Image by Greg Bartley
In the months leading up to the passing of President Mandela there has been much talk about his influence on the content and character of the post-apartheid nation. Much of the talk comes in the run-up to the 2014 general elections and it reflects a nationalist fervor that casts Mandela as the founding father of the post-apartheid nation.
I have no intractable qualms with folks who need nationalist symbols. The nation after all is primarily an imagined construct and folks use whatever is needed to create a sense of cohesion and commonality.
But exactly because the nation is imagined we should expect that nationalist symbols are contested in the struggle for political power.
Though it is decidedly early to be talking about the ownership of Mandela's legacy it is, nonetheless, already a standing matter of considerable contestation - some of it quite ugly and crass.
In recent months the Democratic Alliance (DA) and others have mounted what can be seen as a campaign to decontextualize Madiba from his political roots in the African National Congress (ANC).
The DA on occasion has even attempted to speak on behalf of Mandela by claiming that the ANC has strayed from his vision. The assertion is that the DA is a more genuine representative of Mandela than the ANC.
This appropriation is problematic for a host of reasons that cannot be separated from the history of race and racism in South Africa.
The implication of racism arises when you recognize that the appropriation in effect essentializes Mandela into the kind of black African that is not a problem for whiteness, i.e., the happy non-confrontational black man.
This view of Mandela is derived from his role as a leading advocate for national reconciliation. For most whites it is not Mandela the leader of the armed struggle against white domination that is venerated. Rather, it is the fatherly figure that seemed to bend backwards to accommodate whites by assuring them of their place and relevance in post-apartheid South Africa.
In 1995 when Mandela walked onto the rugby field in the colors of the Springboks in front of an overwhelmingly white crowd he extended a grand reconciliation gesture that calmed the fears of whiteness. This moment alone - perhaps more so than any other public gesture thereafter - raised Mandela into saintly status among whites.
Then President Mandela presents the 1995 Rugby World Cup trophy
to the captain of the mostly white Springbok team (Credit: BBC)
But was it Mandela alone that held out the hand of reconciliation or was it in fact the policy of the ruling ANC that directed his gesture on the playing field that day?
For the ANC the answer is patently clear. Mandela cannot be separated from the movement that created his politics.
For Mandela the answer was just as clear as he never claimed to be anything more than a mere "servant of the ANC" as he told journalist Alistair Sparks in an interview before he left the presidency in 1998.
Despite this, the attempts to erase Mandela from the ANC continues.
This kind of revisionism and opportunistic politics is, however, not unique to the case of Mandela.
Just recently I wrote an invited foreword to a book on the life of Sol Plaatje in which I made the point that there is a movement among DA supporters and whites to claim Plaatje's politics and contributions as existing outside of the ANC. This is particularly preposterous given that Plaatje is a founding member of the ANC.
Sol Plaatje - like Mandela - often spoke about democratic inclusion over race domination. For most of his political life he remained at pains to assure whites of their place in a post-racist order. Like Mandela - who was undoubtedly influenced by Plaatje - it is near impossible to remove Plaatje's politics from the ANC.
So who then does Mandela belong to? If you follow the logic here the answer is clear.
How then can opposition parties claim him over the ANC? Also, how can individuals pour out their hearts in grief and gratitude yet despise the very movement he remained loyal to all his life?
My point here is not that Mandela belongs only to the ANC - clearly he also belongs to all South Africans as much as he belongs to people anywhere who cherish the ideals he espoused.
The overarching point is that appropriating Mandela and decontextualizing his legacy from the ANC only serves to undermine what he represented.
Update (December 9): See Esethu Hasane's News24 opinion piece entitled "Nelson Mandela belong to the ANC first" (December 8).
Hasane's article was published at the same time as I wrote the post above. See the comments for what is mostly an expected knee-jerk reaction.