The Founding Father: Nelson Mandela and the re-creation of South Africa

As Nelson Mandela entered Orlando Stadium in Soweto, the city once called the “southwestern township” of Johannesburg, South Africa, the press raced alongside him, contained within a carefully roped-off enclosure on the football field, straining to catch a close-up of the man who would be our next president. Just 10 days before the elections, I was there to accompany my friend Carlos, a London-based Chilean photographer who was covering the last stage of South Africa’s transition to democracy. As Carlos’s unofficial assistant, for a brief, thrilling moment, camera in hand, I was separated by just one bodyguard from the greatest South African in my nation’s history.

As South Africa and the world mourns the loss of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, and as tributes pour in from all corners of the globe, it seems appropriate to move beyond the obituaries and ask why his life mattered. What may be his legacy? How did this man so profoundly capture the aspiration and passion of an entire nation as he did mine that day in May 1994?

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‘Maker of Parliaments’

Born in Mvezo, a small village in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, the son of a minor Xhosa chief, Nelson Mandela was educated through his Christian mother in Methodist schools before going first to the University of Fort Hare and then to the University of the Witwatersrand. He was formed through his father in African tradition, earning the initiation name Dalibunga (which means “maker of parliaments”—prescient indeed!) and was given the family clan name of Madiba.

After fleeing a traditional arranged marriage in 1941, he went to Johannesburg, where he worked as a night watchman at a gold mine and as a clerk while completing legal studies. As an attorney, he soon became involved in the politics of the African National Congress, which was campaigning for democratic rights for blacks in apartheid South Africa. During the 1950s, as Mr. Mandela worked in campaigns of civil disobedience and protest, he became more and more convinced that the Afrikaner’s National Party government would never see reason until confronted with force. He was arrested and charged (along with 155 other activists) with treason in 1956; five years later all the accused were acquitted.

After the A.N.C. and other liberation movements were banned, Mr. Mandela was one of the founders in 1961 of the forbidden group’s guerrilla wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation,” abbreviated as M.K.). The M.K. were committed at first to acts of sabotage meant to avoid loss of life and were willing to suspend activities whenever the government was willing to negotiate. Mr. Mandela became its commander in chief within South Africa. In 1964 he and the entire M.K. high command were convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment.

On Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, and later at Pollsmoor and Victor Verster prisons on the mainland, Mr. Mandela exercised a strong presence among prisoners of various ideological stripes. He also increasingly influenced his prison guards. Faced with occasionally brutal, semi-literate guards, Mr. Mandela firmly but calmly insisted that if they wanted his respect they should respect him.

During the 1980s, as South Africa lurched closer and closer to civil war, Mr. Mandela entered into secret discussions to end the crisis with the South African government (which was also secretly negotiating a cease-fire with the exiled A.N.C. leadership). In 1990 Mr. Mandela was released, and the ban on the A.N.C. and other black liberation movements was lifted. Instead of an armed revolution, the A.N.C. joined a slow process of negotiated transition to full democracy; it was a process marked by verbal conflict, political maneuvers and ongoing violence between factions at the grass-roots level.

Mr. Mandela became president of an A.N.C.-led government on May 10, 1994, after a general election in April. From the beginning, he promised to focus on national reconciliation and to step down after one five-year term in office. He helped create and supported the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that sought to uncover atrocities committed on all sides. Mr. Mandela also tried various strategies to allay the fears of minorities in South Africa, particularly those who had benefitted from the previous system, while promoting black economic empowerment and affirmative action employment programs. As promised, though constitutionally entitled to a second term, he stepped down from office in June 1999.

Though officially retired, Mr. Mandela never really stopped working until a few years before his death. He continued through his foundation, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, to engage in public issues—helping children, fighting poverty and combating H.I.V./AIDS. Because of his loyalty to the A.N.C., he remained fairly low-key in overt criticism of his successors, but he regularly intervened to challenge poor government policy, notably AIDS denialism, and spoke out against corruption.

As his health declined, Mr. Mandela’s public appearances grew fewer. Despite this, his popularity across the racial, class and gender divides in South Africa never waned.

Revolution and Reconciliation

The life of Nelson Mandela contains all the elements of political myth—the cattle-herding boy who becomes a king; the (to some at least) hated “terrorist” transformed into a great statesman and—dear to many North American hearts—the myth of a founding father, a Xhosa George Washington combined with a Horatio Alger “rags to riches” story.

