Beyond the Myth of Mandela

As Jacob Zuma takes over as South Africa’s president, the ‘Beloved Country’ needs to break with idolatry

In the December 2008 edition of Harpers magazine, the South African poet in exile Breyten Breytenbach published a 90th-birthday letter to the former President, Nelson Mandela. The letter is replete with despair, grief and anger over the condition of South Africa, and it is full of scenes of misery and violence and reports of official indifference. 

Breytenbach then applies the usual South African balm of fantasy: “I expect…that you are immune from sycophancy.” “And I don’t think your self-deprecating humbleness is fake.” “Madiba [Mandela’s popular nickname], you will be remembered for being naturally curious and compassionate about the lives of the people you came in contact with.” “Dear Madiba, I’m aware of how unfair it is to lay all of the above at your feet, like some birthday bouquet of thorns. You deserve to have your knees warmed by a young virgin, like old King David in the Bible — not pummelled by the likes of me.”

As a new South African permanent resident in April of 1994, I stood in line to vote in the first multiracial elections. I was a small-time activist in Cape Town for the next ten years, so I certainly shared Breytenbach’s brain fever over the “rainbow nation”. The West’s fight against racism and authoritarianism was supposed to find its final triumph here. 

I dealt with the shock of my disappointment much as Breytenbach did, by nearly going round the bend, although my disappointment went in the opposite direction. It began with facts about Mandela that I learned from his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (Little Brown, 1994), and progressed to knowledge of his business dealings when the local investigative magazine noseweek put me on the phone to get dirt. 

I found myself interviewing a business manager of Mandela’s. This man had told the national and international press that the profits from the sale of lithographs Mandela had signed (but not created, in noseweek‘s opinion) went to a children’s charity. We had proof that the money — probably amounting to many millions of dollars — went into a private family trust of Mandela’s, from which he might be making charitable contributions (as anyone might from his own means), although there was no evidence of this that we could find. The manager finally told me that, yes, it was Mandela’s money without restriction — he could spend it all on sweets if he wanted. 

The article made no difference to Mandela’s reputation or in the enforcement of his undertakings. A few months later, on a trip to the prison at Robben Island, which is the main Mandela shrine, I found the lithographs still for sale. A colourful pamphlet contained the same equivocation as before, and the salesman was indignant that anyone would challenge a claim made in Mandela’s name. Mandela’s personal lawyer, who had set up two successive art businesses (the contract for one of which noseweek obtained), was eventually removed, for allegedly swindling Mandela. I never heard or saw any acknowledgement that Mandela was the main beneficiary of a scheme fraudulent from the beginning. Or that he, as a lawyer himself, should at least have understood what he was contracting for, which in any case went on for years without any objection from him. “Teflon” is not the metaphor for him. He is an image graven of solid diamond. 

This sort of episode is not supposed to matter. When pressed, many South Africans will admit to disappointments with Mandela, from his early insistence that a movement of nonviolent protest become violent (bringing an avalanche of small arms now useful in crime, for which the “armed struggle” proved to be excellent indoctrination and training), to his policy inertia in office, to his choice of a successor, Thabo Mbeki, who turned out to be an Aids dissident and was wildly unpopular even with people who agreed with him about Aids. But the point, they maintain, is the “inspiration”, the prison-to-presidency story, his personal ability to endure and even negotiate, which did (at last) end the civil war (that he insisted on starting). But even unconnected to the fate of the nation, Mandela, himself, is merely “inspiring”. 

And this inspiration is said to work magic, to “uplift” the entire nation. But one problem is the very cogency and validity of the story on its surface. Apartheid was wrong and it had to go. Mandela, an able leader, should have had access to the ordinary political process. He suffered and planned and held out, eventually getting his own back with compound interest. But if his rewards are just, then that justice is nevertheless merely a transaction, the kind touted in familiar terms: “Had a rough time? Treat yourself! You deserve it.” He is a cross between an icon and an advertisement, a most attractive object of worship on a continent where it is so hard to find anything to believe in and where there is so much material need. 

The big problem is that his worshippers in the black townships were not, like him, educated at mission schools, among progressive lawyers, and at the “University of Robben Island”. They might as well have been forgotten in a prison underground. They cannot even clearly picture Mandela’s sophistication, geniality and other good traits or his worthy aspirations. The legend simply urges them to get what they believe is right for them, in proportion to their wrongs. They have been enormously wronged, and the biggest compensations within reach are their 11-year-old neighbour’s virginity and my backpack. 

