By Ncedisa Mpemnyama
“Oh my body, make of me a man who always questions!” ― Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
Today is Mandela Day again. The icon celebrated would have been 100 years old if he were still alive. Ordinarily, the day is used to remember and venerate the icon for his selfless leadership as well as his magnanimous attitude towards whites who imprisoned him for close to three decades. While others choose to climb mountains and plant tree, others choose to reaffirm his commitment to reconciliation and colourblindness which where central pillars of his ideological framework after his dramatic release from Victor Verster prison with the late Winnie Madikizela Mandela by his side.
Mandela and his legacy are an enduring contested terrain. The African National Congress (ANC), his political home, treats him as a lodestar of moral and ethical rectitude, while those on the black Left see him as a sellout who pushed blacks under the bus for his non-racialist nirvana which kept apartheid and colonial property relations untouched. His desire to avert a civil war pushed justice to the side, leaving racial capitalism intact, resulting in South Africa being the most unequal society in the world.
As a black consciouness adherent, I’m partly of the same view but recently, I have come to want more from the critique. The criticism of the Mandela-led ANC as having sold out no longer satisfies me. It no longer deals with issues like reciprocity around his magnanimity and desire for a humanist resolution of the race question him and his cabinet were overburdened with. The question is this, what did the white community do to show love back to the forgiveness and love the Mandela worldview gave them? In other words, did the white community reciprocate the love and friendship Mandela gave them and why did they fail to do so? What does that tell us about them?
For example, why have whites continued to lord over South African life with stubborn racist attitudes while blacks, led by Mandela, exhausted themselves trying to reach out to them in the best interest of this country? Why do whites still have 97% ownership of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) and whites who kill blacks in farms wantonly without any sense of irony if we all were and are inspired by Mandela’s prism of disavowal of racism and revenge?
This is where I think the South African black Left misses it. Why do they harbour so much anger towards Mandela, while those who make money and absolve themselves of their oppressive conduct from his legacy remain untouched? The ones that now claim to be seeing his sellout project, like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), ironically share the same schema and ideological bible as him – the Freedom Charter. The EFF is also guilty of giving political power to the white racist party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), after the 2016 Local Government Elections (LGE). The same sin they accuse Mandela of committing.
In more simple terms, the question becomes, why did Julius Malema call Mandela a sell-out while speaking to whites in London in 2015, if he wants a departure from Mandela’s indebteness to the Queen and his henchman Lord Robin Renwick? Is this not Mandelaism with a more militant youthful energy? Was Mandela not indebted to the Menell family, as well as the Ruperts? Is Malema not indebted to these same white capitalists? Why bash Mandela when the younger “revolutionaries” replicate his failures in the modern day with youthful arrogance?
If Mandela’s betrayal was not just his desire to disavow race in order to ally white fears, why try and speak of new forms of organising to finish the long walk Mandela walked using the same tool of his surrender, the Freedom Charter? In more simple terms, one must ask why use the same Freedom Charter that cheated black South Africa of a new and just reality, to speak of a new reality from the likes of the EFF?
As for the black Left, namely the likes of the Pan-African Congress of Azania (PAC) and all black consciousness organisations of today: their obsession with Mandela as a sellout is now being used by the white world to lower Mandela from the global icons in order to reorganise the partheon of global icons without a black face there. Doesn’t a black face, with all its neoliberal politics, still hold power symbolically for blacks globally and more importantly in the continent?
If one were to look at Mandela as a “nigger in the horse” in the Django Unchained movie motif, one sadly sees that the Western world has put him there in the horse and now they seem to be tired of the image and its potency, hence the new demands to make him into an ordinary person using other blacks. When Django leaves Candy land he doesn’t leave with all the slaves, he leaves with his wife, is this not what Mandela did to blacks in South Africa? Did he and his ANC not leave us to fend for ourselves and waltzed to the world of milk and honey while we cheered and voted for them every four years? Even though we are not shown, we imagine that the slaves which Django left behind would not catch him and serve him back to the master. Why then assist those who have not reciprocated Mandela’s genuine desire for his humanist non-racialist nirvana?
It is no longer enough to bash Mandela as a sellout outside firstly asking why the black Left has failed to organise itself and to sharpen their critique of his project while keeping an equally razor sharp critique of the new and belligerent new forces emerging from the ANC wranglings for power (EFF) without a proper agenda to chart a new way from his limited worldview. For example, why is the PAC, Azapo and many other black Left forces only animated before elections if they are so different from the ANC? Why do they allow white membership? Why are they animated by a strong patriarchal leadership style that still erases women and gives us a crude and ossified version of Africanist politics that are still in a dizzying relation to constitutionalism, which is also a core feature of Mandela politics?
It is no longer enough to despise Mandela or to call him a sellout. A new way is needed. A new critique infused by a deeper reading of black politics, sourced from the black Leftist tradition with its new energies is needed. We must think dangerously around how we criticise Mandela’s failures and foreclosures without assisting racists by default. The same is true of the fellow who gave the keynote speech at his 100th birthday – Barack Obama!