As we reflect on the passing of this doyen of the struggle for freedom from apartheid , and a symbol of what the young South African democracy aspires to be, we need to reflect on what he stood for, which we must pursue further in his honour.
Perhaps the most quoted statements on what Mandela stood is the closing sentence of his rather long testimony before the Transvaal Supreme Court during th Rivonia Trial in April 1964, almost fifty years ago. The statement reads thus:
"During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. 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"
These words can be given meanings that are quite different from what Mandela actually thought and said. It is even possible for people who stood opposed to what he stood for to appropriate the statement to actually block the achievement of the real dream that he had.
It is therefore not enough to say Mandela stood for democracy without saying what it meant to him. It is not enough to say he epitomized and believed in a harmonious society or national unity without understanding what he meant by this. It is not helpful to recognise the fact that he stood for equal opportunities without understanding from his perspective what this meant in the South African situation.
These concepts taken out context can be used to validate ideas of those who quote him rather than to convey the message he sought to communicate.
When he made the statement, he was summarizing in conclusion the message of his long testimony to rebuff state accusations that the ANC was under the influence of foreigners in all that it said to be fighting for and that therefore it was pursuing communist objectives that were anti-democratic.Secondly, that the ANC's struggle was nothing but violence against a legitimate state.
So, Mandela sets out show that the ANC was established to fight for the rights of African people in the first place and black people in general, rights that were seriously curtailed by a raft of legislations that white governments passed in order to legitimize white rule. In his testimony, he described how the ANC before 1949 fought what he termed a "constitutional struggle", peacefully appealing to authorities to heed the cries of African people who wanted their humanity restored through a democratization of the South African state.
He described how Chief Luthuli expressed in 1952 how futile their moderation had been and how discredited their polite appeals for a civilized solution to the South African question had become.
He sought to contextualise the radicalization of the ANC struggle after 1949, leading to mass, but still peaceful protests and campaigns for democratic change including the Defiance Campaign, and to show how the state responded to this through wanton violence. He records how the state also sought to destroy this mass mobilization by projecting it as a communist onslaught, thus denying ordinary Africans that dominated the struggle their agency. He thought this was a propaganda tool to justify in the eyes of the world arbitrary arrests, assasinations, banning and others forms of harassment.
Mandela also described how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations in 1948 inspired Africans even more to demand their basic rights as enunciated in the African Claims document that was the ANC's political manifesto from 1943. These were political, social and economic rights and freedoms also enshrined in the declaration.
Therefore, the democracy he had in mind was one that would guarantee the rights of Africans and blacks to equal opportunities in areas as diverse as land and wealth ownership to justice, food and water. He argued that these aspirations were as old as colonial conquest where African traditional leaders led their people in resistance against subordination and claimed their right to be equal to others, and thus could not have been introduced by communists or foreigners.
Mandela also spoke about the phase of the violent struggle as having been forced on the ANC leadership by the failure of the non-violent struggle to on its own achieve African people's aspirations. It was also forced by the growing ruthlessness of the apartheid state against mass mobilisation. The final straw that bridged the gap between moderates and radicals was, according to him, the mass arrest of struggle leaders and activists and the banning of all liberation movements, thus leaving them with no option but to go underground and to take up arms.
But recalls that the ANC decision was to use controlled violence" against the power of the apartheid state, sabotage as an additional option to underground political mobilisation and international solidarity. It was to be used to also boost the morale of the masses and support peaceful political campaigns.
He then sought to show the distinction between communists and African nationalists, which the ANC represented in the main. The ANC creed, he said. was African nationalism, "a concept of freedom and fulfillment for the African people in their own land." Its Freedom Charter called for redistribution of land; nationalization of mines, banks and monopoly industry and other clauses.
He suggested that the communist party accepted this only as a temporary solution to their ideal, which was the installation of socialism, thus there was overlap between short-term goals of the communist party and long-term goals of the ANC. He said the ANC was not beholden to one political ideology, but was committed to being "a parliament of the people," and a home for various political convictions. The ANC appreciated the fact that it was only white communists who were willing to cooperate with African people in their struggle.
The democratic society in his mind and the minds of his colleagues was one where Africans did not suffer two major constraints: abject poverty and lack of human dignity. It was a society where the racial disparity in the ownership of wealth with whites enjoying the highest standard of life, while blacks lived in misery was another hallmark of his ideal. With this came a situation where Africans contended with terrible disease and hunger.
Therefore, for Mandela and the ANC a new society should make laws and policies that would reverse this. It would invest heavily in transforming the quality of and expanding access to education and training in order to enable Africans to advance in life.
The ideal was a society that would ensure equal job opportunities between whites and Africans.
In Mandela's ideal the problem of "White superiority implies black inferiority" would be eliminated, not just in laws but also in practice and in attitude of mind.
It was an ideal in which the structural violence would be removed.
In Mandela's ideal, "Africans want to be paid a living wage." They want to be rewarded fairly for the hard work they put in. It is a society where systematic exploitation of African labour ceases.
It is a society marked by racial harmony on the basis of extension of political rights and respect to Africans.
To Madiba, the ANC's was "a struggle for the right to live." This was the prefix to the above-mentioned quote that this piece is discussing. So, when he says during his life time he had dedicated himself to "this" struggle, he is specific about the struggle and therefore the ideal to be produced by such a struggle. It is not an unsituated struggle. It is a struggle to free black people from bondage. The harmony he refers too cannot happen while they are in prisons of inequality, poverty and prejudice.
The ideal he was willing to live and die for is therefore a radical one, one that requires more sacrifices than we have made as a country so far, for racial disparities continue to manifest themselves. Skewed ownership patterns in regard to land, and wealth remain to this day.
Monopolies remain intact in mining, banking, construction and other key industries.
The wage gap between the lowest paid and mainly black workers and highest and mainly white executives remains.
Structural violence remains, making townships zones of death and misery while largely white suburbs are much more protected, although there is a spike in crime there too.
The demon of white supremacy and black inferiority remains a hallmark of post-apartheid South Africa.
There are also evils of state violence as we saw in Marikana in August 2012, corruption and nepotism that is undermining the state capacity to cause change, collusion and corruption in the private sector, incompetence and lack of accountability in public institutions.
This should have pained Mandela to his last day.
This is the ideal Mandela lived for, which we have to confront. We dare not sugarcoat the ideal in order to defend the status quo. It must be an ideal we are willing to sacrifice and even to die for.
That is the Mandela who lived and died pursuing fairness, justice and harmony. He cannot be resting in peace while we confront these challenges.
First published on News24.com/voices