Like any good myth, much of the Mandela story is essentially true—even as the myth oversimplifies and distorts the truth it expresses. Once we move away, however, from the bare bones of biography and try to find the man behind the myth, we come across a series of contradictions cast in standard tropes: an African traditionalist and a “black Englishman”; a tough political activist and a reconciler; an individualist and a political loyalist; an uneasy family man and everybody’s favorite grandfather.

It is all too easy to set up a false dichotomy between Mandela the African “traditionalist” and Mandela the Western democrat. Too much is made of his Xhosa traditional ancestry and participation in royal councils as a youth. While these experiences are often cited to explain his presidential leadership style—open discussion followed by a fairly authoritarian decision—they should be read against the fact that he was, for much of his career, a loyal high ranking member of the A.N.C., which prided itself on collective leadership and joint decision making. Similarly, from what biographer Tom Lodge calls his “Anglo-Methodist” upbringing in mission schools, we need to factor in Mr. Mandela’s unashamed Anglophilia and endorsement of the British parliamentary system, even at the Rivonia Treason Trial in 1963 that led to his imprisonment.

We should never underestimate Mr. Mandela’s pragmatism and sense of tradition. He could be both revolutionary and reconciler. Did Mr. Mandela, the militant of the 1950s and 1960s who helped to organize underground A.N.C. structures and who called for armed resistance a few years before M.K. was launched, “evolve” into an almost  Gandhian advocate of reconciliation? Closer examination, once again, reveals this to be a mistaken view. Mr. Mandela, even as he started M.K., was willing to negotiate with the regime. And in the 1990s, as he led the A.N.C. in the negotiated transition, he was nothing if not stubborn and resolute. While open to dialogue, he was equally fierce in his rhetoric and unforgiving toward those he felt were dishonest or lacking in good faith.

After becoming president, he was a firm advocate of reconciliation. He went out of his way to engage with white citizens and soothe their anxieties, establish bonds of friendship with former enemies and staunchly defend—even against fellow members of the A.N.C.—the integrity of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its findings. His commitment to reconciliation was driven by his realistic assessment of the nation’s special circumstances.

The A.N.C. had not seized power, but had negotiated a transition to democracy. It could not then act like the victorious Allies at Nuremberg, even if this was desirable to some. All South Africans had to find a way to coexist. During the negotiation process between 1990 and 1994 the country almost descended into anarchy; that could not be allowed to happen again.

Simultaneously, Mr. Mandela’s nature militated against anti-white hostility: he had never feared them and had no special animus against them. Secure in himself and his convictions, he saw no need for hostility; instead he saw all the benefits in reconciling.

Father of the Nation

A third “contradiction,” that of Mandela as highly individualistic yet a committed (A.N.C.) loyalist, deserves attention. Without a doubt Mr. Mandela was deeply committed to the A.N.C. from the moment he joined the movement in his 20s. His dedication to the A.N.C., like that of many other congress members, was almost religious: a total commitment, even at great personal and financial cost to himself. He could have had a relatively easy life as a collaborator with apartheid, with the professional and financial means to insulate himself from the worst ravages of the system. Instead, Mr. Mandela sacrificed a promising legal career to activism on behalf of freedom for all.

He was also loyal and disciplined, even in prison. He rejected deals for early release offered by authorities, and—when first approached about negotiations with the government—did his best to keep his comrades in exile informed of any developments. He made no decisions without first being certain that they were in line with A.N.C. policy.

Yet he could also take an independent line when needed. In retirement, he openly challenged the denialist attitudes of his presidential successor, Thabo Mbeki, on H.I.V./AIDS. He challenged the A.N.C. itself to take the epidemic seriously and for government to provide antiretroviral drugs to those afflicted with H.I.V./AIDS. While in other areas of government policy he was more circumspect, with this matter—of life and death—he was ready to break ranks. Conviction trumped loyalty.

In his personal dealings, Mr. Mandela was a loving (grand)father figure to the nation while also working through his own uneasy family life. Mr. Mandela’s frequent absence from home on A.N.C. business eventually put an impossible strain on his first marriage to Evelyn Mase, a nurse. They divorced after 12 years of marriage; the children of this marriage were deeply ambivalent about their father throughout his life.

