Mandela the “sell out”: our memories have been blunted by time
A “sell-out” is defined as someone who intentionally betrays a cause for personal advancement. A sell-out is someone who sacrifices their core values for money. The Mandela sell-out trope is populism as its best- uttered with no appreciation for or interest in facts or nuance. LWANDO XASO recalls Mandela’s legacy, the horrific violence of the 90s and the tough decisions the first democratic president had to make.
I was nine years old when Chris Hani was killed. I did not have a nuanced understanding of politics at the time but I knew Chris Hani’s death felt like the final descent into the abyss. It was the first time I had seen adults who were usually so stoic and so masterful at feigning optimism for our benefit visibly terrified. It was that visible fear that said to me that this was the end.
I remember it was a cold, overcast winter’s day and it seemed like even the sun had cowardly retreated never to shine again. But that evening a reassuring face appeared on our television screens. With violence engulfing the country, the magnitude of the moment could only be met by Nelson Mandela’s gravitas.
Under normal circumstances only a president of a country could deliver such an important address at prime time. But these were not normal times. We did not have a legitimate president but that night it was clear who our President was. Mandela was the only thing that stood between this country and total destruction.
We all knew that we were at a cross roads and Mandela had the power to swing the pendulum either towards vengeance or peace. He chose peace and it was on that night that he became our “shadow president.”
Since his passing there seems to be a growing resentment against Mandela from his detractors. Chief amongst the detractions is that instead of negotiating, Mandela should have led us to war to overthrow the Apartheid government. But now with more than twenty years’ experience of our negotiated constitutional democracy project it is easy for us to pinpoint where Mandela supposedly fell short forgetting that the retrospective glance is a relatively easy gesture especially when the human mind has the incredible ability to blunt the sharpness of yesterday’s pain, difficulties and fear.
For those amongst us whose memories remain sharp we ask exactly whose children, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters should have gone to war? The early 1990s saw a dramatic escalation in levels of violence in South Africa. I witnessed some of this violence myself. I remember seeing burning tyres around Black necks. Black mothers in unbearable pain clutching their dead children. It is reported that, from the start of the negotiations in mid-1990 to our first democratic election in April 1994, some 14 000 South Africans died in politically related violence. I have seen footage of the human carnage of Black bodies at Boipatong and Bisho. Those bodies sprawled in dust had names, hopes and dreams. I do not for one second feel entitled to the sacrifice of those or any other Black life for my freedom – I am instead forever indebted.
The cannibalism of the early 1990s claimed Black lives who, unlike many of us, had a lived experience of the brutality of apartheid not as an abstraction but as a system that confined and killed. They knew what it was to live within a system that criminalised their very being. I can never claim to have a complete experience or recollection of the full force of this system. If according to author, Ta-nehsisi Coates, the Black American lives lost to fighting slavery and Jim Crow were turned to fuel for the American dream then the Black lives lost to political violence, were turned to fuel for the South African miracle.
We cannot assume that those who died were seeking glory through death with the foresight that history would romanticise their ultimate sacrifice for our gratitude and inspiration. They too wanted to live. Nelson Mandela must have been as weary as the rest of the country at the overwhelmingly Black rising death toll. For his quest for a lasting peaceful solution and the cessation of violence, Mandela is unfairly judged by those who will never know the weight of being the singular voice that could either incite war or peace. It can never be that today we can sit in our armchairs and judge the decisions of a man on whom so much responsibility was placed and who discharged such overwhelming responsibility to the best of his ability with who and what he knew at the time.
A “sell-out” is defined as someone who intentionally betrays a cause for personal advancement. A sell-out is someone who sacrifices their core values for money. The Mandela sell-out trope is populism as its best- uttered with no appreciation for or interest in facts or nuance. Populism is built on the irresistible allure of simplicity and mine is a generation that is easily enticed by simplicity. Where is the proof of this intention to sell us out?
Justice Albie Sachs and many others who were actually in the room and involved in the negotiations rubbish the idea that Nelson Mandela went “into a room with a bunch of capitalists”, emerged with a compromise and went to lawyers instructing them to “give us a constitution”. Instead, “six hard years of breakdowns” in negotiations were behind the democratic elections in 1994 and the adoption of the Constitution in 1996.
The apartheid government was behind a third force of state security operatives tasked with sowing discord and division amongst Black people and which also funded IFP paramilitaries to attack ANC supporters. In some instances, the government itself directly sponsored covert violence. Targeted assassinations and massacres were the business of the day. There was also the violence from the white extreme-right and the fear of a military coup hung over the negotiations. We forget the onslaught facing Mandela and the ANC from all sides. We forget the violence meted out not only by the apartheid government but also the extreme right wing, the military, the homelands and their militaries and the third force. We forget that Mandela walked away from the negotiating table more than once driving home the point that he would not continue to engage an illegitimate government negotiating in bad faith.
Other than the violence, there were other obstacles on the road to democracy. With the ostensible failures of communism, liberation movements across the world, including the ANC, had to move away from the doctrines of nationalisation and violent revolution. It is also recorded that in 1992 even the ANC’s former ally, Russia, established diplomatic relations with the Apartheid government in violation of the UN General Assembly resolutions. Within a context of its own economic difficulties following the fall of communism, Russia aimed to find short cuts to get quick credit, loans and investment irrespective of the source being the apartheid government and white-owned business. It is said that such actions further entrenched white economic interest as an immovable consideration in any future dispensation. The prioritisation of economic stability above all else inevitably meant that the white-dominated economy could not be overhauled.
But our memories have been blunted by time. It is said critics are men who watch a battle from a high place then come down and shoot the survivors. Nelson Mandela did the best that he could with what he knew then. To judge in posterity is utterly unfair. Building political careers by denigrating an African hero is unacceptable. I echo Angela Davis’ wisdom from her 2016 Steve Biko lecture, we should be thankful for Mandela’s legacy but we should not receive it uncritically. Mandela did not accord his answers to that era with a permanence that silences today’s generation. Even Mandela would agree that questioning and critical thinking cannot end after victories are won. But labelling Nelson Mandela a sell-out is not critical thinking, it’s an erasure of the past, the truth and a foreclosure of past struggles. Davis eloquently noted that we are at odds with past struggles yet our present struggle exists in that same continuum because our present activism is enabled by the activism of the past.
Mandela is part of our genealogy, we stand on his shoulders and by standing on his shoulders we are able to see what he saw and but more importantly we are able to see more than what he could see. Mandela’s questions were questions of a different era. We now want to question what Nelson Mandela did without the full appreciation of that era. Mandela should have been given the grace to learn from his mistakes just like the grace we will want one day from the next generation that will stand in judgement of our decisions today.
Even though he is gone he remains our shadow President looming over our nation as the most consequential South African to ever live. Mandela walked on ice but he never fell. Prisoner 46664 was persecuted, judged and imprisoned for 27 years. Let him rest in freedom.