Mandela’s voice featured in 2016 South African elections: a democracy with a lost legacy?

Ordinary citizens in Africa, are bearers of their own democracy
November 9, 2016
The decline of South Africa’s Dominant Party System and how to overcome the coalition trend in 2019
November 9, 2016

Mandela’s voice featured in 2016 South African elections: a democracy with a lost legacy?

“Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.” This quotation from Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inaugural address, as president of the African National Congress (ANC) and first president of South Africa elected in a fully representative democratic election, was used this July in an elections campaign advertisement.

It wasn’t the ANC but the Democratic Alliance (DA) which used Mandela’s voice in their advertisement. The DA is the official opposition to the ANC, which has been ruling post-apartheid South Africa, beginning with Nelson Mandela’s election and with these very words, delivered on the 10th may 1994.

Arguably, the DA’s strategy with this advertisement was to appeal to African voters, especially those in the aspiring middle class, a traditional support base to Mandela, and thus to the ANC.

Much criticism has been levelled at the DA for using Madiba’s image, voice and legacy. The ANC and the Mandela family reacted angrily; Mandla Mandela, Madiba’s grandson and a member of Parliament for the ANC said the association of Nelson Mandela with the DA was a “vile and untruthful abuse” and “an insult and affront to […] his legacy and the values for which he stood”. DA national spokesperson Refiloe Nt’sekhe replied that as South Africa’s first democratic president “his legacy, and the important democratic principles which he fought for belong to all”.

But what is actually Mandela’s legacy? Is not this scrum over it indicative of its complexity and of the inescapable dilemmas it seems to be caught in?

A lifelong member and leader of the ANC, Nelson Mandela dedicated his life to fight against white supremacy by “all means in [his] power”. He was the president of the ANC Youth League for ten years (1960-1970) and was the head of the armed wing of the ANC, the terrorist organisation uMkhonto we Sizwe (abbreviated as MK, isiZulu or isiXhosa for “Spear of the Nation”). Convicted on life sentence along with other members of MK for preparing a violent revolution and committing acts of sabotage, he remained a loyal ANC activist – in spirit – throughout the 27 years he spent behind bars. Released from prison in February 1990, he was elected president of the ANC one year later and led his party to a sweeping victory at the 1994 general elections. At the end of his life, he used to say – not without humour – that the first thing he would ask when he arrives in heaven is where to find the nearest ANC branch.

Nevertheless, Mandela’s supreme goal was not to bring the ANC into power; in that case, he would just have been another Africanist revolutionary and politician, who after having fought against white minority rule, became president and established a one-party state. In the neighbouring Zimbabwe for instance, Robert Mugabe rose to prominence in the 1960s as the leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) during the conflict against Ian Smith’s conservative white-minority government of Rhodesia. He has led the ZANU ever since 1975 and still is, in this day and age, the Head of the Zimbabwean State. Similarly, Samora Machel, one of the leaders of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) that fought against the Portuguese colonial state, stayed president of Mozambique from the country’s independence in 1975 until his death in 1986 and the FRELIMO party has ruled the country uninterrupted since then.

Yet Mandela’s supreme goal was to make South Africa one nation bound together under a color-blind State and by a sense of shared destiny – the proverbial rainbow nation. For this purpose, he made sure that South Africa would be nominally non-racial, i.e. that the Constitution features the principle of non-racialism. His vision required the government not to resort to racialist politics and the political parties not to play the race card.

So far, there would be no irresolvable problems with the legacy of Mandela nor reasons to quarrel about it. For him, his involvement with the ANC would have been a means to an end, which is the rainbow Nation.

Nevertheless, Mandela himself had recourse to racialist politics. He implemented positive discrimination such as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), a racially selective program which was a tremendous exception to the official non-recognition of race. But Mandela viewed positive discrimination as a temporary and pragmatic measure designed to redress the inequalities of Apartheid in order to reach political, social and economic non-racialism. It was meant as an exception to the rule and it is no argument to cast doubt on his non-racialist legacy.

Yet there are arguments that weaken Mandela’s ideal of non-racialism. He conferred a high value on racial feelings. In his writings and speeches, he liked to refer to “my people”, and he meant Africans, as in black people. He took pride of his Xhosa heritage – although he embraced a broader African identity after settling in urban and cosmopolitan Johannesburg in the 1940s. Not only did he hold dearly his ethnic background, but he also expected other South Africans to feel the same way. He definitely believed in tribal or racial solidarities – after all, he was member of the African National Congress. But above all, he believed that racial solidarities could not be privileged over attachment to the South African nation, for this would mean Apartheid all over again.

Mandela gazed upon South Africa with racial consciousness. It did not seem discordant with non-racialism and democracy to him.

But democracy is a powerful tool that can be used in many different ways; by giving to political parties the right to racialize campaigns and to citizens the right to play along, democracy may be a threat to non-racialism. The racist bouts that South Africa has faced these last years and the recent ANC-DA scrum over black voters – disguised in a debate on Mandela’s legacy – seem to bear out this threat.

The recourse to Mandela’s legacy along racial lines is a paradox that may undermine its entirety and sustainability; but this is how democracy seem to work in South Africa.

gabrielGabriel Goll is a French student working towards a dual Master’s degree programme in Public Policy at Sciences Po (Paris, France) and the Hertie School of Governance (Berlin, Germany). Formerly, he studied for two semesters at the University of Johannesburg, where he became initiated into the works of African thinkers such a Kwame Nkrumah, Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko. The diverse meetings, the engaging conversations and the uplifiting trips he had in Southern Africa have left him with an enduring interest in democratic issues in this region of the world.