Thabo Makgoba: Consider carefully how we deploy Madiba’s legacy
As we celebrate the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, how should we remember him?
The good that Madiba stood for is unparalleled in our lifetime. He was extraordinary, an icon of peace and reconciliation who appealed to a sense of common humanity among all people. But he was a human being like all of us, vulnerable and fallible. He smiled, he joked, he was funny, he was jealous, he frowned, he got angry. He feared death and obscurity. He doubted, he coerced, he outmanoeuvred.
Developing wisdom, strength and grace in the face of adversity and great challenge, while Madiba was no saint in the traditional Christian sense, he was a symbol of holiness. By that I mean one who is set apart but is able to hold oneself and others accountable to a greater Being, and to draw people together based on a vision for the common good.
In pursuance of this common good Madiba worked so that, as John’s Gospel expresses it in one of my favourite biblical passages, all “may have life, and have it abundantly”.
His vision was for a free, democratic, non-racial world in which we are all afforded equal opportunities and are freed from poverty, marginalisation and disempowerment. Is this vision realisable and, if so, how? My answer is yes, of course it is. But we need to consider carefully how to deploy his legacy.
In considering Madiba’s legacy, there is on the one hand a danger that we will romanticise him and his achievements in a way that leaves us ill-equipped to meet the challenges of times very different to those in which he lived. His policies and solutions are not necessarily solutions and policies that are appropriate a quarter of a century later.
On the other hand, there is also a danger that we will judge him and his legacy with no regard to the context in which he lived and struggled. I am sad when I see young people attacking Madiba’s legacy and claiming he “sold us out” by not building us the Promised Land in his lifetime.
We ought not to take the events of history and look at them through the lenses of today’s eyes. When we do, we are bound to be insensitive to the realities that our forebears faced and to pass naïve and shallow judgements on their achievements.
We need to remember that 30 years ago, as Madiba entered discussions ahead of his release, then began negotiations with apartheid leaders, our country was at war.
Historians describe it as a low-intensity civil war but for us and those communities who saw thousands of men, women and children killed it was most definitely a high-intensity war. And if you want to end a war you don’t do it through more war – especially when your forces, in this case MK and APLA, have no prospect of military victory any time soon.
Madiba and his fellow leaders had to make compromises to end the war, and yes, we are feeling the impact of those compromises today. But they had to be made for the sake of peace and for the luxury of being alive to look back and criticise them.
As it was, our fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers, made huge sacrifices for our liberation for most, if not all, their lives.
If you question what they achieved, then look at Syria today, where more than a quarter of a million people have been killed, more than six million have been forced to flee the country and another six million have been driven from their homes and displaced within the country.
Or look at South Sudan, where freedom fighters fell out with one another two years after achieving their independence and went to war. Five years later, the international community is still trying to cajole them to make peace. Four million people have been uprooted from their homes, and two million of them are refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries.
If the leaders of Madiba’s generation had not made the compromises they did, would we have time, or even be alive, to criticise them? Rather than look backwards at what we cannot change, let us rather look forward and focus on what we can change.
Our forebears brought us into the Promised Land: It is up to us now to build it. We need to focus on the challenges of today, raise them to a higher level and re-negotiate how we move our country forward to deal with the horrendous inequality we still suffer.
We need to end inequality of opportunity. We need to put justice at the heart of what we seek to achieve and be sacrificial in redistributing that which God has given to all South Africans to benefit the poorest of the poor – who seem to be ignored in the current debates.
Above all, we need to become courageous like Madiba, wise like Madiba, and take the debates and decisions over the structuring of the economy and the distribution of land to a higher level and ensure apt policy to achieve these.
* Thabo Makgoba is the Archbishop of the Anglican Church in South Africa
** Photo: Thabo Makgoba during the evening prayer service commemorating second anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela on December 06, 2015 in Cape Town. Gallo Images/Die Burger/Nasief Manie
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