As with most larger-than-life figures Pres. Nelson Mandela was controversial. We know of his achievements and follies. But what is his legacy? What will he be best remembered for? Was he a shrewd politician, a visionary, or both?
Nelson Mandela had a brief membership in the South African Communist Party and a long-term alliance thereafter with the Communist Party. He was at varying times a black nationalist and a non-racialist, an opponent of armed struggle and an advocate of violence, a hothead and the calmest man in the room, a consumer of Marxist tracts and an admirer of Western democracy, a close partner of Communists and, in his presidency, a close partner of South Africa’s powerful capitalists.
From this, we may deduce that Mandela switched positions a number of times during his lifespan. Does this make him a flip-flopping opportunist, a pragmatist or was he something else?
Mandela: the terrorist
One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Ultimately terrorism is just a label in the scheme of international politics. Nelson Mandela was the head of UmKhonto we Sizwe, (MK), the military wing of the ANC and South African Communist Party.
At his trial, he had pleaded guilty to 156 acts of public violence including mobilizing terrorist bombing campaigns, which planted bombs in public places, such as the Johannesburg railway station. Many innocent people, including women and children, were killed by Nelson Mandela’s MK terrorists.
In 1962, Mandela was arrested for conspiring to overthrow the state and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia trial. During the trial, Mandela pleaded guilty, was convicted, served his sentence, and took a different approach after leaving prison. If we are able to forgive the Nazi death squads we could certainly forgive Mandela for ordering the bombings?
Mandela: the communist
At the time of the Cold War, the African National Congress (ANC) was seen in the western public eye as a communist movement in Southern Africa. It was beneficial for the capitalist west to keep the ‘apartheid’ regime in place to prevent any communist takeover and counteract the influence of the USSR. It was only after the fall of communism in Russia that the West finally pushed for the end of ‘apartheid’ as it was no longer favorable or necessary to their interests.
Mandela probably remained a communist at heart for all his life; communism in the sense of giving power to the people instead of a ruling elite, equal distribution of wealth, and the long-term goal of the abolishment of capital(ism).
Mandela: the politician
The early collaboration of the ANC with the Communists was a marriage of convenience for a movement that had few friends. The South African Communist Party and its patrons in Russia and China were a source of money and weapons for the largely feckless armed struggle, and for many, it meant solidarity with a cause larger than South Africa. Communist ideology undoubtedly seeped into the ANC, where it became part of a uniquely (South) African cocktail of African nationalism, Black Consciousness, and religious liberalism.
Mandela, as any good politician, was a compromiser. Was this a sign of shrewd opportunism or rather 'realpolitik' and reality-based pragmatism?
In the negotiations to end white rule, in the writing of a new South African constitution, and finally in governing, the faction of nationalizers and vengeance seekers lost out to the compromisers. For once.
The prevailing doctrine was whatever worked to advance the cause of South Africa governed by South Africans. This was true of Mandela and equally true of his successor, Thabo Mbeki. The current president, Jacob Zuma, seems to have no ideology at all except self-enrichment.
Ideology implies principles. One is able to compromise without compromising its ideology, core values, or long-term objectives. Mandela did just that.
What people profess at party plenums or codify in party records is not always a reliable guide to what they will do, or even what they actually believe. Mandela would in that sense be no different from other public figures.
"I have a private and a public opinion." - Hillary Rodham Clinton
Mandela: the peacemaker
Mandela was a South-African nationalist and a pan-Africanist. He probably closely observed the affairs of other African nations, learned from them, and incorporated their experience in his strategies, in order to establish a peaceful transition of governing power in South Africa, instead of civil war. Mandela was respected by both sides of the negotiating table.
Mandela saw a future for South Africa as a nation where whites, colored and Indians were integral parts of predominantly black African society. This implies the logic whereby property and possessions remained untouched, unlike what has happened in Zimbabwe.
He was a humanist at heart, a people’s person, not out of pragmatism or for political gain, but because of his character, the man that he was.
Mandela: the economist
Whether Mandela focused on political independence at the expense of economic independence remains to be seen. Had he chosen a road different from that of reconciliation, he might have turned up at the wrong side of history.
Mandela was no economist nor a historian per se, yet he could have learned from the mistakes of for instance Ghana's Kwame Nkurumah who sought above all economic freedom as a way for Ghana to free itself from the colonial yoke.
Economical development is an organic process - it is not a nail that can be driven into the wall of society. It involves education, capital, policy, and a host of other more subtle aspects.
