(A Personal input from Arnold Isaacs)
This was the third in a series of public talks that Mayibuye Südafrika Community has organised in recent months. The two previous ones debated were ‘Heritage and Heritage Day’ which took place in September and ‘Student Protests and Unrest’ which transpired in November. All three talks were very interesting and engaging with a fair share of emotion and controversy thrown in for good measure.
However, what set the tone in the Mandela-debate was the open, honest and sometimes confrontational nature of the discussion. The bottom line for many of the especially younger participators was the apparent failure – as they saw it – of Mandela and Co. to secure, in their talks with the apartheid government of the day, a truly proper transition of power. In their view, it seemed that there had been a general sell-out to capital-power which was largely in the hands of whites. Some of the debaters accused the Mandela camp of having bungled the negotiating talks through lack of insight and over-compromise. These critical voices went on to condemn the non-implementation of the principles of the Freedom Charter as a lack of true commitment and an act of betrayal to the people. Four important issues raised in this respect were: (i) the question of land and its redistribution, (ii) the lopsided control of wealth in the hands of a few, (iii) free education for all, and (iv) the ongoing destitution of the majority.
Those that supported and admired Mandela’s legacy – the older ones, but not only – were rather overwhelmed by the vehement nature of the attack on the great man. It seemed as if what he had stood for, fought for and achieved during his lifetime and in the anti-apartheid struggle and beyond had been reduced to an insignificant undertaking. A point often overlooked by many when reflecting on the negotiation period is the difficult times Mandela found himself in. The communist world had collapsed which left him in a vulnerable position vis-à-vis his capitalist opponents at the negotiating table; for one should not forget that the support – tactically and beyond – the ANC had received from the communist block was swept away in a wink. Furthermore, in South Africa itself Chris Hani – a stalwart of the freedom struggle and head of the South African Communist Party – had just been assassinated, an act which could have culminated in civil war. At the same time, Mandela had the delicate task of having to appease warring factions in vast areas of the country such as the Eastern Cape, Kwazulu-Natal and the townships. Despite the acuteness of the situation, Mandela and his fellow-negotiators overcame the odds. A new South Africa had been born with a ruling party chosen by the majority of the people in free and open elections, the introduction of a new constitution and a working justice system of high quality.
Mandela’s legacy is encapsulated in the set of qualities that he – as a human being, thinker, activist, politician and statesman – brought to South Africa (and the world) in the fight for freedom, justice and mutual respect. He was a man of high (moral) principles who was determined to do everything in his power to fulfil his vision of a free and democratic South Africa. Central to this vision was the operationalisation of the reconciliation factor, i.e. the removal of the racial divide and replacing it with a united nation of South Africans irrespective of race, religion or sexual orientation.
We have a very young democracy (only 22 years) and it would be – with all due respect – inaccurate and, to a certain extent, naive to place the blame squarely on Mandela’s shoulders. He had done more than his fair share for the liberation of South Africa and should be judged primarily from that point of view. It is the current crop of politicians that needs scrutiny and criticism for the present state of affairs, where the majority of black citizens are still bearing the brunt of inequality and hardship. Nonetheless, recent local-election results, student protests and a critical stance of civil society through the constitutional court and other public institutions are proof of a healthy democracy in action. No doubt, Mr Mandela would have approved of discussions of this sort as a way of coming to grips with sensitive issues concerning South Africa and its people.