A group of young people interested in the future and potential of South Africa are meeting tonight for a discussion about Madiba. This is the first of many such discussions on topics relevant to the country.
They’re discussing the ‘messiahfication’ of Nelson Mandela and what it means about the country’s past and for its future. Follow the hashtag #Madiba on Twitter. But to give context to some of it, here are thoughts from @benwinks, who was unable to attend:
The tendency to treat Mandela as a messiah misrepresents our history, and can even demean the massive contributions made by countless other political activists along the way. If we forget that our own liberation was a collective effort, we will also forget that maintaining and maximising our liberty and equality, today and tomorrow, is also a collective effort. We will wait for some new messiah to lead us or save us, when really we should be leading ourselves. As President Obama said during his campaign, “we are the ones we have been waiting for”. He borrowed this from Alice Walker, who borrowed it from June Jordan, who wrote it in a “Poem for South African Women”, commemorating the Women’s March to Pretoria. It is heroes like those women who must never be forgotten.
This tendency to individualise the greatest human achievements into one or two “saints” is mirrored in the tendency to individualise the worst human crimes into one or two “villains”. So, we have saints like Mandela and Gandhi and Mother Theresa, and we tell ourselves that these people are superhuman, and therefore that we don’t have the capacity or the responsibility to lead lives of service like they did. By making them into messiahs we excuse ourselves for being ordinary or even selfish. Conversely, we have villains like, Hitler and Stalin and Idi Amin, and we tell ourselves that they are subhuman, that they were sent to earth by Satan, and therefore that we, as society, are not responsible for these people and their crimes. Both of these tendencies relieve us of our responsibility to shape our own national destiny, as if we are just spectators in our nation’s story, where the players are these saints and villains.
The TRC was marred by one aspect of this kind of false history. By individualising the perpetrators, and saying apartheid was perpetrated by Eugene de Kock and Magnus Malan and Adriaan Vlok, we forget that those people were put into their positions by a freely voting white public. At least 50% percent of South Africa’s white population consistently “perpetrated” apartheid, but now they wash their hands and say, no, it was those guys. The other side of our history, the heroic side, must not be mistold in the same manner. We must not individualise the liberation movement and tell our children that Mandela and maybe one or two others were heroes, when everybody else was asleep.
Having said that, we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater (or throw the Madiba out with the mythology). We need to drain that mythology out gradually, so that people can see things clearly and truly, but can still appreciate the remarkable contribution made by the man Nelson Mandela, who was indeed just a man. He had the kind of vision and dedication that this country desperately needed at a delicate time in its history, but he could have achieved nothing without those alongside him, and those who came before him, all the way back to 1912. It is important to preserve that perspective.