South Africa: The shame in scapegoating Nelson Mandela

William Gumede
By William Gumede
Academic and author

William Gumede is the founder and chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation. He edited and introduced the updated edition of Nelson Mandela: No Easy Walk to Freedom (Tafelberg, 2013).

Posted on Monday, 19 December 2022 13:30

Nelson Mandela, chairman of the ANC, at the Commonwealth Summit in Harare, Zimbabwe on 17 November 1991. Mary Evans/Allstar/Stewart Kenda/

Faced with endemic state failures and the breakdown of social order, many poor Black South Africans, particularly the young, are blaming Nelson Mandela for the ills of the governing African National Congress. 

As a leader, Mandela left a crucial historical endowment to future generations, allowing groups that had fought each other for centuries to stake a claim in his legacy.

So why is it under attack from South African youth?

When divided peoples are forged together, as was the case in South Africa, the presence of uniting “fathers” and “mothers” whom all conflicting groups can readily embrace is crucial.

What South Africa needs now are more Mandelas, not more attacks on his record.

Even after Mandela was long retired, or in the years following his death, the ANC continued to use his image in its electoral campaigns to motivate disillusioned supporters to get out and vote.

Yet today, many ANC leaders are blaming Mandela’s democratic achievements – the constitution, independent institutions and racial inclusivity –for mounting poverty and crime, almost 30 years after the end of formal apartheid.

‘What is the use of the rule of law?’

During her campaign for the ANC presidency at the party’s December 2022 national conference, Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu dismissed the country’s democratic framework as “a neo-liberal constitution with foreign inspiration”.

Sisulu, the daughter of Mandela’s mentor Walter Sisulu and now a rival of President Cyril Ramaphosa, asked: “And where is the African value system of this constitution and the rule of law? If the law does not work for Africans in Africa, then what is the use of the rule of law?”

She went on to blame the “sea of African poverty” on the constitution, questioning the “agency” of the country’s overarching document, asking: “What has this beautiful constitution done for the victims [of colonialism] except as a palliative (Panadol)?”.

Sisulu called judges upholding the constitution “house negroes” who are “mentally colonised” and “settled with the view and mindset of those who have dispossessed their ancestors”.

New gold standard for Africa

The irony is that Mandela hoped that through exemplary individual leadership based on democratic morality, ethnic inclusiveness and compassion, he would set a new gold standard for Africa, not for only for others to emulate, but that might bring an end to the widely-held negative perceptions in the West and on the continent of what it meant to be an African political leader.

Global citizen Mandela emphasised the closer integration of African countries by increasing inter-African trade and mutual exchange and by building communal infrastructure.

In the intervening years, South Africa has seen rising xenophobia against Africans from other African countries, with many poor blacks and ANC politicians blaming African migrants for taking jobs, public services and even women from South Africa.

Many poor Black supporters of the ANC are increasingly dismissing closer ties with Africa, calling for South Africa to instead build closer ties within the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) alliance.

Early this year, a video of Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi went viral when he launched a bitter attack on foreign Africans in South Africa.

Addressing the ANC’s Eastern Cape regional conference, Motsoaledi claimed South Africa is the “only sovereign country in the world where it is open season for (foreign) ‘rascals’ who have committed serious crimes”, saying that “unlike other coward ANC leaders”, his views on “undocumented foreign nationals running amok in the country will never be censored”.

Forget ‘Rainbow Nation’

As poverty among black South Africans continues to rise, populists have been increasingly dismissing Mandela and former Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s concept of a ‘Rainbow Nation’.

They increasingly make one ethnic community the scapegoat for another community’s failure to advance.

Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema regularly attacks South Africans of Indian ancestry for supposedly dominating affirmative action leadership and management positions in the private and public sectors.

Many populists, Africanists, ANC leaders and their supporters blame “white monopoly capital”, traditionally white-owned companies and industrialists, for the failure of almost any government initiative or Black business leader – even if these failures have been self-inflicted.

Mandela’s African nationalism was far more inclusive and non-racial in outlook when compared to the narrow Africanism, populism and tribalism espoused by many ANC leaders today.

Mandela’s handpicked successor, former trade union leader Cyril Ramaphosa, whom he failed to elevate into the ANC presidency immediately after his retirement, but who is now South Africa’s President, is facing impeachment proceedings over accusations that he attempted to cover up a cash theft at his luxury game farm.

A report by an independent panel found that he may be guilty of serious violations.

ANC’s leadership

The quality of ANC leadership since Mandela’s death has plumbed the depths.

A particular charge made against Mandela is that during the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) he gave away too much to the ancien regime and entrenched white privilege in the public, private and societal sectors because constitutional compromises allegedly made it difficult for subsequent ANC governments to pursue redress.

Such criticism is unfair, as Mandela did not singlehandedly negotiate on behalf of the ANC with the National Party of apartheid.

As the leader of the ANC at the time, he was part of an ANC collective.

In addition, the ANC negotiating collective consisted of a broad front, the Mass Democratic Movement, consisting of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and civil society organisations, which were part of the then disbanded United Democratic Front (UDF), the internal alliance of the resistance against apartheid from the mid-1980s onwards.

Who’s to blame?

With the hand he was dealt by history, Mandela’s made his contribution within his capabilities, within his context and within his own sphere of influence – which was albeit wide.

The rest is the responsibility of subsequent generations.

Mandela spent almost three decades imprisoned by the apartheid regime for his political activism.

His ability to overcome his personal anger, bitterness and resentment toward his former oppressors for a life lost, and to partner with them to build a new more inclusive, just and equitable society, offer an example of almost superhuman individual compromise for society’s greater good.

Blaming Mandela for all that has gone wrong, is to give others – ANC, business and civil society leaders – a free pass, and ultimately to shirk responsibility for what we can all do as individuals to manifest change.

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