Nelson Mandela casting his vote in South Africa in 1994, in the election resulting in his presidency (photo by Paul Weinberg via WikiMedia Commons)

Envisioning the legacy of Nelson Mandela

U of T expert contextualizes the man and the myth

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
(The Speech from the Dock, 1964)

As the world prepares for the death of South Africa's first democratically elected president, U of T news asked Associate Professor Antoinette Handley, associate chair and director, Undergraduate Studies, Department of Political Science, to reflect on the significance of Mandela's life and political influence.

What did Mandela mean to you, coming of age in South Africa?
Part of what you should understand is that I come from a very normal, middle-class, white South African family, which meant in those days a very conservative political milieu, and one which tended to regard Mandela and the ANC as terrorists, essentially. I have two brothers and both were mobilized into the South African national defence force, which was then actively engaged in military combat against the militants of the ANC and the PAC. This was in the late 1980s, and a whole series of states of emergency had been declared in South Africa. It really was, even though we didn’t know it at the time, the dying days of Apartheid. But the system at the time seemed to be determined to hold on to power, and a lot of the politics were playing out on university campuses.

In KwaZulu-Natal, where I was a student, there was pretty much a low-grade civil war under way: the Apartheid government was financially and militarily supporting a conservative black political faction against the ANC and their allies, and it was resulting in the loss of many, many lives.

Mandela for me, at the time, as a student activist, was almost a mythical figure. You could not display his picture—it was illegal. People circulated pictures and, at the time it was of a young Mandela, because that was the last photo that anybody had of him [before he was jailed for conspiracy to overthrow the government]. But that was a very risky thing to do and you felt a pull of transgression as you viewed this picture or circulated it. He’d been at that time in jail for 20-odd years, and nobody had really seen him, nobody had any idea what he looked like anymore. While the student activist circles were allied to the ANC, we in fact new very little about the organization and even less about the man.

What does he mean to you now, as a political scientist working in Canada, and as a South African?
I think he’s an enormously complex figure and the danger is our turning him into a kind of saint or one-dimensional figure. He remains human and full of weaknesses and contradictions, as all of us are. But when I think about him and what made him such a powerful figure, it was that in at least two key moments in South African history he was able to understand what was needed to take the country forward. They’re two very different moments, and I think they both speak to his incredible strength and understanding of what is necessary.

The first moment comes early in the late 1940s, early 1950s, when the ANC was quite a sleepy, middle-class movement. It attracted limited support from school teachers and churchmen and really did not have a mass-based appeal at all. At the time, Mandela was a young firebrand, quite a radical, and he understood that what the anti-Apartheid struggle needed was something that could grasp the attention and galvanize the energies of young black South Africans. In his leadership role in the ANC youth league, and launching armed struggle against the government, he took the ANC in a much more radical direction. That was really what turned it into a much more powerful mass-based movement, whereas before it had been a very polite organization that would, for example, prosecute the struggle by means of sending a petition to the Queen.

But Mandela understood that when you were facing a government that was meeting those kinds of strategies with bullets and torture that people needed a way to hold their head up high and feel proud and energized by this movement, so he managed to push the ANC in a much more radical direction. Now we think of him as a grandfatherly, benign figure. But, in fact, he was this incredibly radical and powerful and charismatic and—to white South Africans—very scary figure, because he so powerfully mobilized militant black resistance to this very brutal system.

The second moment, which stands in almost in contradiction, comes in 1994, when the democratic South Africa has come into being and Mandela makes a series of remarkable gestures of reconciliation towards the white community. For example, Mandela’s donning the Springbok jersey [the Springboks being South Africa’s national rugby team]. Why that matters is because rugby had long been seen as a whites-only sport, and what that gesture symbolized was his reaching out, not only to the white community, but particularly to conservative white South Africans, many of whom were just terrified about what the new South Africa was going to mean for them. It was his way of saying what he and the ANC had held for a long time, which was that South Africa belongs to all who live in her, black and white, and that there was a place in the new South Africa for white South Africans if they wanted to stay and be a part of it. And, again, what’s remarkable about that to me as a political scientist was his understanding that what the country needed at this point was far from moving his earlier move in a more radical or more militant direction, but now the country needed to come together across racialized divisions and that there was a tremendous need to reassure the white community, who controlled, and still do, the economic resources, and who dominated the human capital resource of the company. If the new South Africa was going to work, it needed those skills, and so what was required was a gesture of reconciliation.

I think those two moments point to his prescience and his power as a political figure who understood these two very, very different moments in our history, and in both cases, I think made exactly the right judgment about what was necessary to move the country forward.

