We urgently need to demythologize Nelson Mandela


There is no better time than now, the year of the centenary of his birth, to reflect honestly and critically on the legacy of former president, Nelson Mandela. I argue that we owe it to all the past struggles for black liberation, to the present generation and to future ones, to ask the tough questions and to speak such truths to the mesmerising power of the Mandela legacy.

The unvarnished truth is that Nelson Mandela never wanted to be venerated like a faultless and saintly God, both in his lifetime, and especially after his death. In the various biographies of him, both authorised and unauthorised, there is ample evidence of that belief of his. Why then is it that not only the ruling African National Congress and other parties and politicians but people across our society have done exactly that which Mandela did not approve of?

I strongly criticized Mandela in the pages of the Mail & Guardian in 1999, when he was virtually untouchable, after completing a term as the first black president of South Africa, following an interview its former editor, Howard Barrel, and Prof. Sipho Seepe, had with him at his Houghton home.  I pointed out how the white-dominated media glorified Mandela but often castigated his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, because he had a big focus on race.

I also pointed out that it was under Mandela’s presidency that the ANC adopted many harmful neoliberal policies, such as the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy, in 1996. It was also under his presidency that white monopoly capital (yes, white monopoly capital!), was allowed, thanks to his finance minister, Trevor Manuel, to go offshore and repatriate much of the wealth created by black labour since the time of the mineral revolution of the 19th century.

It was also under his watch that basic services in black townships, such as water, sanitation and electricity, began to be commercialised and commodified. The simple rule of this process was that you had to pay for these services and if you could not (faced with growing unemployment) you would have to suffer the consequences, except for the miserably inadequate free “lifeline” supplies for water and electricity which came later.

I could go on at length, in terms of economic and social policy, to show how destructive many such policies were to the basic needs and interests of the black working class, the historical support base of the ANC, from the 1940s. You wonder why we have had an unstoppable avalanche of angry township protests since June 2004? It was also under Mandela’s watch that the ANC’s allies, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, were “put in their place” by Mandela himself. Mandela once harshly chastised Cosatu at its own congress, for criticizing macroeconomic policy. He basically told them, at their own congress, to shut up.

It is an indisputable fact that the iconic halo associated with Mandela, especially since he was released from prison, had the effect of suspending indefinitely both the capacity and necessity for critical thinking. I firmly believe, which is currently happening yet again with the centenary celebrations of Mandela’s birth, the ANC uses and abuses Mandela’s name to pacify its restless membership and the wider black masses. You will not hear one word from them about what Mandela said and did which was not in the interests of the black working class and the poor black majority. Nothing.

But they also betray what Mandela himself spoke of: he repeatedly stated that he was no saint and does not want to be treated as such. Yet, nowhere from the ranks of the ANC will you find an even elementary critical analysis of Mandela. They talk much of the Mandela “magic” and nothing about the huge myth of Mandela, the man and politician, and the dangers of it. This is also why they were stonily silent and never once supported the justifiable criticism which his former wife, Winnie, several times expressed in public about where she thinks he and the ANC went wrong after 1994. This is why, despite her many weaknesses and failings, I have much respect for her.

For far too long people have been uncritically put to sleep by Mandela mania, even when it was against their own needs and interests. But there has been welcome evidence over the past few years that many among the black militant youth who are awakening from the slumber of Mandela mania and realising the dangers to their own lives and aspirations of the perpetuation of the untouchable Mandela myths.

The incontestable fact is that though he was a great man in many respects, he also made many mistakes which contributed, I argue, to the present worsening poverty, unemployment and so many related social miseries and depravations among the black majority of this country. All attempts to disguise that fact history will ultimately condemn I am confident.

Ebrahim Harvey is an independent writer and thinker.