Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema was struck by inspiration during his British tour last weekend and promptly revealed to the world that the late former president Nelson Mandela sold us all down the river during the democracy negotiations of the 1990s.
Malema, as usual, got the headlines and the adulation of a fringe group of student activists who think they are the first people in South Africa to read Steve Biko‘s I Write What I Like.
As usual, there was nothing new or original in Malema‘s thoughtless ranting. You see, for decades Nelson Mandela has been branded a sellout by radical black nationalists, left-wingers, right-wingers, centrists and even social democrats. Yet, throughout the decades, his work has spoken for itself. Look around you, compare the country you see with the one that existed before 1994, and if you are honest you will know that the man was a revolutionary.
He needs no defending. His work speaks for itself.
In the 1950s, after the ANC adopted the Freedom Charter and the ideal of a united and non-racial South Africa, the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania under Robert Sobukwe gained popularity by branding the likes of Mandela and Albert Luthuli sellouts of the black man. With their slogans borrowed from the American Black Consciousness movements, they branded the Walter Sisulus and Oliver Tambos of this world Uncle Toms.
In the 1970s much of what was known as the Black Consciousness Movement would do pretty much the same.
Throughout the 1960s and right up until 1990 the apartheid government would spread the rumour that Mandela was a “softie” in jail to demoralise ANC cadres in exile and in SA.
When Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison in February 1990, his fist punching the air while walking beside his wife Winnie, there wasn‘t a single bone of traitor or sellout in his body. For 27 years he had faced incredible mental torture, various attempts to lure him, but the man had not broken.
Neither had those fine men and women who had suffered through decades of incarceration with him. The likes of Malema might want to stop and remember some of their names: Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Dennis Goldberg. There are many others. These brave men and women disappeared into the murderous womb of apartheid for decades and came out more resolved than ever before to build a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic country.
Throughout the negotiations of the 1990s Mandela and his comrades were accused of being sellouts. On August 6 1990, when Mandela led the team that signed the Pretoria Minute and suspended the ANC‘s armed struggle, he was accused of being a sellout. He faced insurrection from the ANC‘s ranks. His leadership, his ability to take his troops and followers along with him, prevailed.
The years 1990-1994 were some of the bloodiest in SA‘s history. It was the will, the courage, the clear-headedness, even the stubbornness, of Mandela and his comrades that got us through those years of darkness.
Was the 1994 settlement perfect? Hell, no. Was it what a victorious army running into the Union Buildings would have been content with? Of course not.
But the ANC was not a victorious army. It was a morally and ethically superior force. The apartheid government was on its knees economically and morally. But it could have held on for a very long time, supported by the Lucas Mangopes of this world and others. It was the negotiation, the strategy and tactics, of Mandela and his comrades that gave us the glorious country, full of possibility, we have today.
Mandela will be called a sellout for decades and perhaps centuries. But this much is true: look around you, and his work speaks for itself.
Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela, humble son of the Eastern Cape, is not beyond critique.
Yet there is a way to do it without tarnishing his name. The greatest honour the likes of Malema can pay to the greats who have come before us would be to build on their great work, instead of denigrating it. There is nothing to be gained there.
Those of us who are honest, however, will listen to the words of the late, great Maya Angelou when she paid tribute to Mandela on his death in 2013:
“Yet we, his inheritors
Will open the gates wider
For reconciliation and we will respond
Generously to the cries
Of Blacks and Whites,
The poor who live piteously
On the floor of our planet
He has offered us understanding
We will not withhold forgiveness
Even from those who do not ask.”
Mandela was no sellout. He opened the gate for us to change the lives of “the poor who live piteously on the floor of our planet”.
Look around you. Nelson Mandela‘s work speaks for itself.