The Contest over Mandela's Legacy

By Frank Meintjies · 15 Jul 2013

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Picture: Nelson Mandela courtesy Festival Karsh Ottowa/Flickr.
Picture: Nelson Mandela courtesy Festival Karsh Ottowa/Flickr.

The public has watched with amazement the unseemly squabble between members of the Mandela family. There is likely to be, going forward, similar squabbling between political parties over the legacy of Mandela. They will scramble to mobilise his legacy as part of their bid to increase popular support.

We have already seen the two big parties lock horns over who has the right to cite Madiba’s sayings and invoke his actions during campaigning. Mandela’s own party would like the name to be an exclusive party asset, the other, the DA, seeks to use the Mandela image as a part of the final touches to clever rebranding.

A key question is: will such mobilisation of the Mandela name lead to a better deal for the people? Will the grassroots and those marginalised, among other constituencies, benefit from such clever politicking?

What did Nelson Mandela stand for? The truth is that he stood for so many things. He took up arms, he was a peacemaker; he was a democrat but also, at times, used his leadership authority to override the views of his comrades. He supported a mixed economy; but he also stuck to his guns on nationalisation, saying – just after his release – that “all options” should be considered in striving to address rampant inequality and widespread human suffering. He led from the front and, at key moments, chose to lead from behind and hand over the reins to others. Apart from the way he reinvented his character and reimagined himself, he also played distinctly different roles: activist, then prisoner and martyr and finally statesmen who was a paragon of clean government.

In 2007, the Nelson Mandela Foundation researched views of Nelson Mandela’s legacy – a piece of work that covered Mandela’s values and qualities. The study dredged up such a wide range of values, some of them conflicting, that the Foundation abandoned any attempt at an official list of Mandela’s values. As Mac Maharaj put it, it was “impossible” to identify and “bottle” Mandela’s essence.

From what I know of Nelson Mandela, he wouldn’t mind people quoting him and pretending to be aligned to what he stood for, as long as the their actions improved the lives of people, especially the most marginalised, in some way. He often told staff at his foundation that the greatest thing people could do, if they wanted to honour him, was to help end human suffering, which was so endemic around the world.

I would urge those political parties that would lay claim to Mandela’s legacy to do so in a manner that challenges themselves. They should avoid emphasizing only those Mandela values that gives them comfort and endorses their current ways of doing things. They should consciously embrace a Mandela value that shakes them out of their comfort zones. For example, the ACDP should practice greater tolerance – especially towards people who opt for non-mainstream sexual orientations. The Democratic Alliance could show greater concern for addressing inequality and be less dismissive of those emphasizing restorative justice. The ANC could up its game by doing more to communicate with all South African communities about its plans for the future and their place in it – instead of a communications approach that emphasises statements directed to the media, to factions, to alliance partners and to opposition parties. Like Mandela, it could reach out more consistently to social groups that fall outside its core constituency.

The challenge (arising from the legacy) to conservatives is to be less fearful of social change and new ideas. The left wing could seriously consider adopting a more inclusive and broad-based discourse, one that links the worries of the middle classes with the needs of the most exploited. Paying homage in this way would honour Mandela the troublemaker, the disrupter of the status quo and a driver of necessary social change.

The poor and marginalised are very much part of the struggle over Mandela’s legacy. If they lay claim to it, they will throw the spotlight on Mandela’s commitment to justice, which is a thread that runs through all stages of Mandela’s life.

They will use Mandela’s name and image to strengthen their demands for a life in dignity and for economic systems that, in Mandela’s words, “serves the material interests of all our people”. They will call on those who appear to act in Mandela’s name to redouble their efforts to bring about transformation.

As the political actors gear up to squabble over Madiba’s mantle, the poor are observing, ready – through their street protests, other forms of social action and fluctuations in their voting – to strip away the branding and clever marketing. They will raise fundamental questions about who is really following the legacy.

Meintjies is an independent consultant and a Visiting Research Fellow at Wits School of Public & Development Management.

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