Nelson Mandela: What will his true legacy be?

As, once again, the health of the man the whole world has loved to love waxes and wanes, and as prayers were held, vigils kept, doctors worked, and the whole world hoped that he should live for much longer, following yet another hospitalisation in June for a recurrent lung infection, his family has maintained a […]


As, once again, the health of the man the whole world has loved to love waxes and wanes, and as prayers were held, vigils kept, doctors worked, and the whole world hoped that he should live for much longer, following yet another hospitalisation in June for a recurrent lung infection, his family has maintained a dignified silence. It is therefore with humble gratitude that amid all the media frenzy and speculation, New African Pusch Commey was honoured to speak exclusively with Nelson Mandela’s eldest daughter, Dr Makaziwe Mandela at her residence. They discuss, among many issues, how the Mandela family will define his legacy.

Nelson Mandela is hugely credited for tackling and defeating racism of the worst kind – apartheid – the biggest institutional fraud in the modern world, which was grounded in myth, group narcissism and a vile belief system. But Mandela squirmed in humility. The defeat of physical racism was a global partnership and he was lucky to have had principled and astute mentors by his side. And best of all the African traditional value system of inclusivity – Ubuntu.

He has often been deified, but has rejected sainthood, unless in his words, “a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.” Like Christ, he was prepared to die for his people, and paid a heavy price – 27 years in prison. Like Christ, he preached forgiveness and reconciliation, even in victory. All this, and much more, is what has for the past 6 decades resonated around the world – Mandela’s moral conscience in a fractious world.

But like all things, there are hangovers. Turning the other cheek is saintly, but on the other hand it emboldens your bitter adversaries to nail you to the cross; those who see the world as a power relation in black and white – not in colour. Those terrible one-dimensional inhabitants of the earth.

And as Madiba or Tata (as he is affectionately known in South Africa) fought for his life in June, having been in and out of hospital in the past few months, speculation has been in overdrive and much has been made by certain media of a particular narrative, with sensational headlines such as: “The children and grandchildren of Nelson Mandela have begun a mad scramble for the financial benefits of his legacy while Tata lay sick in bed.”

Meeting Makaziwe Mandela at her residence to present her with a new book for her father (100 Great African Kings and Queens) –Nelson Mandela’s eldest daughter, who is the head of the Mandela household, was asked to comment on such speculation:

“That is media with an agenda. Nothing can be further from the truth. It is preposterous. As Chinua Achebe said, ‘If you want to plunder your neighbour, first hire a good storyteller to spew out false narratives about him or her.’ There are those who are intent on a ‘free-for-all’ access to his intellectual property for their own commercial gain. Any attempt at protecting his name, image, dignity and legacy is countered with mudslinging in the media, witting or unwitting.

We have seen purveyors of his name, in many instances for gain, and have kept a dignified silence as family. But there comes a time when we as family have to take a stand, otherwise we are not Mandela. Taking a principled stand is what defined Tata. We have no respect for crass materialism,” she told New African.

When asked why the family remains dignifiedly silent on such reports, she said: “We appreciated that the world made Mandela. For after all what is a soccer match without the supporters, the referee, the linesmen and all those who make it what it is. We are thankful. But Mandela and his legacy, is African first. His statue stands in the plush suburb of Sandton and many other places around the world, with others benefitting from the tourism spin-offs. We have no qualms. It is an honour.

His face appears on the Rand, gold coins and in so many places with benefits channelled into the unknown. He is everywhere. Someone even opened a Nelson Mandela Bottle Store. While most of it is in honour of him, there are also those who see an opportunity to profit from that association. And they see the family as an impediment. We have had value extracted from his name by all kinds of entrepreneurs without question. But it is time to take a stand and protect his name, honour, dignity and legacy.”

But as the condition of the people Mandela liberated remains static after 20 years, it is a dilemma the “new” South Africa still grapples with, as its famous son’s advanced age and frequent hospitalisation brings to the fore the question of how South Africa will move on from or build on the Mandela legacy. The South Africa of today is still in conflict by and large, in terms of race, class, economics, politics, ethnicity, nationality and a myriad other known and unknown factors.

But many concur, that as the curtain inevitably closes, Madiba gave his best performance, and is exiting the stage to a standing ovation. It was not easy and Mandela, as wise beyond measure as he was throughout his active life, himself acknowledged: “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb,” he would say.

But how does the daughter and family of one of the world’s most revered people define his legacy?
“People will remember him for forgiveness and reconciliation, but often forget about the children, the future,” Maki, as she is fondly known, told New African.

 “Remember, on retirement he set up the Nelson Mandela children’s fund. He committed one third of his salary to that fund. He loves children, and surrounded himself with his children and grandchildren at home. He tirelessly encouraged captains of industry to build schools. He has stated that education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. The Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital is nearing completion. Our children are our future.”

