The Contradictions of Mandela

tags: South Africa, Nelson Mandela



Zakes Mda, a professor of creative writing at Ohio University, is the author of “Sometimes There Is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider.”

I REMEMBER Nelson Mandela. No, not the universally adored elder statesman who successfully resisted the megalomania that comes with deification, and who died Thursday at age 95, but the young lawyer who used to sit in my parents’ living room until the early hours of the morning, debating African nationalism with my father, Ashby Peter Mda.

In 1944, they were among the leaders who had founded the African National Congress Youth League. These young men considered the African National Congress, which had by then existed for more than three decades, moribund and outmoded. They felt there was a need to take the liberation struggle from protest to armed struggle, and were known to shout down those they felt were “selling out” by participating in apartheid-created structures through which black people were supposed to express their political aspirations.

What struck me, even then, was that Mandela was a man of contradictions. He could be avuncular, especially to us kids, but he was also strict and disciplined. While he was a fire-breathing revolutionary who would quote Marx and Lenin at the drop of a hat, he was also a Xhosa traditionalist with aristocratic tendencies. For instance, Kaiser and George Matanzima, chiefs of the Tembu ethnic group who spearheaded the apartheid “Bantustan” system of separate territories for black South Africans, were not only his relatives but his friends as well. While many thought the Matanzima brothers had betrayed the cause of black liberation, Mandela would not thoroughly denounce them. Perhaps here we could already see the flicker of tolerance to those with opposing views for which he later distinguished himself....



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