The symbol of Mandela was more powerful than the reality of Mandela

Mandela’s legacy is as magnanimous as his life.
Mandela’s legacy is as magnanimous as his life.
Image: Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla
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The idea for my documentary, Letter to Nelson Mandela, first occurred in 2011 in San Sebastian, Spain. I was having dinner with my hosts who had invited me to the Human Rights Film Festival there to show my work. One of them told me how divided Spain was and spoke at length about the violence. He eventually concluded, ‘’What Spain needs is a Nelson Mandela to unite us.’’ This, I found, was the glorification that I had become accustomed in relation to the global icon.

That night, alone in bed, I decided that I wanted to talk to other thinkers, at home and around the world, on their vision of Nelson Mandela, to dig deeper. I wanted to put Nelson Mandela’s well-known and celebrated ideas of freedom, forgiveness, and reconciliation to the test and ask some of the most provocative minds to critique them. I sought to speak not only to those who hero-worship him. I started with a wish list of about 50 people from every continent. Since 2012, I have been traveling the world talking to thinkers and luminaries about the idea of Nelson Mandela. I have found that we share a common story. For American rapper Talib Kweli, Nelson Mandela was as huge a figure in his house as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Marcus Garvey. “I grew up in a very black nationalistic, pan-Africanist household. These were people we read about and studied; including Winnie (Madikizela) Mandela. My parents in particular were part of the anti-apartheid movement in Brooklyn, so it was something very real.’’

Pulitzer Prize-winning South African photographer Greg Marinovich, whose work partly inspired the movie, Bang Bang Club, says Mandela was even more potent at home: “The songs, the chants—‘Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela’—it was a brand. It became a rallying call. Nelson Mandela was seen as the person to save these kids not from political inequality but pull them out of their lives of misery, shit education, and violence. That is what Nelson Mandela was meant to represent, wanted to represent. You look back 20 years later and it’s not true. Why is it not true?’’

These divergent views are common in South Africa, and they forced me to reflect on my own assumptions and what I find disappointing about the narrative of Mandela’s life. I have had to reconcile my own ideals and expectation of him that have haunted me since childhood and challenge and confront my own concepts of retribution.

I do not remember the first time I heard the name, “Nelson Mandela,” but it seems he was always in my life. My grandmother told me many stories of his heroism while I was growing up in my village, Ga-Mphahlele, in the north of South Africa, in the 1980s. By that time I was born in 1974, Mandela had been in prison for 10 years in Robben Island, Cape Town, convicted to life imprisonment, along with eight others, for trying to overthrow the National Party government, architects and enforcers of the apartheid regime.

My grandmother explained to me that Mandela was a freedom fighter who would one day break down the prison walls and lead an army to liberate our people. But she also forbade me from mentioning his name outside our home, even to friends. As Mandela’s time in prison extended, so too did his popularity—here and beyond our borders, a development that irked the government. Yet, like many other South African children born after his imprisonment I did not know what he looked like (the government forbade the printing of his pictures, even in newspaper reports about him). So I began to imagine him, fueled by the stories of my grandmother and the freedom songs bearing his name. To me he was half-man, half-beast with one huge eye in the middle of his forehead. He possessed mysterious powers and would eventually crush his enemies. This narrative would shape my view of him throughout my childhood and intensified in my teenage years as I came to see for myself the humiliation of living under the regime. I remember going into town with my grandparents and having to buy from a window while white people were allowed inside. Or how my grandparents were often treated and spoken to rudely by white youth, young enough to be their grandchildren.

By the time Nelson Mandela was released from prison, I was 20 and living with my mother in Johannesburg. I watched on television. He looked different from what I had imagined for all those years. Firstly, he was dressed in a suit, and looked frail and was waving and smiling at the crowds. He looked normal, like my grandfather. Is this what revolutionaries looked like?

I had never heard Mandela’s voice so I could not wait to hear what he had to say. But I found there was no fire in his voice: He was celebratory and talking about the future—a future where every South African had a place. I was disappointed; I had held such resentment toward most white South Africans. I wanted Nelson Mandela to be angry, too, and talk about the pain that we had gone through and how those who were responsible were going to be punished. I started to think of different theories for this unexpected turn of events. It occurred to me that perhaps we were all duped, that this man was an imposter. Or that my grandmother had made up all these stories of his fiery nature. Worse still, that I, a young boy living in a village, had invented my own vision of this man to make my life more profound and colorful? What was real and what was fiction? I have not had the courage to ask my grandmother what parts of her tales were fiction and which were fact. Instead, I have put them into this project and asked them of my respondents.

John Carlin, journalist and author of Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, which inspired the movie Invictus, represents the overriding mainstream sentiments:  “Mandela is without a shadow of doubt, the greatest political leader I have ever encountered in more than 30 years working as a journalist in 50 countries. …What I mean by a great leader is that he persuaded people to his point of view and did not use tyranny as a method of political enforcement. Mandela’s extraordinary achievement was to practically get the entire country to change its mind. He turned black people away from vengeance when I am sure every fiber in their bodies clamored for vengeance and retribution to kick white people into the sea and he persuaded white people to accept the notion of majority rule and a black person as a president.”

For Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer who won the 1986 Nobel Prize literature for literature, this narrative is a simplistic one—a freedom fighter released from prison after 27 years who shows no bitterness. Played and replayed, it makes him transcend being a human being to a god, superhuman, a saint and that carries its own pitfalls. Soyinka describes his vision of Mandela “an avatar, because I never know how to describe him: He is that one enduring myth.’’

It is perhaps this steadfast yet slippery concept of the myth that prompts some respondents to opt out of participating in the documentary. “I’m not a great fan of ‘forgiveness and reconciliation,'” said one. “So probably the wrong person.’’ A Spanish thinker pulled out because he did not want to be in the same documentary with an African leader who he accuses of being a war lord.

It is also this presumption that all South Africans share the same vision of forgiveness and reconciliation attributed to Nelson Mandela that has been a lingering issue for me, and others. As much as the outside world is enthralled with the idea of forgiveness and reconciliation, it is the nation that bears the burden of history and memory. Right now the questions of when we should remember and when we should forget permeate South African politics? What do we do with people who committed atrocities, some of whom do not show remorse? The foot soldiers who claim they were just following orders and leaders who say they were unaware of atrocities carried out under their leadership. What about family members, friends, lovers and neighbors who betrayed one another?  Those are questions we have had to pack away.

One of the ironies of making this documentary: While having dinner at a restaurant in Cape Town, my friend who is a human rights lawyer pointed out that we were sitting next to Wouter Basson, the South African cardiologist nicknamed “Dr. Death.” He was the head of the apartheid regime’s secret chemical and biological warfare project, who has been acquitted of countless charges. I was upset. I found myself staring at him not sure what to say or do. He briefly looked at me and continued to eat. When I told friends, some said that I should have attacked him, while others blamed Nelson Mandela for not punishing men like Basson. I agree.

Somali writer Nuruddin Farah in his gentle and soft voice explains: “What is important is that the person you bestow forgiveness has to know the value of forgiveness. There are people who if you forgive them and not remind them of the principles of forgiveness sometimes think you are stupid. I wonder if some people who were in the apartheid government think that Nelson Mandela was magnanimous, while some think he was a stupid man for giving away everything in exchange for nothing.”

South African feminist, writer and associate professor at the University of Johannesburg, Pumla Gqola does not mince her words: ‘‘Pretending that justice is not part of reconciliation is what we are asked to do. We have been asked to say, “It does not matter, get over it. The fact that we (black people) don’t have power or that we are landless, does not matter—let’s turn a new page. The expectation of forgiveness and reconciliation without justice is itself an injustice. We are expected to co-sign on it. I am not co-signing on it and I don’t think most people are co-signing on it. ”

The most interesting interviews so far have been those that touched on the personal, and used the ideas of Mandela to speak on the condition of humanity as a whole. American poet Saul Williams says that as magnanimous as Mandela is, that does not always transcend the resonance of human suffering. “For people who have been suppressed, oppressed and traumatized by atrocity, it’s hard to exorcise their anger out of them. I speak from personal experience. I grew up around a bunch of people who never experienced what my parents and grandparents experienced in America but they hold the anger inside. It comes from generations upon generations upon generations and it’s deep.”

For some, like Nigerian Ken Saro Wiwa Jr., it touches even closer to home. His father Ken Saro Wiwa, an iconic political activist in his own right, was hanged by the military regime in 1995. Saro Wiwa Jnr wonders whether that sacrifice was worth it when humanity repeats the same mistakes in conflicts around the world.  “Can Mandela walking out of prison and saying I forgive you, can that be seen as having been worth it until every injustice has been taken away?’’

So the structure and style of my documentary has taken the shape of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rashomon. The film is about a crime that takes place with four witnesses who offer mutually contradictory accounts, which are all plausible. Similarly, the people being interviewed can agree or challenge Nelson Mandela’s ideas; there is no single truth. The truth exists in the contradictions of the various perspectives. My memories of Nelson Mandela have become central to the documentary. I weave my imaginations and thoughts about him throughout. I think my story represents that of many South Africans, especially my generation.

It was perhaps my trip to Juba, South Sudan, that moved me the most. The day before I left, while driving around the city we came across a man on crutches in the scorching heat; he was trying to wipe the sweat from his face. Tragic images have a way of creating extraordinary images. Tragedy is beauty for the filmmaker. The man was a 43-year-old soldier injured during the war. The image was powerful even in its silence. We followed him around the street and this was perhaps the most powerful footage in the documentary so far. During my interviews, a few people have said that South Africa should have gone through a complete revolution instead of accepting a dirty compromise. Here I was in a place where people had gone to war, and this was the other face of that compromise. What was interesting in South Sudan is that all the four people I interviewed, even when some of them were critical of forgiveness and reconciliation as articulated by Nelson Mandela, said they were sick of war. They say that war never delivers and has not improved lives.

Early on, South African judge Albie Sach, former constitutional court judge and anti-apartheid activist, said, “The symbol of Mandela became more powerful than the reality of Mandela.’’ This is a truth that South Africans especially will have to accept.