. In hindsight, his departure as a moral and ethical torchbearer was premature. Without his kind of leadership, the unity of our country is being tested like never before after apartheid.
Sadly, the people who brought us to where we are still wield power. They control our national purse and rapidly dwindling reputational fortunes. Despite all the lights that get shown on a daily basis into the crevices they control, they continue to steal from us while they lie and laugh in our faces.
We’re like insects trapped in an intricate spider’s web; still alive, breathing and watching the encroaching beast facing us while totally crippled and incapable to fight it off.
We watch helplessly as a handful of South Africans – a small number when compared to the country’s overall voter population – prepare to elect their leader in December. We can only hope they will elect the least of the devils among them, for the victor stands to play a big role in determining our country’s fortunes.
These are frustrating times indeed; but even they will pass.