Honour Madiba as a doer of great deeds

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion article published in the Sunday Times on 19 July, 2020.

As we reflect on Nelson Mandela’s life this week, the news of his daughter Zindzi Mandela’s death came as a shock. Much like the family she was born into, Zindzi epitomised the struggle for freedom, justice and equality. In her 1980 anthology ‘Black as I am’, Zindzi, a diplomat, a political activist and a poet, wrote,

“A tree was chopped down

and the fruit was scattered

I cried

because I had lost a family

the trunk, my father

the branches, his support

so much


the fruit, the wife and children

who meant so much to him


loving as they should be

all on the ground

some out of his reach


in the ground

the roots, happiness

cut off from him”


The anthology was written as her father had already spent 18 years of his life in incarceration. Yet, just as the late Winnie Madikizela Mandela did, she had forged her own political identity. As we reflect on the lives of our struggle heroes, we also reflect on their complex natures. Nelson Mandela is often reduced to a mythological persona. While revered elsewhere, he is often branded a sell-out in South Africa by peacetime and armchair revolutionaries. In our narrative, Mandela is either sanctified or vilified. Often, he is vilified by people who are unwilling or unable to deal with the complexity of change that is brought about by the confluence of technology, politics and global competition

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in a TedTalk some years ago, warned of the danger of a single story. While tales from American and British books she read stirred her imagination and opened up new worlds for her, she says the unintended consequence was that she did not know that Africans could exist in literature. As she says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Metaphorically, nothing could be truer for Mandela. He is often remembered with a single narrative – and there is great danger in only knowing one story.

In a Business Day column following Mandela’s death in 2013, University of Cape Town political science professor Anthony Butler wrote, “Who really gains from the elevation of a political figure into an untouchable icon? Not Mandela himself, who does not need our plaudits. The mythmakers who claim that a leader is beyond fault are ultimately seeking to shield a whole political class, and not just one individual, from the public scrutiny upon which democracy depends.”

Mandela’s legacy is anything but a single story. Few who criticise his decisions in the early nineties are aware of just how close South Africa was to a civil war, just how many tires were burned around necks and just how much blood had already been spilled. As struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada once put it, “You have no idea how much of military power the apartheid government had, how difficult the negotiations were, or what would have happened if we did not negotiate.”

We must, of course, acknowledge that South Africa we find ourselves in now is not the one envisioned in 1994. Five years into Mandela’s presidency, the cracks had already begun to show. By 1999, the AIDS epidemic was tearing through the nation and promises of growth, employment and a level playing field for all were looking unlikely ever to be realised. The once considered revolutionary economic policies of Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) and Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) aimed at social equality were crumbling. We find ourselves now more than 25 years after democracy still fighting the proverbial scourges of poverty, unemployment and inequality – which are among the highest in the world. This certainly is not the future imagined. Mandela himself would admit that there is still a long road to walk. As he once put it, “As long as many of our people still live in utter poverty, as long as children still live under plastic covers, as long as many of our people are still without jobs, no South African should rest and wallow in the joy of freedom.”

Mandela, like other icons such as Julius Nyerere, John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King or Kwame Nkrumah, does not escape the harsh scrutiny of hindsight. We are inundated with information and knowledge that often, these figures cannot live up to our increasingly evolving standards. We must remember that perhaps with the knowledge we have today, different decisions may have been made, yet the actions that were taken to topple down the apartheid regime and in the advent of democracy were right under immensely trying circumstances.

This is not to say that criticism is not appropriate. However, the Madiba magic still stays with us. Madiba understood the power of his personality and brand and used it productively for altruistic purposes. This magic permeated all aspects of his life and actions as he used it for social cohesion, unity, building bridges and changing fossilised views derived from apartheid. His was a life that actively sought to shape a new narrative. His legacy in the context of education, is fighting for equality and against the inequities of the past that had shaped our landscape. His was a life that inspired a reborn nation is undeniable. That it turns out that he was just human behind the narrative does not dim this magic. As Madiba put it himself “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

It is in this context that as a society, we should spare no effort to ensure that we educate the new Madiba’s who will tackle the problems of climate change so that we leave a habitable planet. We need to harness people with the resolve of Madiba, to position South Africa at the centre of the technological developments that are brought by the advances in the fourth industrial revolution. As Kwame Nkrumah put it “Think! Study hard! Work with sustained effort! As never before we want thinkers – thinkers of great thoughts. We want doers – doers of great deeds.”

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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prof tshilidzi marwala
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala Vice- Chancellor & Principal of the University of Johannesburg
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