The danger of making Mandela apolitical
In this article, Nhlanhla Mtaka argues that Nelson Mandela was not a lone ranger but his struggle was linked to the liberation movement struggle and context.
It is true, nature has the capacity to force us humans to act. This was evident the day former president Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela died. On that day the message from Mother Nature seems to be clear: stop individualising the multiple and avoid the trap of making Mandela apolitical.
Mandela died on December 5, a day that arsenal of Pan-Africanism, Robert Managaliso Sobukwe, was born, in 1924. In African political history, Mandela and Sobukwe’s activities place them among other African giants like Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere who personified the African need and urge for independence and freedom.
But for so long government historians, some politicians, thought leaders and media practioners/houses have been altering the post-colonial and post-apartheid narrative. Especially about former president Mandela, to the point of trying to single him out as a unique man, better than Sobukwe, Biko, Nkrumah or Nyerere and yes even better than President Robert Mugabe. In essence this scholarship and idea, paints Mandela as an anomaly among Africa and Africans.
It was therefore, not surprising to hear President Barack Obama’s eulogy saying that “like America’s founding fathers, he (Mandela) would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations”. Obama continued to compare Mandela to Gandhi. You will notice that here, Mandela is treated and singled out as being a better African — dead or alive.
There exists a danger with such a narrative, as the African intellectual Cheikh Anta Diop once warned Africans when he stated “every time when situations are not favourable to Western cultures, an effort will be made to undermine the cultural consciousness of Africans by telling them, there are no Africans”. Diop continues warning Africans not to fall into this trap because if they fall, they will be going round in circles in their quest for cultural, political and spiritual consciousness and emancipation.
One of the many problems with this false narrative is that it has the capacity to distort the whole African political history particularly the liberation movement’s importance and sociological meaning.
In her paper titled “Notes on the general features of national liberation movements” Mwesiga Baregu (1979) argues that national liberation movements were essentially a historical phenomenon responding to conditions of foreign domination, invasion, political domination, cultural sub-ordination and economic exploitation. They were thus inspired and driven by the desire to address these challenges, with the ultimate aim of bringing about national self-determination, political independence, equality and economic progress.
In defining the character of the liberation movement in the transformation process Baregu (2004: 97) presents that:
* The liberation movement is organised to overthrow an incumbent regime and capture state power by force. The political party is expected to win elections through democratic processes and persuasion of voters.
* The liberation movement is largely concerned with the mobilisation and radicalisation of popular dissent. The political party in power is preoccupied with the consensus building and, to extent, the suppression of deflection of dissent.
* The liberation movement, with its armed wing, is organised to prosecute armed struggle until it wins the liberation war. The political party is interested in demobilisation and disarming the guerrilla forces, or transforming them into regular professional army. Moreover, it has the challenge of winning the peace.
Looking at this explanation it should therefore not be difficult to conclude that Mandela was not a lone ranger. That his contribution to the national struggle, like that of leaders who came before him was a response to conditions of foreign domination, invasion, political domination, cultural sub-ordination and economic exploitation.
Given Africa’s colonial and apartheid history, one of the critical problem areas is the manner in which post-colonial and post-apartheid Africa is portrayed, and the extent to which the continent’s history has been falsified. The passing of Mandela calls for a continued interrogation of the manner in which African agency in the continent’s history is treated.
Africans must understand the trap and understand the stakes. If not, those who succeeded in divorcing the struggle of W.E.B Du Bois from that of Marcus Garvey, the struggle of Martin Luther King from that of Malcolm X will eventually succeed in divorcing Mandela from the liberation movement and context. Perhaps as a start, let us do as Mother Nature has reminded us. Let us use December 5 as a day to celebrate the lives and contributions of Sobukwe and Mandela to our collective struggle. In doing so we will avoid the trap.
Nhlanhla Mtaka is the group chairman of the Ingabadi Group
*First published by Mail & Gaurdian Thought Leaders