In DepthColumnsNelson Mandela and Africa's soft power


Posted on Thursday, 22 August 2013 10:21

Nelson Mandela and Africa's soft power

Patrick Smith

In the heart of the revolutionary district of Paris at Place de la République on the evening of 18 July, several thousand people sang along with a South African choir and big band to wish Nelson Mandela a happy 95th birthday.


In most of the biggest cities of the world – and many of the smaller ones – there were similar celebrations.

In South Africa, millions of citizens spent 67 minutes doing something for other people: a proportionate tribute to the 67 years of his life that Mandela had devoted to public service.

How many other 95-year-olds have their lives and achievements marked on this global scale? None come to mind.

It is Mandela's struggle against racial oppression that gave him such universal appeal.

In the end, no one, not even the more sentient oppressors, could doubt the strength of his moral authority.

But it was no naturally occurring phenomenon. Mandela the international legend was deliberately created.

Smart strategists in the African National Congress knew they needed a global figurehead to keep the anti-apartheid cause alive after its leader and his cohorts were sentenced to life imprisonment.

The propaganda mountain was clear enough to Tony Hollingsworth, the music impresario who organised a 70th birthday tribute in London to the still-imprisoned Nelson Mandela in 1988.

The likes of Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston and Dire Straits played at the concert, which was broadcast around the world and proved to be one of the final body blows against the apartheid regime's information machine.

Hollingsworth recalls how his team would phone up the cultural departments of television stations around the world to ask if they wanted to take live feeds of music from top North American, European and African artists who had gathered to wish an African human rights campaigner a happy birthday.

They jumped at the chance.

But their news departments were puzzled, they still had Mandela listed as a terrorist leader, echoing the characterisation of him by the dying P. W. Botha regime and Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Mandela's story and the global appropriation of it raises a wider question about Africa's cultural diplomacy, its soft power.

Outsiders were surprised that in the heady days after South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994, its new government was unable to use Mandela's moral authority to greater effect.

The answer lies less in the message and the messenger than in how it is conveyed.

Just as South Korean artist Psy's Gangnam Style became a global phenomenon – making audi- ences chuckle from Hunan to Houston – Africa has an abundant cultural reservoir with which to bombard cyberspace and beyond.

This year's film biography of Mandela, for which he is played by Idris Elba, who is of Ghanaian and Sierra Leonean ancestry, may be a start.

The splendid exhibition in London's Tate Modern Gallery featuring the art and sculpture of Sudan's Ibrahim El-Salahi should prompt visitors to look beyond the gory headlines to understand his country.

And Ghana, known best for gold and Kwame Nkrumah, still seems to be under the radar at a time of phenomenal achievement: one of its architects, David Adjaye, is designing the new Museum of African-American Culture in Washington DC and sculptor El Anatsui has an exhibition in New York's Brooklyn Museum, while fashion designer Ozwald Boateng is combining his Savile Row tailoring with a campaign to promote made in Africa products.

Understandably, Nigerians bristle when their country's name is coupled with internet fraud – rather than literary excellence as in Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche.

And of course there is Nollywood, a movie industry now rivalling India's in quantitative terms, and the sounds of D'banj for the now generation and the Afrobeat rhythms of the Kutis for their forebears.

Showing the way to communicate Africa's cultural power may be one of Madiba's final but longest-lasting legacies. ●

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report. He has edited the political and economic insider newsletter Africa Confidential since 1992 and was associate producer on a documentary about the 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea commissioned by Britain's Channel 4 television.


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