A Revolutionary Life and Death

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela. Courtesy Videovision Entertainment.

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela. Courtesy Videovision Entertainment.

“F*ck Mandela!”

I remember hearing those words last year when I traveled to Cape Town as part of an internship program.  Upon learning that Mandela’s birthday would be occurring during my time here, I shared my excitement with a fellow grassroots activist here.  Surely, there will be some sort of cool parade or public event where I can take pictures to send home, I thought, only to have my wide-eyed excitement shot down by these two words. How could he say something like that about Mandela? The Nelson Mandela. As an African-American child of pan-African parents, Mandela was one of the few revolutionaries who managed to outlive prison and assassination attempts in order to witness his beloved country become free for all with the downfall of apartheid. I mean seriously, even the twins Sandra gave birth to on The Cosby Show were named after Nelson Mandela and his wife, Winnie. Nelson Mandela even outlived Michael Jackson. Michael friggin’ Jackson! So how could this activist, who lives in modern-day South Africa and reaps the benefit of all that Nelson Mandela fought for, have the gall to say such vile words about our honorable elder?

Courtesy City Press

Courtesy City Press

Turns out, many South Africans are still waiting for the post-apartheid magic to happen.

As an American, I only witnessed the glorified Mandela.  The one who walked out of prison, forgave his oppressors and led the country to the Promised Land. The Mandela who hung out with every world leader, did that cute little shuffle when drums got him excited, and seemed to have the coolest of the cool on speed dial.  I lived miles away but I felt like what happened in South Africa was very much real-a place where actual equality had been achieved, and the power was given back to the people, making it the rainbow nation of everyone’s imagination.

When I arrived here in June 2012, I learned that things were just the opposite. Landing at Cape Town International Airport, I was confronted with apparently  endless rows of shacks from the surrounding townships. Areas remain stratified across race and class lines, which made some people who assumed that I was Xhosa look at me strange when in certain places. South Africa is currently the rape capital of the world and has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS infections in sub-Saharan Africa. So what happened to the magic of Mandela?

Through my experiences, I have learned that many South Africans are conflicted between loving him as an honorable elder (now ancestor) and criticizing hims as a sell out who handed over the country’s wealth to white minority rule. When it was announced that he died, my Facebook news feed oscillated between Mandela the saint and Mandela the crooked politician who wasn’t as clean as the West led us all to believe.

The truth is somewhere in between really.

Mandela was exactly who he strove to be: a man of the people, who believed wholeheartedly in equality and self-determination.   He also however lived a long life with a complicated past.  There are stories about abuse that may have led to the deterioration of his first marriage. Rumors about secret meetings between him and members of the white ruling class during his time in prison.  His acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize alongside FW De Klerk remains a pivotal point in history that will always get the side-eye, something ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela called “unforgivable.” I find that whenever I talk to people about Mandela in the context of the most affected areas (housing, unemployment, the legal system, etc.) Mandela serves as both a point of reference and a scapegoat.

In the film Dear Mandela, this is most potent, as people literally seem to be awaiting the return of their savior, who old and infirmed when the film was shot, couldn’t even afford to leave the comfort of his home. When leaders want to move crowds, they drop quotes that include his name, “the struggle” and a line from the Freedom Charter.  Mandela’s presence remains everywhere, on storefronts and in the collective memory of everyone. But also, as a central figure, one who declared that he would die for the ideals he fought for, he is also the target of outrage by people who look around and see none of the things he discussed at length when he rose to the presidency in 1994. The “Born Frees,” those who were born close to or after the end of apartheid, are a seemingly disillusioned bunch who realize that the memory of the struggle requires more than believing in the magical presence of Mandela, who is sometimes portrayed so virtuous he’d give Jesus a run for his money.

Even in his last days, the myth that surrounded his entire being was engulfed in the idea that despite him being  unable to walk or care for himself, his mere existence is what has been keeping the peace all these years. Following the end of apartheid, there was many Whites fled South Africa, fearful of the “Night of the Long Knives.” According to this myth, Mandela’s release and eventual death would lead to an uprising of the Black community, who would then go into the White homes and murder everything and everyone on sight. As ridiculous as this may seem, when Mandela was hospitalized earlier this year, these fears of retribution reemerged during the rise of Red October, a group of Afrikaaners who held demonstrations demanding that the government give them “better protection” from the “hostile populations.” But how could this elderly man prevent such bloodshed?

When I received word that Mandela passed away, I was saddened and waited to see what would happen on the streets next. Would the legend of Night of the Long Knives come true? Would things remain peaceful and somber? Would people run into the streets in songs of remembrance and take over the highway doing the electric slide and Madiba jive? Just the opposite. People carried on with business as usual, some made it to the Grand Parade in Cape Town’s city center to pay their respects, but mostly, the biggest change was from the diversion of traffic from that evening’s multi-faith prayer service. Even the numbers for the prayer service seemed dismal in comparison to the scene from his release in 1990, as only half the parade filled with people and the crowd was largely White and Colored. While the timing may play a factor as well (the service didn’t start until 4pm), the absence of many people told a different story: the stratification across color and socioeconomic status meant that people living in far away areas (ie: townships) cannot get to and from the city after a certain time.  A sign that Mandela’s dream for South Africa is still not realized.

In the 9 days that followed (most Black South Africans subscribe to 10 days of mourning) there were a number of events in and around Cape Town and throughout the country that sought to bring people together and honor his legacy.  These efforts mostly fell flat because it seemed forced, like going to the funeral of an uncle you’ve never met because your parents say so. The nostalgia was mostly overshadowed by the underlying question that everyone seemed to ask in various ways: What happens now? The biggest outcome of Mandela’s passing seems to be that people can no longer rely on his presence as something tangible to reference when placing blame or sourcing inspiration. Mandela’s legacy and death are best used as drivers for soldiering on.  Without him here, he serves as a historical marker for how far the country has come.  Hopefully Mandela’s example can provide the Born Frees, gogos, aunties, khulus and uncles with enough gall to desire, persevere and achieve the remainder of his vision for a truly must South Africa..

Mandela as a charismatic leader is viewed as a failure because Mandela the icon became bigger than the movement itself. The success and failures of the anti-apartheid movement were placed solely on his shoulders. Thus, he will forever be embedded in the minds and memories of all South Africans even if they dislike him. And with a new election season right around the corner, the spirit of Mandela will continue to haunt us all, reminding us that there is still a long road ahead towards reaching true freedom.

by Folashade Kornegay, M.A. International Affairs at The New School

Folashade is an alum of Progressive Pupil’s New Leaders for Social Change Program, current resident of Cape Town and human rights worker with Embrace Dignity

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