I have often heard Mandela’s reputation called “celebrity” (and he certainly has a great personal affinity for celebrities), but this does not describe it. At least in the West, famous people are pathetically accountable, often for quite private failings. Mandela is an idol in the old sense in that his meaning is static, as if he were not alive and human. 

He has not gone uncriticised. There is a balanced critical biography by Tom Lodge (Mandela: A Critical Life, Oxford University Press, 2006). But finding fault with Mandela is like trying to change the definition of a well-established word — pretty much impossible. Mandela is that much of a symbol. Breytenbach himself touches on an attempt at dissent from the Mandela cult, mentioning the nickname “Moneydeala”, but then veers off into blaming Mandela’s circle (“After all, your aura is for sale, and your entourage is very needy and greedy”), as if he has reported a piece of abysmal slang that he, as an authoritative writer, can of course not use. 

The worship of Mandela amounts to a very determined worship of South Africans’ own self-will. Mandela’s cult cuts people loose, sanctifies whatever they feel like doing. I saw this most clearly in his attempts to change people’s behaviour. He would declare, for example, that men and women must share housework and childcare, or that parents who refused to send their children to school would go to jail. Naturally, he has railed against crime. Nothing ever happened. No one on the ground seemed to equate loving Mandela with doing anything he wanted done. 

I would by no means single out the black majority here. The white buy-in to Mandela isn’t startlingly more enlightened, and its consequences may be more destructive. Suburbanites who revere him apply his lessons about the sanctity of aspiration and success in unconsciously ironic ways: Mandela is wonderful, most things are better now, we can do deals with the new government and take a six-week vacation in the Seychelles, but what does our gardener mean about wanting to be paid while we’re gone?  

In Europe and the US, things can get dramatically worse, but not forever. That would seem to be against nature, as if people were only dying and not being born. In South Africa, between 1994 (the year of the first multiracial elections) and 2005, I saw everything go pear-shaped for the poor. I met the changes in the street. A little off the busiest part of downtown Cape Town one day, in front of a luxury car dealership, a shirtless teenage boy was stumbling along the sidewalk. Someone had blinded him and dug out pieces of his flesh with what might have been an apple corer. The car salesmen laughed at my demands that they help, but I insisted, and they called an ambulance. I sat on the curb with him and held his hand, waiting, imagining the rest of his life. 

There were many reasons the country had become so brutal, but I’m convinced that one of them was Mandela’s inspiration itself. With the greatest zest, people took hold of the hope of compensating themselves with no very strict accounting. To judge from my students in and from the townships, that hope has been a greater burden than their hardships. My classes did not want to prepare for exams, did not want to stop shoving or taunting. They had fierce trouble in parting from the idea of always doing as they pleased — that would throw into doubt the “Mandela miracle” of self-determination that embodied for them everything good. Imagine a religion that takes the teenagers’ side. 

The most obvious way to combat idolatry is through fact. “Hard facts” and “hard copy” are wonderful terms in this connection. The idol claims solid substance, but only real things and real experiences have it. R. W. Johnson and Alec Russell are both respected journalists, so I was right to expect good writing from them. But I didn’t expect books good enough to point me beyond journalism and cause me to speculate about new, more sympathetic and productive ways of thinking about Africa and the developing world. 

Johnson’s South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country Since the End of Apartheid (Penguin) and Russell’s After Mandela: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa (Hutchinson) each presents many years of deep research and conscientious analysis. Both accounts butcher sacred cows, as did Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart in 1990 but few conspicuous publications since.

I prefer Johnson. He grew up in South Africa and was an opponent of apartheid, so his access and insight are deeper. Carefully and unflinchingly, he tells (for example) of the poor qualifications of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), member by insider member, and his account of their activities takes apart even the compulsory, Mandela-like “inspiration” most of the press touted when they couldn’t detect any pragmatic help from the TRC in building a more humane society. 

As a linguist, I was impressed by Johnson’s account of South African language politics and the way that 11 official languages have effectively become a single language: since English is stronger in every practical sense, it competes with, and defeats, the others. It does so in defiance of much Africanist rhetoric, and it does so more rapidly in that the African languages have not put up a fight at the grassroots. Johnson implicitly extends the analogy to African culture as a whole: political correctness — which lies about the strength and adaptability of the oppressed in isolation — is a means of further oppression.

Johnson’s main argument is boldly persuasive: that the tragedy of modern Africa is not colonialism but the loss of colonialism and all the skills and investment it brought. The facts support him. In most regions of Africa, the white presence has been recent and slight. South Africa, with the oldest and most active white settlements, is the country to which northerners flee. It has the best infrastructure, the greatest variety and solidity in its economy and the most concern for human rights. This heritage is no less firmly related to European colonialism than it is in Canada. Nor is the nature of South Africa’s most pressing needs any less obvious. The most casual tourist and the angriest Marxist can both see that the main needs are technical and managerial skills and integration with the industrialised world. It wasn’t the whites in Zimbabwe who caused that country’s catastrophe — it was the shortage of them. 

That kind of reality has necessarily been hard for Africans to cope with. They have tried to make their own leadership a counterbalance, a salient political and cultural force. It doesn’t work. 

The revered Mandela, Mbeki, whom many Africans refer to as a mampara (someone, generally a public figure, who has said or done something so idiotic that it boggles the mind), and the new President, the demagogic Jacob Zuma, are equally helpless. National government was weak and discredited when they got it, and with a majority African constituency, the indifference to national government per se prevails. It seems essential to take analysis further inside ordinary people’s heads in order to grasp what is happening.

As crises grow, both blacks and whites are more deeply occupied with being who they separately are, in either case the only people they can imagine surviving. For blacks, salvation is the group and the opportunities the land offers, including other people’s property. For whites, it is the individual and rules and other abstractions, including the calculation that the lifelong employees aren’t profitable and can be sacked with only the statutory severance pay. Both groups will ignore anything a government tells them they ought to do if they do not feel like doing it and cannot be forced. There is consequently real horror in Mandela’s effective encouragement of South Africans to do whatever they want. Aids is a case in point. 

Both Johnson and Russell trace Mbeki’s Aids denial in detail. Russell has a sizeable section about Mandela’s few public statements on the issue and his return to silence under pressure from African traditionalists. Russell implies that campaigning by Mandela would have made a huge difference (as Mandela clearly felt later, in confessing his neglect). But doctors, medical researchers and activists, when admitting facts, are all saying the same thing: Aids prevention programmes in southern Africa have failed. The infection rate was unchecked in 1995, when I seemed to be the lone teacher at the University of Cape Town to put up a poster or explain the use of a condom to a class. It is unchecked now (except by natural means such as the debility and death of carriers), when prevention efforts are — in the private sector, anyway — fashionable, widespread and sometimes highly profitable. 

It is hardest of all to think that government policy of any kind would have made any difference. Mandela has been passionate in speaking out against crime, and was ignored: crime grew like a weed both during his tenure and after it, uninfluenced by what even such an adored statesman wanted.

Aids has seized the biggest percentage of a national population in stable, relatively prosperous Botswana, where the interventions were early, broad and by the book. This is not a paradox, because in Africa, Aids is a disease of development, of roads and money. Through these, Africans acquire more sexual partners, which they see as a justified, adaptive use of the land and its resources. Crucially, the one-night stand is rare. A man may see a woman only a few times a year, but she is still “his girlfriend”, and he brings her money, clothes and toys for their children. Sex in Africa is not about promiscuity but networking and fertility, about founding and enlarging a nurturing and protective clan. Telling Africans that, in the era of Aids, this is not so any more is like telling them they can’t touch the food in front of them. In fact, they retort with this same metaphor (“Shall I not eat the fruit of a tree?”). This applies, mutatis mutandis, to crime. Don’t bother to say in Africa, “There it is, and though you and people close to you need it and nobody else is using it, keep your hands off it,” because nobody is listening.

Deriding African males is not to the point, as women (unless they have a religious or material stake in Western sexual ideology) are just as intransigent, asking, “How do I get the necessities of life unless I trade sex for them?” The homilies about girls “foolishly” putting out for taxi rides and buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken come from people who never sat in a shack without even a supply of boiled maize.

The other most stark problem in South Africa, the economy, which threatens to create a crisis like Zimbabwe’s, is meticulously covered in both books (more thoroughly and insightfully in Johnson’s). How can we think more productively about Africa, so that honest and diligent books like these can reach some conclusion besides despair? I couldn’t help but deplore, while making my way through Johnson’s excellent chapter on black economic empowerment, our Western statistical superstition. The current world economic crisis, with rushed and solemn meetings of political and financial leaders, has reinforced our strange idea of the past century, that numbers — rather than people — do things. 

To explore African investment and employment in terms of financiers’ and governments’ calculations on paper seems very limiting. Policy does not rule in this domain any more than with Aids. The policy of African leaders becomes important chiefly when, like Robert Mugabe, they go insane with frustration and start to raze things. Paranoia, psychologists tell us, is fundamentally about powerlessness: a person would rather be important enough for persecution than be utterly ignored. (This makes Mbeki’s position more sympathetic: without Mandela-like status to fool him, he had to see much more clearly that his country would go wherever it wished, in spite of “leadership”.)

As for Aids, Africans and Europeans are not even naming the same set of problems when they speak of the “economy”. The size of the menace drives them deep into the security of their distinct traditions. The economic conflicts that result are naturally heavy: they are about different ideas of what life is for. Anthropologists write of the “high leisure preference” of African males. Right now, America could learn a lot from their scepticism about the exchange of time for material goods. But in Africa, real hatred rises from the clash between African and Western attitudes towards work. 

The Northern Hemisphere’s environment — good soil, shallow minerals, readily harvestable hard timber, many water sources, few droughts, few endemic diseases, few parasites, few predators — cried out for control and cowered under our manipulation. Planning and owning worked there. The most adaptive Africans put their energy into banding together and merely helping keep track, as far as they can, of the devastating forces around them. 

They were then invaded by people who had technologies powerful enough to overcome a few of the realities of Africa. These people boasted that, given a free hand, they could overcome them all. This did not seem to the Africans to be true, and besides, they could see that they themselves were among these realities. But the technologies brought in (such as maize culture) that required systematic work were useful — and increased the population to numbers that could not do without them, and then beyond those numbers. But these technologies were not really suitable for the local climate or natural resources and needed one infusion after another of expensive, complex, troublesome new technology. One main African way of life that looks ancient, authentic and sustainable, subsistence farming on permanent allotments, was in many regions new and out of kilter 100 years ago.

Whites in South Africa tried to tip the cultural balance optimally in their favour. Making Africans work in distant mines in white territory was a project that long predated the forced removals of apartheid. Most of the Africans the mining houses wished to recruit were not tempted by money and had to be indentured courtesy of their chiefs, or taxed or starved into labour. The mining compounds were virtual prisons. But accounts, like Russell’s, of miners’ lives stress efficient control and oppression in a way that does not ring true. For example, I remember South African mine owners pleading, in a full-page ad in a major national newspaper, for the international norm of continuous operation, with night shifts to make the most of expensive capital and sustain companies and jobs. South Africa’s deeply buried gold was extra-costly to extract in the first place, the ad claimed, and now the local industry was taking a hammering from continuous-operation mines overseas. The low South African wage scale was not mentioned, and I could not vouch for any of the figures, but one at first odd-looking circumstance did emerge clearly. In a country with reported unemployment above 30 per cent and a government social-welfare system that was a bad joke, and private charities overwhelmed, workers refused to co-operate with their employers by working at night. 

This same intransigence turns up in many new enterprises in South Africa. Africans think they have always had too little control over their environment, and they won’t accept less. Before a labour-intensive business full of African employees fails, the unspoken (but vividly and traumatically acted out) dialogue goes something like this:

“If you take every short-term advantage, there won’t be a factory to employ you.”

“We don’t care. This isn’t what we wanted anyway.”

“But how will you live?”

“As we always have — however we can. It’s not as if we get real security from you.”

“I can’t respect you and make you secure unless you behave the way I do, seeing all the implications of doing a perfect job bottling soft drinks. Objects have meaning. You have to take account of all of the relationships and the consequences in order to be a civilised human being.”

“I can’t trust you unless you prove that I’m more important to you than the soft drinks I bottle. I take responsibility for every person in my life. You use me the way you use a machine. What’s this ‘civilised human being’? You don’t behave like a human being at all.”

“You stink.”

“No, you stink.”

A close friend who had opened a fast-food restaurant would confer with his manager about the inventory: every kind of supply was disappearing, including gallons of cooking oil. It must be going out the back, but my friend wasn’t going to chain the fire door. Rules were rules. Finally, threatened with bankruptcy, he closed the restaurant and its factory, laid off 35 African employees, and started a computer business with five employees, one Indian and four whites. He said the harrowing transition was worth not having Africans work for him any more.

In his subtitle, Johnson alludes to Alan Paton’s classic Cry, The Beloved Country. “The Beloved Country” is a well-chosen phrase. In the novel, the presiding deity is a beautiful valley and the only happy ending is its environmental restoration — which will hold only, its benefactor concedes, until population growth overtakes the place’s new fertility. 

In South Africa, Europeans and Africans love the land in proportion to their annoyance with each other. Such a gorgeous and precious prize to fight over has helped turn their grievances against each other into myths. It is urgently time to start looking beyond the myths.

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