Politicising Mandela's Legacy

It is a well-known fact in academic circles that history is written by the victors. One only has to look to our own recording of Aboriginal Australian history, to see the large swathes which have been fabricated or removed. The Frontier Wars described by historian Henry Reynolds that John Pilger notes in a recent piece in the Guardian, was certainly left out of my public schooling. The destruction of the Aboriginal population in Tasmania and the Stolen Generations (I distinctly remember being confused when our school watched the National Apology in library- what were they apologising for?) were also missing.

The politicisation of history is often a by-product of the fact that history is written by the victors. In recent days, I have seen at least four articles which suggest the legacy of Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela will also be a victim of politicised history. Of the articles I read, one was an independent magazine, the others were pieces in the Guardian (here and here), and the last was by Andrew Bolt. The main points to these articles, was (1) Mandela was not a saint, and should not be remembered as one and (2) the conservatives and doubters of Mandela during his fight for freedom should not pretend to be inspired by him today.

I’ll keep my issues with these points and articles brief: Bolt’s piece was too short and not comprehensive enough to flesh out the reasons why Mandela used violence in his struggle. The other articles concerning the Mandela naysayers turned fans were petty and pedantic. One comment on the Guardian article encapsulates my feelings, “Shame Suzanne [author] cant [sic] follow Mandela’s example and not let bitterness imprison him”.

Critiques aside, these articles draw attention to the way Mandela’s legacy is currently being shaped. Of course, it makes sense politicians and leaders who previously opposed Mandela or would oppose Mandela in ideology and principle, do not want to be seen as the dicks that refused to celebrate one of the world’s most inspirational people, lest they shall be remembered badly themselves. No one wants to be on the wrong side of history; but shaping Mandela’s history in accordance to political motivations, has consequences greater than saving face.

The first glaring ramification of a selective reading of history is that it has the power to marginalise and to extend inequality. For example, Pilger’s article discusses the political stagnation on Aboriginal rights as one result of concealing past Aboriginal and European encounters. Since the treatment of Aboriginals was not perceived as a problem, there was no urgency and need to address Aboriginal rights. Similarly, the horrors of apartheid may now be underplayed and sanitized. Those who had a hand in the destruction of a country are left scot-free as discussion of the era is dominated by praise for Mandela.

I do not advocate that we call out all the people and politicians that resisted Mandela’s activism to name and shame them as a few articles suggested. Instead, we need to be wary of the way we remember Mandela’s time in history- including the issues that caused him to act, and the issues that remain. According to a Bloomberg article, vestiges of racial inequality remain with white South Africans more likely to be employed, receiving wages six times their black counterparts. We owe it to the South Africans still fighting for racial equality, to acknowledge what they still experience.

Not only does politicising this era in South Africa diminish the severity of apartheid, it may also diminish the potential for continued social change. Glorifying Mandela as the saviour of South Africa depicts an image of Mandela as the one individual that saved apartheid. When was the last time the African National Congress was mentioned in regards to apartheid? How about the people involved in the Free Mandela campaign or the international divest from apartheid South Africa movement? The end of apartheid seems to be attributed solely to one man. Nelson Mandela was indeed instrumental in abolishing apartheid, but we can also not forget the movement that carried him. Even Mandela encouraged us to “lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur.”

The tendency to attribute change to great individuals may discourage ordinary individuals from engaging in social change despite Mandela saying “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances”. Remembering Mandela on a saint-like level, suggests that change can only be achieved by great people, and it is not something a normal human being can be involved in. For others, it is a convenient excuse to stay passive because ‘I am no Mandela, King or Ghandi’. Of course, not everyone will be affected by this view. But there is a possibility that labelling great individuals with great change stifles the potential of others to continue social movements. Every small action makes a difference. How many have been quelled?

As the world says goodbye to Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela, we have a duty to remember him for what he was, what he stood for, why he had to act, and what the impact of his actions were. Don’t buy into verbose tributes by world leaders or influential individuals that romanticise Mandela for their own sake.  Do some research and appreciate Mandela for the reasons you think he deserves. Perhaps you will still think Mandela deserves such high praise, but at least you will not be buying into the mainstream, politicised history of South African apartheid.