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The folly of painting Nelson Mandela as either saint or sellout

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Colin Bundy and William Beinart | May 30th 2021
Former South Africa President Nelson Mandela (AP Photo, Denis Farrell)

There are two widely available views of Nelson Mandela, the first post-apartheid president of South Africa.

The first is a reverential and uncritical celebration of his life and achievements. It resonated in the obituaries and eulogies when Mandela died in December 2013.

Madiba (his clan name) was “sent by God”, said Irish newspaper magnate Tony O’Reilly, who is said to have been a friend of Mandela’s. His purchase of South Africa’s then largest newspaper company, Argus Newspapers, was made possible by Mandela’s support. Former US President Barack Obama declared that Mandela changed the arc of history, transforming his country, the continent and the world.

A second prevailing view is hostile and dismissive. By 2015, a reputation that had appeared invincible was being shredded in some media outlets, on the streets and especially on university campuses across South Africa. The critique centred on the 1994-negotiated settlement that ended apartheid. It accused Mandela of betraying the black majority to appease the economically powerful white minority.

Both narratives – Mandela as secular saint or Mandela as sellout – are poor history. The suggestion that Mandela single-handedly achieved democracy is as intellectually threadbare as its mirror image: that he was responsible for the failure to transform social and economic relations after 1994.

Our edited collection, Reassessing Mandela, provides a scholarly counterweight to the two polarised positions. It attempts to begin the task of revisiting the canonical biographies, rethinking aspects of Mandela’s life and his politics, and evaluating how he is and should be remembered.

The first aspect of Mandela’s life reassessed in the book is his family and its background, his childhood and youth, and his Thembu lineage. Two chapters – by the late Phil Bonner and by Xolela Mangcu – complement one another in intriguing ways. Both historians remind us that Mandela’s 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, is an unreliable text. Some of its flaws are replicated in the work of others.

Bonner’s archivally-based chapter corrects some of the shaky chronology in the Long Walk to Freedom. It identifies Mandela’s father Gadla Mandela as “a significant if little-recognised historical figure” but shows that Mandela’s own account of his father defying the white magistrate cannot be read as history.

Mangcu’s chapter challenges Mandela’s own account of his descent. He locates him within a history of the Thembu royal house’s “pragmatic co-operation” with colonial rule. Mandela did not mention this.

Mangcu emphasises the history of “African political modernity” in the Transkei, a territory comprising a number of African kingdoms and chiefdoms annexed in the 19th century. He also considers Gadla’s role in the local administrative body (Bungha), where he is portrayed as resisting both missionary influence and colonial regulations.

Bonner and Mangcu underline the complexity of “indirect rule” in the Transkei. They correct the tendency to discuss Mandela’s early years through a lens of rural nostalgia.

The book provides a scholarly counterweight to the two polarised positions of Mandela as either a saint or sellout [Courtesy]

A second broad area of reassessment emerges from three chapters that consider Mandela’s relationship with the South African Communist Party (SACP), his activism and especially his leadership in underground politics. 

Tom Lodge produces a fine-grained account of Mandela’s “association with South Africa’s communist left”. His is a study of friendships and social networks, of left-wing readings and writings, and of political alliances and tactics.

Paul Landau’s chapter focuses on the period between the 1960 Sharpeville massacre of black protesters by apartheid police, and Mandela’s arrest in August 1962. It traces the efforts to implement the M-Plan – a template for an underground structure of the liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC).

Mandela and a small group of like-minded colleagues sought to use the plan to transform the ANC into a militant vanguard movement willing to employ violence against the State.

Thula Simpson’s chapter reconsiders Mandela’s role as commander-in-chief of umKhonto we Sizwe, (an armed wing set up by the ANC and SACP). He suggests that its campaign of urban sabotage was more effective than

 

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