Nelson Mandela was a powerful symbol, but one that meant extremely different things to different groups of people. As the world collectively mourns this titan of South African history, it's as good a time as any to consider the different facets of his legacy.
Mandela gave a face to the blacks' struggle against apartheid and its oppressive laws. The ANC, which waved his image to the world as a symbol of its struggle, had a Freedom Charter stating that all the national wealth of South Africa belonged to "South Africans" or "the people". But who were 'the people?'
Being a black intellectual who has read a lot of Marx and Mao, it has hardwired into my consciousness that when we say 'the people' in the African context, skin pigmentation plays a very central role. Therefore, it is my assumption that Mandela was incarcerated for fighting for the rights of black South Africans. The oppressed black South African saw utopian light in his figure. 'Free Mandela!' essentially had the same effect as 'Stop apartheid!'
When Mandela came out of prison, the world saw a very noble African, a man whose statue could be erected near that of Her Majesty at Parliament Square. The world will definitely remember such a man.
Two shades of memory
But what is it that black South Africans are going to remember? No doubt they will reflect on his sacrifice, which cannot be forgotten. Mandela went to prison because he hated Apartheid. He came out of prison to negotiate for its abolition. He wanted to negotiate with De Klerk. Still, black South Africans will forever remember Mandela for ending apartheid.
White South Africans will not remember him for that - because they created apartheid. They will remember his unparalleled magnanimity, his ability to come out of prison and later preach the gospel of Truth and Reconciliation, a gospel that maintained the whites' economic status without the need for apartheid laws. Any black man who comes out of such a long period of incarceration and says, "Let us forget all those years of oppression and stealing; we are one now!" is bound to be a revered figure.
But any perceptive black South African is bound to be suspicious and will say: "Wait! Some white dude cannot come into my country, confiscate my land, shoot my children, take my wealth from under the soil and complete that cacophony of evil by incarcerating me for 27 years, and then release me to negotiate for the abolition of the apartheid he started and continues to own the things he took away from me!"
Can such a sensible black South African as Mandela be remembered for being a liberator? How can so many years of incarceration produce such a sane, sound and sensible man?
Could it be that during those years Mandela was being tutored on how to safeguard the interests of those who jailed him? Certainly, De Klerk did not release Mandela out of graciousness, but because times were changing and the world was bound to frown upon Apartheid. It made sense for De Klerk to get Mandela out of prison, and give him the political title and flag, while continuing the economic imbalances that characterized the apartheid era. De Klerk realized that apartheid as a system was falling apart, and he used a black man to end it, but also to safeguard and perpetuate its gains. The economy remained apartheid in nature. Therefore, I can safely say Mandela was out-negotiated by De Klerk.
Madiba was simply a symbol, and as a symbol he was conditioned to submit to the system that created him, to submit together with the blacks who looked up to him. In times of deep scepticism among blacks, the system would simply wave the image of Madiba and blacks would willingly submit. As a symbol, he will continue to be used to the advantage of those who created him.
For the ANC, Mandela is a true and tested method of winning votes. He is the image of a movement that struggled against apartheid. That history alone, of revolutionary icons and leaders, remains a honey-coated trap to attract votes in African politics.
Where do I come from?
At this juncture, having said all I have said, the idea of laying down my pen is so seductive. But wait! Who am I to criticize Mandela? Where do I come from? What is it like in my own country that gives me the moral superiority to indulge in Madiba-bashing?
I am from Zimbabwe. My country is always in the news for various reasons, a lot of which are totally unpalatable. Some say our problems are a result of a serious leadership crisis. Our leaders tell us that Europe and America hate us because we took our land and so they slapped sanctions on us. Our leaders seem to be finding no way of leading us out of the clutches of Europe and America.
My relatives, friends and neighbours have flocked to South Africa, the country of a man I just had the effrontery to call a traitorous hero. They have gone there because there are jobs to be found, the clothes are cheap and there is food abundant. This country of the rand carried our ailing economy on its shoulders and held our people in its bosom back in 2008 when things were really bad.
So what right do I have to call Madiba a traitor? Who, among those we call real heroes, has not sold out?
Maybe Mandela did brazenly what those we call real heroes did secretly. Take Zimbabwe. For 33 years we tried to determine our future using a predominantly British-authored constitution which safeguarded colonial economic imbalances. The Land Reform did not take place because our leaders wanted it, but because Zimbabweans were literate enough to recognize that our leaders reneged on their Chimurenga [war of liberation] promises.
OK, so, Madiba was a traitor? But who is not?