Assessing the legacy of our heroes and heroines requires nuance

Published Jun 5, 2018


There is a delicate balance of contrasts that confront us as participants in this curious human experience. These contrasts range between good and evil, love and hate, peace and justice, timidity and power.

The capacity of one individual to hold these seemingly opposing values seems to be a fearful assault to our intellect. We seem to be paralysed by this terrifying symmetry.

To cope with the mixed feelings these contrasts evoke, we sometimes choose to have little regard for people who challenge our desired perception – we ignore them completely, or we have to come to terms with how to hold the good and the bad of an individual simultaneously.

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In the case of South Africa, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is a good example.

His legacy among black South Africans – especially young, astute and conscious black South Africans, rich and poor alike – is constantly questioned. His sedulous conservation of white comfort has long been greeted with suspicion.

This, along with the pro-business policies at the expense of more authentic change is further proof of the compromised figure he is deemed to be in some quarters.

The saintly veneration that followed did not help in quashing the lingering suspicion that there was a bias in our freedom.

Yet the vilifying of his character – especially in light of his complicity in denigrating the legacy of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – should compel us to question our perception of history and her shapers.

There seems to be an inability on our part to view people holistically, in their historical settings and as products of their own time. This sloppy failure to apply nuance is a problem. It robs us of mindful exercise when studying the life and times of these individuals. It strips us of any empathy which can be extended to history’s bearers.

We swing from one pendulum to the next, loving them one day, and hating them the next. This is perhaps telling of the polarised times we live in, where the lines are so clearly drawn into an ‘us’ and ‘them’, you’re either with or against us, with no middle ground.

Since the dawn of our democracy, we have been wrestling to define the legacies of some of our freedom fighters. We have people who wish to brandish the dubious or “dark sides” to freedom fighters, while others still fight to protect their legacies.

Refreshed by the dawning of Winnie’s vindication against a party and state that sought to silence her, we are celebrating anew the life of one who has every right to be called the Mother of our Nation.

Yet, South Africans could not fathom a Mother of the Nation who was all about deconstruction, justice and restitution.

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Thus, two binaries were created – Mandela, who inadvertently represents error without consequence, and Ma Winnie, error with consequence.

With the lines drawn, they were matched against each other, resulting in Winnie being branded “controversial”, while Mandela became the “acceptable black”. Even in death, Mandela and Ma Winnie are still being pitted against each other, and this time, by the very people they fought for.

The airing of the bold Pascale Lamache documentary, Winnie, highlighted this hostility. Lamache’s exposure of the insidious operation behind the defamation of Winnie’s name pricked national consciousness and reinstated unanswered questions.

It also created a storm on Black Twitter with some furious South Africans questioning their loyalty to Nelson Mandela. We are still a nation in mourning, revising old wounds and processing new revelations about the role of classified government agencies. However, can Nelson Mandela’s lack of acknowledgement of Winnie be viewed as a deplorable blunder and a huge taint in his not-so-spotless legacy? This is when nuance is required when we assess Mandela’s contribution to freedom despite his flaws and the trashy elements in the lives of history-makers.

This lack of empathy and downplaying of Ma Winnie’s contribution somehow seems to validate the lack of our own insubstantial contribution to our freedom.

Ultimately, history will decide who her heroines will be. We must not forget that the political freedom we enjoy today was but a dream for those living in the deep trenches of apartheid. If an individual’s legacy is what they left behind, it is agreed that Nelson Mandela’s settlement left much to be desired. Still, it is not too much to ask that our generation pick up the mantle where the old guard left off.

In a world of uncapped fibre and Tweet updates, it is possible to shape our own story without trolling another’s. For to trash one’s legacy in our fervour to justify our own apathy is folly at best, and at worst, plays into the very treacherous hands who look to profit from a narrative of dissent.

* Sesihle Manzini is a former student at the Cornerstone Institute in Cape Town, a non-profit institution of higher education.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus

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