Nelson Mandela’s meaning for young South Africans

Sipho Hlongwane writes: How do you encapsulate the weight of Nelson Mandela on South Africa? How do you do so from the perspective of a generation that does not remember the man in jail, or remember when he walked free, and the idolisation that went with that? These are some of the challenges that we face, as we grapple with the legacy of Madiba and apartheid that is thrust upon us.

My first memory of Mandela was around 1993, when a South African defence force helicopter rumbled overhead and poured forth a cloud of voter education pamphlets (which had Mandela’s face on them) into the hazy KwaZulu Natal afternoon air. My friends and I were a few months away from our 5th birthdays, what did we know of such things? Nevertheless, we were conscripted into collecting and destroying the pamphlets by angry adults, who exhorted us not to read the “communist propaganda”.

For the next couple of weeks, we were made to attend a series of meetings hosted by the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom party, which spooked us into fearing the African National Congress, which was coming to take away our homes and force us into communist slave camps.

A taut thread of fear ran through our preschool daily existences. Such were the joys of growing up in an IFP stronghold during the transition years. This rude introduction into South Africa’s often absurd politics helped temper any veneration I might have had of Mandela.

His death will briefly throw the world into a bereavement that befits the passing of an icon. What the rest of the world will blessedly miss is the anguish, doubt and emotional turmoil that has gripped South Africa for the last decade and more, which will now be heightened .

When he still walked among us, Madiba was the people’s man in the truest sense – all South Africans who bought into the post-apartheid ideal of reconciliation and nation building felt that Madiba was somehow an indispensable part of themselves. Inevitably then, there will be a tug of war for ownership of his legacy.

The unspoken truth in South Africa is that Mandela has been politically irrelevant since 1999. His successor Thabo Mbeki’s bristly nine years in power all but erased Mandela’s genial and reconciliatory years from the popular imagination. The Mbeki years were the natural next step in the development of the nation’s cracked psyche, but it didn’t make them any less painful or scary. The memories of apartheid and the violence of the transition years were still fresh. Like a baby weaned off breast milk, we pined for the comfort of the Madiba years.

The sight of Hollywood and the jet set laying themselves at Madiba’s feet didn’t help: it served to reinforce our nostalgia. To suggest publicly that Mandela could no longer lead the country in any material way bordered on sacrilege. His death will now force every South African to deal with this fact. [Continue reading…]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email