And how does the Mandela family plan to carry on with his legacy?
“We, as a family, are on the same page. My background is that of a social worker until I took my doctorate in anthropology in the US, to better understand my chosen profession. Despite my forays into successful businesses, children have been close to my heart too. As a family, Tata’s legacy will be channelled into improving the lot of the African child and to inspiring children of the world.

We have benefited from education, and that is what has made us. Oh, and also remember that irrespective of a chequered educational trajectory, of uncompleted degrees due to his politics, Tata never gave up on education. When he was much older and in prison he persisted and finished with all the unfinished courses he had embarked on and got his degrees. That inspiration is often forgotten.”

On the continental front there have been towering predecessor heroes like Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba (who paid the ultimate price), Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda, to mention but a few. What makes Mandela special is perhaps his pragmatism, his forgiveness and reconciliation project that lifted him to a Christ-like figure. He was militant, persistent and sacrificed everything he held dear for a cause. He had a just cause, firm principles, was persecuted and was, most tellingly, prepared to die for what he believed in. 

Having given up 27 years of his most productive life in jail, he came out to lead his people to political liberation and eschewed retribution. He forgave and partnered with his oppressors and allowed them to keep their gains. With the future of his country in his heart, he believed that the future belonged to the next generation, hence he served just one term in office, when most African heads of state would bleed their countries to death just to prolong their presidency.

Then after retiring from public life he dedicated himself to children, the next generation. It is that kind of timeless romantic narrative that has captured the imagination of the world. And he has been well rewarded with adulation and undoubtedly, his shoes are too large to fill. But Dr Maki Mandela has a special message to the world:

“We as a family express our great appreciation to all those who have supported, loved, and stood steadfastly by Tata during his travails. Special thanks must go to his senior counsel who defended him in the famous Rivonia trial in 1963, where he drew a line in the sand to proclaim to the world a non-racial inclusive society, and was prepared to die for it. These honourable men are Sir Sydney Kentridge (QC) and the late Bram Fischer (may his soul rest in peace). And to all South Africans, irrespective of race and creed, who stood by him.

Many heroic ones stood by their conscience when their race afforded them privileges exclusive of their fellow citizens. Some even paid the ultimate price. We thank his party, the ANC, the Nelson Mandela foundation, South Africa, our African brothers and sisters on our continent, and the world. Tata is an African first. Everyone made great sacrifices to make sure that what was wrong would not triumph. Without the support of the world he would not be the revered icon that he is today. We cannot thank the world enough.”

And indeed what is also often forgotten is that Nelson Mandela, like his African brothers in the liberation struggle, started off as an African Nationalist, an ideological position he held since joining the ANC in 1943. From that perspective he stood firmly in favour of democracy and socialist ideals. He held a conviction that “inclusivity, accountability and freedom of speech” were the fundamentals of democracy and was driven by a belief in natural and human rights. Like most liberation leaders of those formative years in the mid 20th century, he was opposed to capitalism, private land-ownership and the power of big money.

The 1955 Freedom Charter, which Mandela had helped create, called for the nationalisation of banks, gold mines, and land, believing it necessary to ensure equal distribution of wealth. But Nelson Mandela evolved. After attaining the objective of freedom he said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” After all, the African National Congress did not attain a military victory, and his adversaries were an integral part of the social fabric of South Africa.

After all is said and done, the Mandela family, as Maki has explained, know what will define his legacy. But outside the family view, many may also ask, what has Nelson Mandela’s legacy really been? What comes immediately to mind is what is often described as realpolitik. Despite his socialist beliefs, Mandela nationalised nothing during his presidency, fearing that this would scare away foreign investors. This decision was in part influenced by the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc during the early 1990s, and China’s adoption of free market policies. This dilemma of an appropriate economic pathway steeped in injustice has had implications.

After his retirement from public office, economic justice has become the theme of the current South Africa, with some radical blacks including his ex-wife Winnie Mandela, accusing him of having compromised the economic liberation of his people. So the battle continues on how massive inequalities, drawn along racial lines, can be bridged. This has pitted the white owners of the factors of production and capital, inherited from apartheid, against poor and cheap black labour, also an apartheid relic. An educational and skills deficit means the blacks have difficulty in competing, and have often vented their spleen on more entrepreneurial foreign immigrants without such deficit. Even when blacks manage to get into university, a recent report has found that only 15% manage to graduate.

In the mix is the deadly time bomb of unemployment, which has partly contributed to criminality. It officially stands at 25.2%, but others project it being up to 70%. Then there are those politically connected blacks who have found economic nirvana through white anointing, to keep the waters calm. Other blacks who have found space in government employment have embarked on a looting spree of state coffers. Many people often wonder what Nelson Mandela could have been thinking about in retirement.

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