Friday, 6 December 2013

My two cents: What is Mandela’s legacy?

I admired him when I was younger, I had the opportunity to see him from a distance and waved my little flag when he came to Uganda. When I grew up, I began to realise that there is always two sides to the story, that our heroes have flaws, and that this is a game of smoke and mirrors. I am now keen on conspiracy theories as things are not always what they seem.

I had always wanted to write something about Nelson Mandela; it took me more than a year ruminating about how I would put my Mandela experience to pen and paper. This was published in Daily Monitor and I am blogging it on the announcement of his death last night.

On a particular day in July, the United Nations requests us to aside 67 minutes of the day to charity, volunteering in an activity or participating in a community event in honour of one of the most well known Africans, whose birthday falls on that date.

Since 2009, July 18 has become a day the world celebrates the life of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and the values that he symbolises, the idea that each individual has the power to transform the world, the ability to make an impact. The day was officially declared Nelson Mandela International Day by the UN General Assembly in 2009 and the first marked in 2010.

A statement from the UN states, “The 67-minute campaign—“Take Action, Inspire Change”—is based on people devoting one minute of their time for every year that Nelson Mandela devoted to public service as a human rights lawyer, a prisoner of conscience, an international peacemaker and the first democratically elected President of South Africa.”

The UN declaration was a progression from the series of activities including music concerts that were being held in the previous years by some groups in different parts of the world to celebrate Mandela. This July, Nelson Mandela made 94 years. From New York to Cape Town to Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and hundreds of cities in between all across the globe, the activities included giving food to the hungry, donations of books and other scholastic materials to schools, musical performances, art and cultural exhibitions and road races to raise awareness for various causes.

In Kampala, the South African High Commission partnered with Always Be Tolerant (Abeto), a non-governmental organisation that promotes tolerance and values of humanity, to paint Wandegeya Primary School and distribute books to the pupils.

According to Moses Musana, the Abeto executive director, the school was chosen because its pupils are drawn from the less privileged neighbourhoods of Katanga and Kivulu and as far as Kalerwe. “Some of the pupils here come to school without shoes,” he said. “In the spirit of this day, I call upon pupils from better-off schools to donate their extra pairs of shoes to such pupils.”

Call to unite
At the occasion which was also attended by a number of MPs from his home country, South African High Commissioner, Jon Qwelane, remarked “There are few things that set us apart and many things that bring us together. We should discard those things that divide us.”

The power of the Mandela story that has been retold many times and mythicised is such that it is difficult to talk about him without referring to him as an icon, a great man or a visionary. The 2012 Mandela Day came amidst some controversy in South Africa, where Madiba as he is fondly called, is revered and placed beyond reproach. And though this did not drown the adulation, it nevertheless caused ripples.

That is why a scathing statement from the Azania Peoples’ Organisation (Azapo) released last month was shocking. It is one of the organisations that fought the apartheid regime together with similar groups like the African National Congress (ANC).

In the statement, Azapo Youth League president Amukelani Ngobeni, stated Mandela would not have peace should he die without apologising for “selling out black people’s struggle through the secret talks with the apartheid government”. He alleged that Mandela entered into talks with government and agreed on a compromised constitution which makes it difficult for the government to deliver in its duties to service the citizens. He added: “Mandela and his friends were excited and could not wait to occupy the global political space at the expense of the struggle for complete political, social and economic emancipation.”

It is true that there is growing discontent about ANC government not honouring some of the promises it made to the South African people in terms of service delivery, but Mandela left government in 1999 after serving one term as president. How then, could he blamed for all that has not gone right in the last 13 years?

Perhaps, the myth of Mandela has grown so much bigger than Mandela the man. Besides all the over 250 awards and honours he has received from all over the world, he is a human being like any other with a limit to what he can do.

Interestingly, this is not the first time that such criticism has been voiced. In 2010, Ms Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his ex-wife and an MP in South Africa, was quoted in a British newspaper as saying that Mandela had let Blacks down. “He agreed to a bad deal for the Blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside. The economy is very much ‘White. It has a few token Blacks, but so many who gave their life in the struggle have died unrewarded,” she said. Though she later denied having said, it is still a feeling that some people in and out of South Africa have about Mandela.

Ever the controversial politician, Ms Madikizela-Mandela was in the news last week over a leaked e-mail she sent to the ANC party headquarters. She complained about how her family was deeply hurt by ANC’s “shabby treatment through the years”. She wrote: “It is quite clear that we do not matter at all, we only do when we have to be used for some agenda.”

Legacy abused?
This begs the question: Is the Mandela name and image now being used to advance different agendas, even commercial ones by those who see it as an opportunity to make a buck? Has Mandela become a global brand on which anyone with some business acumen can cash in?

At Wandegeya Primary School where community service was carried out in honour of Mandela Day, it was hard not to notice subtle, though in most part overt, product placement and mentions—right from the T-Shirts and caps, books, biscuits and soft drinks that were distributed and the paint that was used on the school walls. When asked, Moses Musana, the Always Be Tolerant (Abeto) executive director defended the action as these profit-oriented companies using the event as part of the corporate social responsibility.

Movies and fashion lines
Elsewhere in the world, many companies have definitely used the Mandela story to grow their pockets. A case in point is the films, documentaries and books that have been made and written about Mandela the freedom fighter or Mandela the visionary statesman. World famous stars Danny Glover, Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman and Terrence Howard have all acted as Nelson Mandela on film; the list is still growing. Idris Elba is the latest actor to land a role as Mandela in a film. Invictus which had Morgan Freeman in the lead role has grossed $122m (Shs299b) worldwide. This helps to show the commercial power of the Mandela story.

The world of fashion also cashed in. On July 18, a US-based company rolled out the 46664 fashion line of men’s, women’s and children’s wear in North America, and will launch the brand to other parts of the world including Africa later this year and in 2013. While he was incarcerated at Robben Island, Mandela’s prison number was 46664.

The same number thas been used for a number of benefit music concerts to support charity causes. They have attracted big name global stars such as Bono, BeyoncĂ©, Jimmy Cliff as well as African international stars Baaba Maal, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Angelique Kidjo, Youssou N’Dour and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Though these have been tied in with commitment to benefit community projects, one cannot ignore the boost that the name association with Mandela gives in their professional careers. Some of the attempts to cash in have been grotesque or far removed from the ideas espoused by the man who owns the name. It has not spared even members of his family either.

Mandla Mandela, a grandson was accused by his first wife of having sold exclusive rights to film his grandfather’s funeral to South African Broadcasting Corporation for R3m (Shs898.5m). Though both parties denied the claim, it was yet another example of the kind of risks in protecting the name involves. Even when it is claimed that the name is not being used for gain like the reality television show about three grandchildren who return from US to South Africa. “This is about three women... breaking away from the [Mandela] legacy to find their own feet,” said the director Graeme Swanepoel.

In all, when Nelson Mandela has lived his life, will his legacy be one of a biblical Moses that showed his people to the Promised Land and fostered the ideals that they should look up to? Or has the myth grown bigger than the man, in the process attracting doves as well as vultures? Either way, his place in history is firmly set and we will continue to recount the story to generations that will follow.