The battle for Mandela’s legacy is only beginning

Even before Mandela’s illness, the political parties of South Africa were at loggerheads over their versions of the anti-apartheid struggle. Now the struggle is intensifying

Share
Related Topics

The roads surrounding Pretoria’s Mediclinic Heart Hospital resemble a giant nomadic camp of white gazebos. Underneath them herds of photographers are gathered day and night, zoom lenses trained on the entrance, taking the same pictures of the hospital gates, again, and again, and again. Next to them well-dressed reporters shout into mobile phones, fingers hovering over lap tops linked to radio vans, filing their usual report: that they are waiting for something to happen.

In some ways it already has. Pretoria was once a symbol and stronghold of white racist power in the country and on the continent. Now white and black journalists stand side by side. Together, they wait anxiously and respectfully for news on the health of the man who more than any other symbolizes the struggle against apartheid in South Africa: Nelson Mandela.

Once dismissed by parts of the media as a terrorist, Mandela has now been elevated to near religious levels of reverence - despite his frequent protests that he is only a man, rather than a prophet. The message doesn’t seem to have got through. One person I speak to calls him South Africa’s answer to Moses. Streets are named after him, statues are dotted around the country, his face graces the country’s bank notes and at the country’s largest Catholic Church, his image appears in stained glass.  

Already newspapers across the world are filling up with stories of the movement against apartheid that Mandela represents. But how these tales are told will have a profound impact on the present. Even before Mandela’s illness, the political parties of South Africa were at loggerheads over their versions of the anti-apartheid struggle. Now the struggle for history is intensifying.

For the ruling African National Congress, their link to Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle is a prize asset, which they remind voters of whenever they can. In the course of making a documentary about the politics of post-apartheid South Africa I recently found myself part of a press pack following President Zuma, going from house to house in the historic Soweto township of Orlando West, past the house Mandela lived in before he was imprisoned, and culminating at the Hector Pieterson Memorial - a fountain erected close to the spot where the apartheid police killed the first schoolchild of the Soweto Uprising of 1976.  Bestriding the running water of the memorial, the President milked the location to its full effect. After wishing Mandela well, he continued with a contrived analogy linking the historic struggle against apartheid to the government’s present day ‘war on drugs’.

The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) too, are focusing on the past. Their impossible-to-miss, expensive-looking advertising billboards champion their predecessors’ opposition to pass laws and ID cards –presumably in response to the ANC’s efforts to paint them as an apartheid party. As a result, Helen Suzman – once apartheid’s only parliamentary opponent – forms a far more prominent part of the DA’s campaign than the party’s present day leader.

The struggle for history is also played out on the streets. On the anniversary of the Soweto Uprising, there were no less than eight different marches and events across Soweto organized from different perspectives. At the Maurice Isaacson school, where one of the marches started in 1976 I found two groups preparing to follow exactly the same route at more or less the same time. One consisted of supporters of the ANC, the other– The Democratic Left Front – was there to commemorate the martyrs of a struggle against a structure they consider to be still basically in still in place. Their leaflets compare last year’s massacre of striking mineworkers in Marikana by the current government to the slaying of schoolchildren under apartheid. Although one group was chanting for Jacob Zuma, the other against, both saw themselves as embodying the spirit of the struggle against apartheid.

As Mandela lies in hospital, the ongoing struggle for the story of past shifts to maneuverings over who should occupy his legacy. The Democratic Alliance pay their respects, but seek to draw a distinction between the government of Mandela and the governments of his successors. In contrast Zuma declares that to love Madiba is to love everything he stood for, including the political party of which he was the most famous leader. Neither is being cynical. Perhaps the most important characteristic of being a unifying figure for a nation, is the ability to symbolize different things for different people.

With apartheid and the sacrifices made in the struggle against it still living memory for much of the population, the debates about how the past influence the present seem unlikely to go away soon. But in a way the debates are part of Mandela’s legacy. Even though the political groups argue, and the present day problems they highlight are real, they take place in the context of a country which is basically democratic, where civil liberties are granted in the constitution. While none will ever fill Mandela’s shoes, the next generation has at least been imbued with the starting blocks for the next step in the country’s long walk to freedom.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Auditor

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: IT Auditor , Information Governance, NHS...

Process Improvement Analyst (Testing)

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Service Delivery Manager - Derivatives, Support,

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Delivery Manager - (Derivatives, Support...

WPF .NET Developer

£300 - £350 per day: Harrington Starr: WPF Analyst Programmer NET, WPF, C#, M...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The daily catch-up: heatwave update; duck tape and market socialism

John Rentoul
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

The grand plan of Tory modernisation has failed under an increasingly right-wing David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform