Sharp Read | Reassessing Mandela

A newly published analysis of Nelson Mandela as a historical figure and not a sell-out or a saint is an important addition to the canon of critiques about him.

Few, if any, figures in recent memory have been subject to the sort of global mythologisation that was generated around Nelson Mandela from the time of the Free Mandela Concert in London on 11 June 1988 until his death on 5 December 2013. But as we all know, Mandela’s reputation suffered a precipitous decline among the Fallist generation of 2015.

Both the sanctification of Mandela and the sudden turn to hostility and contempt among the Fallists were markedly detached from reality. The same was true of the sudden sanctification of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela by the Fallists. Reassessing Mandela (Jacana, 2021) is an important attempt to set aside both the sanctification and demonisation and begin to develop a serious analysis of Mandela as a historical figure.

It is edited by two of South Africa’s most respected senior historians, Colin Bundy and William Beinart, who are both academics with impeccable reputations for scholarly rigour. Generations of young radicals have been raised on Bundy’s major 1988 book, The Rise and Fall of the South African Peasantry, along with Hidden Struggles in Rural South Africa, which Bundy and Beinart wrote together and published in 1987.

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The book includes work by some of the leading historians writing about South Africa today, including Shireen Hassim, noted for the nuance of her work, and Paul S Landau, whose extraordinarily rigorous and original work is held in high regard.

It starts with a bracing introduction by Bundy, written with his characteristic flair, in which he notes that both “claims that Mandela single-handed achieved democracy” and the “charge that ‘Mandela sold us out’” are “poor history”. He shows that, outside of the sound and fury of cheap sloganeering, the empirical claims in the canonical version of the Mandela story are being slowly revised in new scholarship, including corrections to a number of inaccuracies in Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela’s autobiography.

Bundy is also clear that critique of Mandela is not new and that there were sharp critiques of him among the generation of activists who rose through the ranks of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and often saw Mandela as displacing popular organisation and mobilisation with personal authority.

Among a number of penetrating insights, Bundy also notes that Mandela’s attitude to race was a version of the ANC’s multiracialism of the 1950s. That view, of course, was a world apart from the non-racialism development in the Black Consciousness Movement, the trade union movement and then the UDF during the 1970s and 1980s. This is a particularly important observation because much of the contemporary contempt for non-racialism as idea and praxis is actually a contempt for the forms of multiracialism and multiculturalism that were actively misrepresented as non-racialism from the 1990s onwards.

Facts and fiction

Reassessing Mandela’s first chapter is by the late Philip Bonner, a trade unionist and historian. Bonner’s carefully researched chapter gracefully details a number of empirical inaccuracies in Mandela’s own account of his life, including, in particular, his relationship during his childhood and early years with Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the Thembu regent.

The next chapter, by the well-known intellectual Xolela Mangcu, is among the strongest in the book. Mangcu picks up some of the themes of Bonner’s chapter and makes short shrift of scholars who, while aiming to be radical, “repeat the infantilisation of African societies”. His critique of the work of Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni and Busani Ngcaweni is particularly sharp. Given Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s standing as a decolonial thinker, there is a real charge in Mangcu’s persuasive argument that the two authors repeat rather than critique colonial ideas when it comes to the social and political lifeworld from which Mandela emerged.

Drawing on the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the late South African sociologist Archie Mafeje, Mangcu develops a scathing critique of scholars who sustain the colonial invention of the “tribe” into the present and misrepresent Africans as “tribal” or “premodern”. Mangcu’s critique corrects a number of empirical and analytical inaccuracies, some of which he shows have masked the degree to which some Thembu monarchs aligned themselves with colonialism. He shows that Mandela himself omitted important information in this regard to present himself, in romantic terms, as the heir to an uncomplicated, revolutionary lineage.

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The next chapter, by Tom Lodge, is also excellent. Lodge focuses on Mandela’s relationship with the left and illuminates his warm relationships with a number of leading communists. He shows that, for a period, Mandela was, in Madikizela-Mandela’s words, “a total red” with pictures of Lenin and Stalin on his desk. Lodge notes that, later on, Mandela would erase this period of his life in his self-presentation, including his almost certain membership of the South African Communist Party (SACP). Lodge’s account of Mandela’s life after prison does not shy away from what, in his introduction, Bundy refers to as his openness “to the blandishments and persuasion of business interests at a personal level” – an aspect of Mandela’s legacy that would, we can add, have been described as “capture” today.

Landau’s chapter on Mandela’s struggle to reorientate the ANC with the famous M-Plan is superb and ground-breaking history. He shows that Mandela sought to centralise control of the movement and, more widely, the struggle. He also shows that the ANC did not suddenly turn to violence with the decision to take up the armed struggle in the early 1960s, and that the role of the SACP in the formation of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) has been overstated. On the contrary, the ANC had been using violence since the 1920s to protect its strikes from provocateurs and scabs, and Black nationalists, including Mandela, were central to the formation of MK.

On shaky ground 

The fifth chapter, by Thula Simpson, is not persuasive. Simpson is a careful historian and he provides valuable empirical detail on the early years of MK. However, Simpson wishes to offer a critique of claims that MK was largely ineffectual as a military force and the empirical evidence that he marshals to support his position simply does not do the work required to achieve a significant revaluation of the efficacy of MK.

The next chapter, by Martha Evans, takes up a theme that is present in much of the other work in the book, which is the care that Mandela took to shape his public image and the astuteness with which he undertook this project. Evans looks at how Mandela engaged the few journalists who were able to visit Robben Island during his imprisonment. This is probably not work that will appeal to a general reader – it’s a close reading of a particular aspect of Mandela’s life – but it is undertaken with care and nuance and is a valuable contribution to the scholarship.

The same could perhaps be said of the following chapter, by the young but promising historian Timothy Gibbs. He provides a detailed analysis of the different currents in legal thinking and practice that led to the drafting of the new, human rights-based Constitution. Gibbs takes seriously the fact that Mandela was a lawyer and his analysis is entirely persuasive. The primary thrust of the argument made by Gibbs is that Mandela played a leading role in “welding together the rival groupings of human rights lawyers into a broad anti-apartheid coalition” and that “much of this was rooted in his personal biography”.

Hassim has won wide praise and respect for her careful work on Madikizela-Mandela. This chapter takes that work into a specific examination of the relationship, real and imagined, between her and Mandela. Hassim provides an entirely convincing account of the sexism with which this has all been understood. Resisting both the demonisation of Madikizela-Mandela and what Hassim describes as her “beatification” after her death, a process driven to a considerable degree by the Fallist generation, Hassim restores political agency to the young Madikizela-Mandela and teases out fundamental differences in the childhood experiences and politics of the couple.

Honest gaze

Madikizela-Mandela is shown to have emerged from a harsh and violent childhood to become an important activist and political figure. She would go on to endure terrible abuse at the hands of the state and then become both an abuser herself and a charismatic and courageous leader during the tumultuous period of the 1980s. Hassim handles sensitive matters with great delicacy and does not gloss over the fact, as much recent writing does, that the rift between Madikizela-Mandela and the UDF and a significant part of her constituency in Soweto followed the abduction of four teenagers from the Methodist Church Manse in Soweto, following which one, Stompie Sepei, was murdered. For reasons that are not clear, Hassim does not offer any comment on the murder of Abu Baker Asvat, known as the people’s doctor.

The last chapter of the book, by Elleke Boehmer, is certainly the weakest. Boehmer’s work has not been able to extricate itself from the clichés that have come to prominence following the Fallist rupture in 2015. The term “decolonial” is used in a conceptually imprecise way, the assumptions woven through the work are wearyingly overfamiliar and the rigour of the rest of the book is absent. For instance, Boehmer makes a real blunder in accepting the canard that Mandela was committed to non-racialism. It is not clear why this chapter was included in what is otherwise a superb collection of work.

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This book offers a valuable set of empirical correctives to the Mandela mythology, including the romantic self-presentation in Long Walk to Freedom. It also makes considerable progress in removing the figure of Mandela from the realm of myth – whether sanctified or demonised – and restoring him as a historical person. 

There is also another important analytical point that runs through much of the work collected here: a number of the authors show that many of the critiques of Mandela that purport to be radical erase his agency, often misrepresenting him as under the sway of white influence. Persuasively showing that Mandela was always his own man – whether in terms of his relationship to the communist movement or human rights law – is, surely, an important contribution.

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