Economics, as we know it, is a western tradition and school of thought. What is fully integrated in western societies cannot be superimposed on other societies.
Each society has to be able to establish its own economical climate and is to be allowed in doing so as part of its sovereignty. Neither is the case in Africa. If we believe that all humans are equally capable of achievement and fulfilling their dreams and goals, then we must be given room, freedom, in fact, an equal opportunity, to do so.
Are South Africa’s current economical misfortunes Mandela’s legacy? His failure to properly secure the country’s economical future?
If one would for instance argue the predominantly white private ownership of the South Africa Reserve Bank as being Mandela’s failure, then one only has to look abroad, as most if not all Central Banks are privately or corporate-owned, the biggest one being the US Federal Reserve. To blame Mandela for what has been established and determined elsewhere is folly.
White South African households may earn 6 times more than their black equivalents; yet, if we are able to rid ourselves of the racial slur, we might see that - again by looking abroad - huge income differences are not uncommon.
In the US, the top 1% of the demographic owns 99% of the economy. What is common to the world we live in, is not all of a sudden specific to South Africa because of its past and can certainly not be attributed to one man.
Mandela: the figurehead
Nelson Mandela and ANC have become almost synonymous, as both Mandela and ANC have become synonymous to South Africa’s struggle against ‘apartheid’.
Mandela was a figurehead in the early days of the struggle indeed, but he certainly wasn’t the only one. Remember Steve Biko?
During his captivity at Robben island Mandela's significance, importance as the embodiment of the fight increased, but how much of that was due to his wife Winnie?
His approach of reconciliation during the abolishment of ‘apartheid’ and the transition period thereafter earned him worldwide recognition and respect. It is probably the single feat for which he shall be remembered and put into the hall of history’s greats.
As president, his status of the figurehead was consolidated and has remained ever since.
How much of this was stage-managed, one might argue? Well, probably a lot was but it could never have held up for as long as it did - even after his death - if it weren’t for his character and feats accomplished.
Mandela: the husband
Winnie, Nelson Mandela’s second wife, became his counterpart in the struggle and carved her own name in the struggle’s lore at the time of Nelson’s imprisonment. She was regularly detained by the apartheid government. She was tortured, subjected to house arrest, kept under surveillance, held in solitary confinement for a year and banished to a remote town.
Yet she remained a faithful mother and wife and in doing so became a symbol for the female side of the struggle and that of women’s liberation worldwide.
Whatever the cause or rather the multitude of issues that lead to their divorce, it may well rest in the fact that two larger-than-life figures like Winnie and Nelson Mandela could no longer share the same roof, let alone the same bed. To put it in the words of their long-serving mutual lawyer George Bizos:
"The Duke of Edinburgh always walks at least one step behind the Queen" - George Bizos
Mandela: the father of the nation - ‘Madiba’
Shortly after Nelson Mandela's death, his clan name ‘Madiba’ emerged in condolences around the world and became a trending topic on Twitter. The clan or family name represents a person's ancestry which probably means more in Africa than anywhere else. The meaning is deeper than a surname and is used as a sign of respect and affection.
‘Madiba’ Mandela became the father of the nation because he was able to gather everyone, regardless of color or creed, behind one single cause, bind them, reinforce them and enable them to accomplish the impossible.
South Africa’s struggle against ‘apartheid’ equals that of Mahatma Gandhi's independence movement or the constitutional accomplishments of George Washington c.s. in the fight for freedom and independence. Paradigmatic shifts in a nation’s history and destiny are mostly attributed to one person. In the case of Nelson Mandela as the father of the South African nation, it can hardly be argued otherwise.
Mandela: the philosopher
What stands out to us, UbuntuFM, is Mandela the philosopher. If Ubuntu can be categorized as such: a philosophy. To us, Ubuntu is larger than life, a way of living and observance of life. Without the words of Pres. Nelson Mandela our project wouldn’t exist. So for us, Mandela’s legacy is real. We are a tiny part of it.
So was Mandela a shrewd politician or a visionary?
In conclusion, it is to be argued that he was both and neither of those at the same time. Mandela was a fellow human being. Imperfect, complex, contradictory. To judge Mandela along the lines of perfection is unjust and unfair.
Mandela's single biggest achievement was to fulfill his role as the embodiment of the anti-apartheid movement, the figurehead of reconciliation. This cannot be downplayed, ignored, or misconstrued in any way shape, or form. It is his legacy, one that he shares with millions of South Africans, Africans, and people of the world. Ubuntu.