The children of his second marriage, to Nomzano Winnie Madikezela, were more supportive of him, even though they saw little of him for 27 years while he was in prison. Their mother shared some of Mr. Mandela’s activist spirit. She helped their children to see the bigger picture of what Mr. Mandela was trying to do. The years apart, various personal conflicts (and no doubt Winnie’s growing reputation as a political loose cannon), however, took their toll on the marriage. Winnie and Nelson were divorced in 1996.

Mr. Mandela’s final marriage, to Graça, widow of Samora Machel, former president of Mozambique, proved to be much happier. Married in 1998, shortly before he left office, she became his companion in his busy retirement.

Despite the discord in his actual family (a mirror of his somewhat unsettled childhood), Mr. Mandela gained a reputation as the kindly father figure of the South African nation. Credit for this is no doubt partly due his sustained and sincere dedication to the cause of underprivileged children.

Soon after becoming president, Mr. Mandela established his children’s fund to help poor children of all races. He donated a significant part of his salary to it each month and shamelessly raised money from local and international donors. The fund became one of the most high profile and deeply attractive of Mr. Mandela’s extra-governmental activities. Mr. Mandela came alive among children; they became a regular feature of his annual birthday party. And children, who had no idea of his political gravitas but sensed in him a gentle grandfather (perhaps, for some, the first they had ever known), loved him.

On his retirement Mr. Mandela expanded this aspect of his work to include a range of charitable and advocacy works of his foundation. All this generosity of spirit and tireless concern for the marginalized contributed to the sense among many South Africans that they were in the presence of greatness, perhaps even secular sanctity. While Mr. Mandela never regarded himself as a saint, the notion at least raises the last paradox of his personality: that of a secular yet deeply spiritual person. Throughout his life, Nelson Mandela did not speak much about his religious views. But he was certainly raised as a Methodist and for a while at Fort Hare University he was involved in a students’ Christian association.

He was very well disposed to the church and to church leaders, many of whom were as committed as he was to the liberation of South Africa, as were many of his A.N.C. comrades. During his time in prison, Mr. Mandela would attend church services and listen to religious programs on the radio—as his prison memoirs reveal.

Yet whatever Mr. Mandela’s private faith, he never made it a public issue. He would repeatedly refer to “the religious sector” or of “faith communities” in the plural, mirroring the principles in the 1997 Constitution of South Africa as a secular, multi-faith and multicultural society. Given that South Africa, though predominantly Christian, is religiously diverse (many Christian churches, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, African traditional religion and at least 10 percent secularist) and in places syncretist (many Christians also practice African traditional religion) or eclectic (committed Communists, for example, who are also practising Christians or Muslims), such an approach was both strategic and in line with the nation’s unifying civil creed, the Constitution.

After Mandela

Shortly before Mr. Mandela left office in 1999, the journalist Lester Venter suggested some fairly alarming scenarios about what might happen after Mr. Mandela’s death, which he outlined in his book, When Mandela Goes. Some of his predictions have already shown signs of materializing—growing corruption in government and an increasingly racialized political discourse. A final concern has been the possibility of an increasingly authoritarian A.N.C., intoxicated by the view that it is the only authentic voice of the “national democratic revolution,” the party that liberated South Africa from apartheid and to which they believe allegiance must be unquestioning. With Mr. Mandela’s passing, will the A.N.C. cast aside any pretense to remaining a democratic, constitutionalist party and complete a path to what is sometimes called “Zanufication” (after Robert Mugabe’s party in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF) and the prospect of a perpetual rule by a president-for-life?

A less grim alternative is possible. With Mr. Mandela’s death, the people of South Africa, increasingly displeased with the performance of the A.N.C., may feel capable of voting out the party at the next general election, something many observers feel they were unwilling to do while Mr. Mandela lived. That outcome might well be the truest expression of the legacy of Nelson Mandela, whose commitment to freedom predates commitment to any one political organization.

Nelson Mandela will be remembered as one of the greatest figures in South African history, indeed one of the greatest world figures of the 20th century. In many ways, the contradictions that were embodied in Mr. Mandela—African yet Western, pragmatic yet stubborn, combative yet reconciling—are the contradictions that run through the new, democratic South Africa he helped to create. They are the contradictions that generate tension and the paradoxes that point to an open future.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Carlos Orozco
4 years 8 months ago
Anybody like to comment on Umkhonto we Sizwe or Winnie's "fire necklaces"? Or should victims of the Mandelas be sacrificed a second time -purposefuly forgotten- for the sake of a postmodern myth?

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