Why has Mandela remained such an important figure on a global scale?
Part of the answer, and this may sound harsh, is that I think people find Mandela a hero who’s not threatening, and in that sense, I think they forget his radical past and his complexity and tend to think of him as this lovely, saintly old man. But, in fact, he could be infuriating, he could be authoritarian, he could be imperious, he could be incredibly stubborn-- he could be all of these things, but we have forgotten much of his earlier history.
Portrait of Nelson Mandela

I think it’s very easy for the world to condemn Apartheid, as it should, because Apartheid represented a very, very graphic and hard to ignore depiction of inequality, since the inequality was racialized. I think what we often find harder to deal with are the inequalities within our own society. What Mandela came to represent was what would seem to mean a very clear and easy to identify struggle between an oppressive, racist system and values that we all hold dear. And it’s so much easier to criticize Apartheid South Africa-- as we should-- than it is to look at our own societies and be critical about the progress we still need to make, even if the inequalities are not racialized.

We like to be on the right side of history and, in South Africa, it looks like the right side of history won. It’s a battle we can all identify with and feel very good about ourselves, but it can also be a way of ignoring ongoing inequalities around the world and in our own societies while still feeling good about ourselves because, look, we supported the struggle against apartheid, or we think Mandela’s fantastic.

Do you think history will look back on him not as simply a grandfatherly figure or saintly figure, but rather with a more nuanced view?
I think so and I hope so. When we think about historical figures like this, the way we interpret them is always conflicted and it’s always contested and we’re already seeing that in Mandela’s last days. A range of political forces, both within and outside of the country—but particularly within the country—are engaged in a battle to take on the mantle of legitimacy and greatness that we associate with him. And that’s inevitable, that’s part of how politics plays out. But my hope is that with a little more time we will recover some of that earlier image of him, his earlier history.

And when we do look back, I think we need to be very careful about how we use the word “terrorist” to describe him. It’s always contested, but what we have to remember is that this was not a democratic society. When black South Africans were protesting peacefully again, and again, and again, they were met with violence. And what Mandela did was to pose the question and ask, how much longer can we, as human beings, continue to meet violence with non-violence? And his answer was, no longer. That’s a very different choice than a choice to embark on armed struggle when you have access to the vote and the democratic process.

What do you expect to see in the coming weeks, as Mandela’s condition seems to be continuing to deteriorate?
I think we’ll see an intensification of people seeking to associate themselves with him and the values that he’s come to be associated with. And in particular, I think this highlights an ongoing struggle for what the ANC is going to mean henceforth. Increasingly, over the past five to 10 years, the ANC has become riven with a series of ideological and also highly personalized struggles. Everybody wants to be the genuine liberation ANC party, as opposed to the pretenders. I think we’re going to see an intensification of that, and that should not be surprising. That’s the practice of politics.

In some ways if you look to societies like India or other countries that have gone through a liberation process moving towards independence and then having to understand, how do you change from one mode of politics--which was the struggle against the system of apartheid--and move into a new phase of politics where politics is much more normalized? How do you adjust to a system that is not about the single all-consuming struggle against the Apartheid system or the colonial system or whatever the system happened to be, but is now about, how do you represent the needs of ordinary people? How do you best advance those in a national agenda? And that’s really the sort uneasy transition that South Africa is making—from liberation politics into a democratic government form of politics.

It’s about the normalizing of South African politics and that’s to be welcomed. I think we can get quite rosy-eyed about the glorious days of anti-Apartheid struggle, but the reality was it was a ghastly system and we romanticize the struggle against it at our peril. The messiness of democratic politics, however petty or partisan it may seem, is always to be preferred to having to engage in a glorious struggle against a system like that.

What will you be watching for as a new post-Mandela political era begins?
I would say in the next year or two, people should continue to watch very closely what happens with the trade union movement in South Africa. The trade union movement has long been very strong, very much rooted in the lives of ordinary South Africans, and there’s a series of struggles underway for what the trade union movement is going to look like.

Along with that, I think we are going to continue to see attempts to either redefine the ANC or to break away and form entirely new parties. And I think we should look closely at the interaction between what’s going on with the unions, the parties, and the broader economy. Because the reality is there are very, very large numbers of South Africans who continue to struggle to access even basic economic goods, mostly as a result of extraordinarily high levels of unemployment.

The crucial question will become, who manages to organize that large mass of people out there? And can the political system begin to hear what they’re saying and to be accountable to them and to begin to deliver services to them—or not?

(Portrait of Nelson Mandela, above, painted by Accra, Ghana-based street artist  St John Baffour, commissioned by Professor Antoinette Handley)

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