‘Our march to freedom is irreversible.’
When Nelson Mandela walked to freedom on 11 February 1990, the world celebrated. The man who had led the fight to end a barbaric system from behind prison walls for twenty-seven years was now, at long last, free. The celebrations across South Africa were met with applause and goodwill from around the world.
Last night, Nelson Mandela sadly passed away aged 95. In the next days, weeks, and possibly months, we will once again be introduced to Mandela, and his tireless struggle against Apartheid, this time through the lens of history. His story will undoubtedly be found on every channel and in every newspaper. And it is truly a remarkable story. A man from humble beginnings who rose through the ranks of the African National Congress, who campaigned throughout his life for the rights of black South Africans, and who sacrificed decades in prison, refusing early release if it meant leaving politics behind, to become the first black President of South Africa.
But what version of this story will be told? How will Mandela’s life be reconstructed, and by whom? His death is a reminder that legacy and memory are often powerful tools, and in South Africa, this is certainly the case. Only a few months ago, in July, infighting among Mandela’s relatives became public knowledge, and the debates over Mandela’s legacy began. Each faction of his family sought to claim the legitimacy of his heritage. It was an ugly fight, with legal proceedings bringing to light the contentious issue of legacy.
And it began with gravestones. Mandla Mandela, a grandson of the late President, moved the bodies of three of Nelson Mandela’s children from the family graveyard in Qunu, Mandela’s childhood home, to Mvezo, the village where Mandla lived. He did so against Mandela’s wishes, and members of the extended family went to court to force Mandla to move them back. By moving the gravesite, they argued, Mandla was attempting to usurp his right to Nelson Mandela himself, who had stated that he wished to be buried alongside his children.
Physical possession of Mandela’s final resting place would turn into a possession of his memory, and the inheritance of his legacy as a national and global leader. It would imbue the ‘owner’ with the power to determine how Mandela was remembered, and to draw on this memory to their own benefit. Should it go to his family? Their infighting has already started. Or perhaps the government of South Africa? He was, after all, the first black President. In ending Apartheid, and campaigning to reunite a divided society, his contributions went far beyond his family. But even here there may be issues. Since his election in 1994, the ANC has held power in South Africa. Would South Africa be the inheritors of his legacy, or would the Party? The politicisation of Mandela’s memory has the potential to divide South Africa once again.
In truth, there is no simple answer to this problem. And South Africa is not alone in dealing with this issue.
Kwame Nkrumah, the first post-colonial leader of Ghana, was first buried in his hometown of Nkroful, only to be moved (apparently against the wishes of his family) to a massive mausoleum in the capital city, Accra. His legacy was thus moved as well, from his family to the nation. What had been private, family, personal, now became a symbol of Ghana, memorialised in marble and granite for the entire nation to pay tribute. This was, the government of Ghana argued, a more fitting tribute to a man who had done so much for the country. The state could now claim to be the inheritor of Nkrumah’s work.
It is too early to know how the battle for Mandela’s legacy will play out. It may be quick, though given the stature of the man this seems unlikely. Or it may be ugly and personal. But amidst the potential for fighting, we must of course remember Nelson Mandela for the work he did, and the contribution he made to South Africa and to the world.
It would be foolish to suggest that there is only one correct version of Nelson Mandela’s life, or one way to remember him. From family members to international dignitaries, his life affected so many people. Yet if his legacy is disputed, his actions are not. Mandela is perhaps unique in African historical studies, as he transcends both academic and popular history. A figure that at times appears to dwarf his historical contemporaries, Mandela brought African history and politics to the world’s attention in a way that others like Kwame Nkrumah never have. And whilst academics continue to assess his role in South African history, the world shall remember him as a symbol of hope, perseverance and justice.
Katie Crone-Barber is currently completing a PhD at the University of Sheffield researching intellectual links between West Africans and African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s.
Image 1: Nelson Mandela addresses the Special Committee Against Apartheid, 22 June 1990 ©United Nations Photo [http://www.flickr.com/photos/un_photo/3310404474/]
Image 2: Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, 2008 [Wikicommons]