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Nelson Mandela: Who tells the story?

I don’t believe that the story of forgiveness and reconciliation in our collective transition to democracy in the 'new South Africa' is untrue. The problem is that it has become the only story we are allowed to tell, says Chantelle de Nobrega

Chantelle de Nobrega
15 December 2013

Read this article in Spanish

I am just old enough to recall both South Africa's first democratic elections and to remember being aware at the time of its importance to the majority of South Africans. I am also young enough to have lived just over half my life in the ‘new South Africa’.

In this new South Africa, a story is told about our collective transition to democracy. It is told within South Africa and around the world. The story inevitably refers to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and speaks of a Rainbow Nation that was founded on the principle of equality for all, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. In this story, white South Africans appear to have had a great spiritual awakening, realised the error of their ways and happily gave up political power. Unfortunately, this story has never made much sense to me, not as a South African who has at least three race groups represented in my family, not as a woman and not as a feminist. My political consciousness as a feminist is inextricably tied to my experience and interpretations of South African history, and the creation and recreation of history and memory are important in the new South Africa and in feminist movements globally.

I don’t believe that the story of forgiveness and reconciliation in South Africa is untrue. Many people embraced the TRC as a means to finally find out what happened to loved ones who mysteriously disappeared or died in detention. People who had endured violence at the hands of the state and its notoriously brutal security forces were able to tell their stories for the first time. And yes, South Africa now has one of the most progressive Constitutions in the world.

The problem is not that this narrative of forgiveness is a lie. The problem is that it has become the only story we are allowed to tell. We negotiated a political transition and offered amnesty on the road to forgiveness. But this forgiveness was built on a shaky foundation of historical amnesia. In our rush to tell a unified story of reconciliation, we forgot to tell the story about the need for justice and the importance of remembering. We also forgot to acknowledge that people can be angry and bitter about decades – or centuries – of oppression, and that they have every right to be.

Today, we still struggle to deal with the social and economic legacy of almost fifty years of apartheid and hundreds of years of colonial rule and conflict. White South Africans gave up political power a little more easily than economic power. Despite a growing black middle class, poverty is most prevalent among black people. Many people’s living conditions have changed very little, if at all, in the new South Africa. Violence against women – particularly black lesbians – is also exceptionally high. And most South African women can probably attest to a climate of fear in the country.

A growing disillusionment and frustration with the ruling party and new administration – and the slow pace of economic reform – have given rise to numerous public protests. As South Africans, we talk about these things all the time – usually to complain. But we often talk about them as if they have bear little relation to the deal we struck in the early 90s, which – essentially – was to forgive and forget.

Within this narrative of peace and reconciliation, the figure of Nelson Mandela looms large. He was revered and almost universally adored. As a public figure, he was much in demand. His contribution to democracy soon took on mythological proportions, even though many people can’t tell you exactly what he did. Most only know that he spent 27 years in prison. The same ‘forgetfulness’ applied to the years of apartheid also pervades public discussions of his life. Mandela is often portrayed as a lone hero who pursued exclusively peaceful means. This simply isn’t true, and it does a disservice to his incredible life of service and to the sacrifices he made for the nation he loved.

The fight against apartheid – one of the most elaborate political systems based on racism the world has ever seen – was a collective struggle, not an individual one. This struggle went far beyond the borders of one nation. Countries in Southern Africa and beyond hosted the ANC and other banned parties for many years, often at considerable danger to their citizens, given the apartheid state’s enthusiasm for illegally crossing borders in its zeal to root out black liberation movements. Many people and organisations took part in this collective struggle, and their sacrifices are worth remembering. Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, Victoria Mxhenge, Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Chris Hani, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and many, many others were dedicated to black liberation and the dream of a democratic South Africa. In many cases, they were killed for resisting white minority rule. Those that survived the struggle were also there to hold our hands as we took our first uncertain steps towards a democracy.

Mandela was certainly aware of the power and importance of collective action and solidarity. In his first public speech after his release from prison in February 1990, Mandela gave considerable attention to honouring the collective struggle and the sacrifices of individuals and organisations within the anti-apartheid movement. In fact, he credited them with his release. We, too, should honour them by refusing to collaborate in the mythology that apartheid was brought down by one man.

There is a similar trend within many feminist movements. We sometimes focus on individuals to the exclusion of the collective. We embrace rising superstars and their individual advancement, and neglect collective power and solidarity which is the basis for structural change. There is no patriarchal barrier in history that has been torn down exclusively by one woman. Of course, sometimes the action of one person can become the catalyst for others to resist oppressive power structures, but that alone is never sufficient.

After the death of Mandela, most news headlines and tributes included the words “icon of peace”. But the truth is not that simple. Before 1960, Mandela was indeed committed to non-violent resistance against the apartheid state. In 1960, when 69 people were killed in the Sharpeville massacre, organisations that had previously only engaged in peaceful resistance formed armed wings. One of these, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), was co-founded by Mandela and pursued a strategy of armed resistance. He did not lead MK for long, as he was arrested just over one year after it was formed, leading to his imprisonment. While in prison and after his release – even while he was involved in peaceful negotiations with the government – Mandela refused to renounce the armed resistance that had continued during his imprisonment.

When people speak of Nelson Mandela, they talk as if the apartheid regime was brought down with charm and politeness. Yet he spoke openly of his anger and frustration at the continuing violence and oppression and the ongoing resistance of the ruling National Party to fully dismantle apartheid. He also often spoke of peace and the need for thoughtful reflection and dialogue, and of his love for humanity. In many ways, his words remind me a lot of the writings of bell hooks, that eloquently talk about putting love at the heart of feminism. This is an ideal that I strive to attain. This ideal, however, does not necessarily exclude anger and frustration at the continuing violence and oppression we see around us. Negotiation and diplomacy can stand side by side with confrontation and anger.

This is not a call to arms for feminists or other social justice movements, or an encouragement to cultivate anger. It is, however, a reminder that anger and confrontation have a place in our shared struggle. As a woman and a feminist, I have often been told that I should be less angry and less strident in my criticism of patriarchy and racism – two social structures that are inextricably tied together, not only in South Africa but globally. I know I am not alone in this. Feminists and womanists have talked and written – for many decades – about the pressure to be less confrontational and more palatable to those in power. We’re told that if we would make more progress if we were a little nicer. There are jokes and memes aplenty about “angry feminists”. Part of this hostility stems the patriarchal belief that the only acceptable form of femininity is one that is soft, accommodating and compliant. Embracing our anger can be a radical act of resistance in a world that would have us believe that those in power will acquiesce  friendly requests rather than angry demands.

In the end, Nelson Mandela was just a man. He was devoted to liberation and freedom. And he sacrificed a great deal in his unending commitment to a seeing a liberated South Africa. But he was also human. He made mistakes, both in his personal life and as a leader. This, then, is how I want to remember Nelson Mandela: a complicated man who leaves a complicated legacy.

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