Best of SACSIS: Nelson Mandela's Crossing

By Richard Pithouse · 6 Dec 2013

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Picture: Nelson Mandela courtesy Paul Williams/Fotopedia.
Picture: Nelson Mandela courtesy Paul Williams/Fotopedia.

 [D]eath is always close by, and what's important is not to know if you can avoid it, but to know that you have done the most possible to realize your ideas.
- Frantz Fanon, 1961.

As a boy without a father of his own and living as a ward of the Thembu Regent, Jongintaba Dalindyebo, at his Great Place at Mqekezweni in the green hills of the Transkei, Rolihlahla Mandela heard stories about people like Nongqawuse and Makana, people who had passed into the realm of myth. When he washed the last of his childhood into the Mbashe River in 1934 he couldn’t have known that in life he too would pass into myth.

In 1942 returning to Mqekezweni from Johannesburg to honour Dalindyebo’s passing he found his thoughts occupied by a proverb: Ndivelimilambo enamagama — I have crossed famous rivers. By the time he gave his speech from the dock in 1964 his name, and the bright strength of the intersection of his courage and ideals, had crossed the oceans and entered the grand stage of universal history.

In 1986, in the midst of the state of emergency, Asimbonanga, Johnny Clegg’s exquisite song for Mandela, soared above the blood and teargas on the streets yearning for the day when “We cross the burning water”. Mandela, the song seemed to suggest, could take us across the burning water.

Mandela, Mandela the man, did come back from Robben Island. And while the sun didn’t rise red on the day of his return and the dead didn’t arise to make the world whole, time seemed to stand still as he returned to the embrace of a mass movement. There are critiques of how this delicate moment was handled. Some are important, some are infused with little but the cheap wisdom of hindsight and some are just empty bluster – the radicalism of those for whom engagement does not move beyond the adoption of a posture and the manipulation of words. Those who say that we should have chosen war over negotiation tend to take no account of the balance of forces at the time, locally and globally, nor the depth of the bitterness of war or how its corrosion eats into its victors. War is certainly no guarantee of anything - none of the anti-colonial wars fought in Africa led to democratic and just societies.

When history is examined at close quarters its messiness is painfully evident. But when it is examined over the longue durée, the larger picture comes into focus. With this lens, the lens that can see Makana, Nonqawuse and Mandela in one vista, it is clear that the wheel of history did turn in 1994 and that Mandela did take us across the burning water.

But if an awareness of the historical weight of this moment is not to become an ideology serving to legitimate on-going injustice we need to be very clear that we did not undo many of the injustices that honed Mandela’s anger in the 1950s, and which are elegantly laid out in the recently republished No Easy Walk To Freedom. The old Bantustans remain separate spaces, the mining industry continues to exploit, education remains unequal, land has not been restored to the people and millions remain in shacks. We are very far from the “revolutionary democracy… in which poverty, want and insecurity shall be no more” that Mandela looked forward to in his 1964 speech from the dock. Nonetheless the passage from apartheid to democracy has made us citizens of one polity and given us the freedom to set our own course. It is up to us to seize this moment.

The African National Congress carried the hopes of so many for so long. But it collapsed into a serious moral and political crisis in exile. It was the great tide of popular hope, grounded in popular action and the political strength of Cosatu and the United Democratic Front, and drawn to the messianic aura around Mandela, that carried us into democracy and illuminated its early days with a brilliant light. Today the ANC is corrupt and brutal – its emancipatory energies have been squandered and when its glorious moments and the grand heights of its political vision are recalled, even in good faith, by the party’s leaders they invariably function to legitimate the squalid reality of its degeneration rather than to catalyse renewal.

In death it may, in time, be easier to affirm Mandela, as he always wanted to be understood, as a man rather than a saint. But as Mandela returns from myth and into history we should not, amidst the humanizing details of his life as it was actually lived, or the morass into which the ANC has sunk, forget the principles for which he stood. We should not forget the bright strength of the Idea of Nelson Mandela.

Mandela was a revolutionary who was prepared to fight and to risk prison or death for his ideals – rational and humane ideals. In this age where empty posturing on Facebook or reciting banal clichés at NGO workshops is counted as militancy, where rhetoric often floats free of any serious attempts to organise or risk real confrontation, where the human is seldom the measure of the political, we would do well to recall Mandela as a man who brought principle and action together with resolute commitment.

Mandela was also a man whose ethical choices transcended rather than mirrored those of his oppressors. Amidst the on-going debasement of our political discourse into ever more crude posturing we would do well to remember that no radicalism can be counted as adequate to its situation if it allows that situation to constrain its vision and distort its conception of the ethical.

Nelson Mandela has passed from this world but the Idea of Nelson Mandela remains with us. It’s our world now and there are many rivers to cross.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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Matthew Durington
6 Dec

Mandela Obituary

By far the most contextual and succinct tribute and remembrance of Nelson Mandela in this global swell of attention and emotion. Kudos Richard.

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John Aitchison
6 Dec

Nelson Mandela

Richard, this is a really fine meditation, truthful, respectful and in the longue duree, hopeful.

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8 Dec


This is a beautifully, beautifully written obituary. Thank you.

I saw an interview with Neville Alexander today. He made the point that if there hadn't been a negotiation in 1994 South Africa would most likely have ended up like Palestine. The breakthrough in 1994 didn't win us everything. But it did win us the freedom to build a new society in peace.

The baton has been handed to us.

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10 Dec


Yes, it is a beautiful article. I was so proud to tell my parents that it was written by my lecturer.

Mr. Pithouse's lectures are like this too. He is amazing, four times a week, every week. Every question is covered from the point of view of history, philosophy and politics. You can just feel your mind expanding as you sit there.

Ntsika Verified user
16 Dec

Wisdom of Hindsight

All of history is pure hindsight, both writers of history and its revisionists are all using the benefit of the 'cheap wisdom of hindsight' to either write history or review it. Mandela was a man of his time, and his perspective and insight was influence by the thinking and the possibilities of his time or shall I say epoch. And so given the opportunities facing him, he chose the safe option of peace, government of national unity, and negotiated settlement. We are now reaping both the pros and cons of this safe option.

I cannot pass a judgement as to whether we are better off now or not. To know whether we are better off depends in where you find yourself on the current social strata. But I would like to imagine how things could have been if Madiba could gave chosen the risky option of an all out war, winner takes all, and deconstruction. In this scenario I imagine a South Africa similar to Britain after the WWII, a more just society with all the social and economic benefits benefitting everyone, more consensus on building a better and a caring society. Why I cannot guarantee that South Africa would have produced such a society if Madiba had given in to the hawks in the party who wanted war, which would have resulted in total deconstruction of apartheid and an emergence of a new society, and supposedly better society, I can't help think that he played it too safe. Again, this is the cheap wisdom of hindsight.

I find solace in the fact that Madiba and his generation were men in a hurry, they wanted freedom in the lifetime, and they did get it. This, my generation, must ask if they motives were driven by statements like motives, that is, did they do things to benefit a posterity which is us, and others after us. Finally I think every generation will live to solve its problems in its lifetime, and we must solve the problem and problems of our lifetime

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