Everybody loves Mandela, but why?

Everybody loves Mandela. If he could just stay, here with us, a bit longer. Why is it so hard to let him go? Are we afraid of the unbearable lightness of politics? South-Africa expert and former MO* journalist, Stefaan Anrys, tries to formulate an answer.

Back in the eighties, I joined in singing the chorus of Free Nelson Mandela, a song from Special AKA, hitting the national top ten for weeks. I shouted out loud, with raised fist, Amandla! Amandla!, the battle chant of Mandela’s African National Congress, and diligently painted the flag emblem of the ANC on a big, white sheet of paper. The black colour symbolised the suppression of the South-African people, whereas the green colour accounted for the vastness of the country. Yellow represented the gold that has been found in Witwatersrand. Mixing the black colour with water paint, is a tricky thing to do. The colouring agent always turned out to be a bit more greyish than I truly wanted it to be. On top of that, the sheet of paper started to curl, as my paint-brush absorbed too much water. At that time, black was not supposed to be mixed in South-Africa. White people grabbed the land from the black South-Africans and  brought them together in townships and Bantustans, neatly arranged according to their race. They were exploited as cheap labourers, strictly called to work in several mines and farms of the Afrikaner population. This form of forced labour was needed to back the economy, as veins of gold were to be found only very deep below the ground and, consequently, mining became only profitable whenever one could find cheap labourers.


The coloured and Indian peoples, too, fell prey to all sorts of restrictive laws and permit bans, only limiting their freedom of movement. Any hope on a better future became immediately knocked down as they were only allowed to attend low-grade schools. The segregation laws became numerous by the day, ultimately resulting, from 1948 onwards, into an official policy, called the Apartheid. Die kaffer op sy plek. Die koelies uit die land! This was the ultimate desire of the Nasionale Party, that kept the country, after its astonishing election victory in 1958, more and more under tight control.

Once put behind bars, Nelson Mandela became promoted as the leading figure of the ANC, and, after being liberated on the 11th of February in 1990 – at that time being 71 years old – a promising star, even on the international level. Even Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who acclaimed Mandela to be a terrorist back in 1987, during the Cold War, invited Mandela for some tea. Mandela didn’t show up eventually.

Creator of turmoil

Having spent 27 years in prison, Mandela shocked the world by establishing in co-operation with the South-African President, F.W. de Klerk, a negotiated revolution for which they would receive the Nobel Peace Prize later on. Their actions resulted into free and general elections.

Despite the threatening coup d’état of the nationalistic Afrikaners, and the foregoing riots between the ANC and the Inkhata, the elections encountered hardly any commotion. A new era was established, everybody was allowed to go wherever he wanted to go. The South-African miracle, largely obtained by Mandela, stood from then on as a model for other conflict zones, such as Sri Lanka or Northern-Ireland.

Yet, Mandela not always appeared to be the saint calling for reconcilement. In the very beginning, the lawyer-activist didn’t want to co-operate with other anti-Apartheid activists sympathising with communist faith or of Indian descent, fearing they might take control over the lesser educated ANC people. When Mandela was put in prison, he was publicly known as radical, a womanizer and creator of turmoil. This final semantics is truly resembled in Mandela’s Xhosa name, Rolihlahla. Perhaps that’s the reason why this angry young man became a hero for young guys like me, rebels without a cause.

His epic battle appeared to be pretty simple. A black African becomes enslaved by a white Afrikaner. He stands up and fights back. L’amour a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas. Everybody has got his own reasons why to love Mandela. According to Bill Shipsey, who gave Mandela in 2006 the Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award, “more than any other living person, Nelson Mandela has come to symbolize all that is hopeful and idealistic in public life”. His policy became hugely applauded by the Western world. How African countries became independent one after another, during the sixties, proved each time to be a story of misery, whereas Mandela’s magic approved to be hopeful. A bright polar star above our heart of darkness.

