On Mandela's 94th birthday, some South Africans express ambivalence

While many South Africans spent today celebrating former President Nelson Mandela's 94th birthday and his efforts to maintain political stability, others say he 'sold out' poorer blacks.

Schalk van Zuydam/AP
Former South African President Nelson Mandela as he celebrates his birthday in Qunu, South Africa, Wednesday, July 18. Across the country, and even abroad, people are doing good deeds to honor the country's most famous statesman on his 94th birthday Wednesday.

For much of the world, Nelson Mandela is the epitome of a saint; when given the chance to seek revenge against South Africa’s white population for the evils of apartheid, he called instead for reconciliation and tolerance.

At home in South Africa, it is this very call for forgiveness that is the center of controversy. Many black South Africans – particularly those living in poorer townships – ask if Mandela actually sold them out.

When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, and entered negotiations with the apartheid government of President Frederick De Klerk, he succeeded in guaranteeing free and fair elections that resulted in the peaceful transfer of power from the white racist National Party government to the black-majority African National Congress party in 1994. Separate negotiations over economic power – such as ownership of land, mineral rights, industry, and the banking sector – largely left whites in charge, a matter that continues to rankle many black South Africans.

Even Mandela’s own former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, famously told an interviewer in 2010 that her ex-husband was an “albatross around the necks of my family,” and that he “let us down.”

This view is by no means universal. On Wednesday, as many as 12 million South African school children started the day by singing happy birthday to the man they call “Tata Madiba.” Tata means father in Mandela’s native isiXhosa language; Madiba is Mandela’s clan name, and a term of adoration for Mandela. Many South Africans of all races celebrated “Mandela Day” by spending at least 67 minutes in community service, a minute for each year that Mandela served as a member of the ANC.

While some black South Africans express disappointment that Mandela didn’t push for a better deal with the apartheid government, many black South Africans argue that Mandela did a greater good for the country’s future by giving a higher priority to economic growth and stability rather than “justice.”

Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu – who, like Mandela, received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at reconciliation in South Africa – issued this statement on Mandela’s birthday:

"The greatest gift our nation could possibly give uTata Nelson Mandela for his 94th birthday this week would be to emulate his magnanimity and grace," Mr. Tutu is quoted by the Sowetan newspaper as saying. "Mr. Mandela taught us to love ourselves, to love one another and to love our country. He laid the table so that all South Africans could eat."

In a country with profound inequalities, where white South Africans retain ownership of 80 percent of all companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and where more than half of the population in this majority-black country lives in poverty, it should come as no surprise that the many black South Africans view Mandela with disappointment, if not outright anger. The streets of Soweto, the country's largest former black-majority township, may be paved (not with gold), but many black townships lack access to safe drinking water, toilet facilities, and electricity. South Africa's largest companies have increasingly welcomed black businessmen and women into leadership positions, but as many as 600,000 university graduates remain at home, jobless.

Consider this blog, posted on South Africa's News24 website by a young man who posts a photo of himself, but identifies himself only as “Youngster.” He argues that Mandela “sold out” black South Africans by focusing only on political power, and not pushing harder for economic power as well from the apartheid government. By calling quickly for forgiveness, the young man writes, Mandela “glossed over this pain - much to the relief of whites.”

Are you aware that blacks remain landless, underfed, houseless, under-employed, badly represented in senior managerial positions? The state of healthcare and education for black people remains as it was, if not worse than, under apartheid.

Vestiges of apartheid and colonial economic patterns, ownership and control remain intact despite the attainment of political freedom by you. Are you aware that political freedom without economic emancipation is meaningless?

Countering this argument is a blog by a young South African woman, Veronica Cho, who writes,

It's up to the youth of today's generation to never take for granted the freedom that was fought and won over, and to realize that the hardest battle has yet to be won. That responsibility is not on Mandela's shoulders anymore, but on the youth. 

He passed on the torch. There is still darkness on the road which we must light with the passion, persistence, and determination of our forefathers and foremothers. It's our time to run with it.

What is striking about this discussion, of course, is that there is very little difference in the goal that these two writers seek: broader economic justice. The differences lie in the method. How will South Africa’s next generation – those who call themselves “born-frees” – achieve that goal? Will they continue to adhere to Mandela’s slower but steadier path of reconciliation, or will they seek instant economic justice, through expropriation and rapid redistribution of wealth?

On Mandela’s 94th birthday, it is a question that is gaining urgency.

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