Ugly shoes 

We probably loved Mandela also because he, just like Mahatma Gandhi, could make us forget the unbearable lightness of politics, a typical human action that, at times, can become a quite dull and grimy event.

Did you know that Mandela, in fact, only governed for two years? From 1996 onwards he let his vice-president, Thabo Mbeke, run the daily job. While the entire world gathered to take a picture of themselves with the president, Mbeki stood for a huge challenge. He had to build schools, houses, hospitals, and even take care for electricity and water facilities for the millions of previously disadvantaged, who were left on their own during the Apartheid. On top of that, the public treasury was almost empty. South-Africa clearly had suffered from the international boycott throughout the previous years. Although the fall of the Berlin Wall had stimulated the elimination of Apartheid, South-Africa could no longer profit from its communist moneylenders, if that was what the government planned to do. Mbeki on his turn, started to invest on a greater scale, yet, despite this new orthodox liberalisation process, the investors from abroad didn’t show up at all. Most likely because Eastern Europe seemed to be a lot closer and more accessible to them.

When Mbeki became president, he found it hard to step out of the footsteps of his predecessor. He might have said once, being asked for the hundredth time how it would actually feel to be in Mandela’s shoes, that he would simply reject such a condition, as he found Mandela’s shoes plain ugly. Mbeki and Mandela never were best friends. Mbeki’s father, Govan, was an orthodox Marxist and had found himself heavily discussing with the younger Mandela on Robben Island. After the elections of 1994, Mandela had preferred Cyril Ramaphosa as the new vice-president, yet Thabo Mbeki got elected.

Behind the faint remark on Mandela’s choice of shoes, there is a genuine irritation. The love for Mandela slightly bears a racist tendency, something Mbeki appeared to be very sensitive about. Even today, sceptics believe a civil war will arise in South-Africa whenever Mandela is going to die. As if blacks are nothing less but madmen, armed with machetes, who would seek revenge as soon as Mandela dies.


Wasn’t that especially the reason why we preferred Mandela rather than Robert Mugabe, who, on his turn, started off as a broadly applauded freedom fighter, only to become a man of horror and terror later on? Further, didn’t we love Mandela because he stood for a reconciliation whereby “it was crucial that whites be made to feel part of the new society, that they be assured that there would be no revenge, no recriminations, no retaliation”, to quote Jody Kollapen, former president of the South-African Commission for Human Rights. Mandela’s biographers might wonder if this reconciliation attempt is to be seen as one of his natural capacities, rather than “his political instinct by which he gained a position of moral superiority”.

What we do know is that the great reconciler, with his larger-than-life gestures, knew how to play an audience, for instance, back in 1995 when Mandela, at the Rugby World Cup Final, put on the shirt of the national team. At that time, the team was mainly composed of Afrikaners. So, whenever a black president wants to be seen whilst wearing such a shirt, one cannot else but to regard this as a conscious statement.

Mandela’s magic made the western audience enthusiastic, but that specific feature didn’t always turn out to be an asset during negotiations outside the national borders, and even caused uproar at home. “The black peoples of South-Africa felt that Mandela was interfering too much with the whites, in stead of fulfilling the promises made to the black peoples,” according to Ineke van Kessel.

The perfidious consequence of this entire situation is that many South-Africans nowadays don’t feel the need to get in touch with each other. White South-Africans, for instance, were without doubt pleased by Mandela’s sympathy, but they just didn’t felt responsible to follow his example. Consequently, many people turned away from politics and started their life and economical activities again. “His reconciliation offensive looked like a one-way communication,” concludes van Kessel. Or how love became a LAT relationship.

At times, our adoration for Mandela is mixed. Whoever overestimates the impact of his grand gestures, will (consciously) forget that to reconcile, just as love, one must continuously work on it to achieve results. In the near future, when we will have to say goodbye to Nelson Mandela Rolihlahla, reconciliation might become again the everyday job of everyone.

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