Tata Madiba is world renowned for his fight against the Apartheid regime. Mainly because of his well-natured personality and ability to be forgiving towards his oppressors. It is a rarity to find someone who fought against white supremacy to then be welcomed and accepted by the same group. Mandela’s leadership style is powerful, forgiving, and kind to some, while others may regard him as a coward, a sell-out, and a weak link. The issue with leaders of this stature is that it is easy to whitewash their ideologies and make them seem meek as a lamb. The same can be said for leaders such as Martin Luther King Junior, but the danger therein becomes apparent: their legacies become a weapon to further gag Black people who dare question the systems that still hold us back. Why should anyone be accountable for the past, when Madiba was all forgiving and seen as a deity?
The fact is, people want to move on and forget about the past. It is the experience we are all too familiar with. Even in our families and the current government, it is easier to sweep things under the rug than it is to have tough conversations and hold people accountable. While we would all love to bask in the sun under the Rainbow Nation Tata intended for us, the reality is that that is simply not possible. We can’t just move on and joyfully get along when we are still in the predicaments caused by systems of oppression in this country. The challenge in questioning it is that people assume it is for the sake of being combative, they would prefer a leader with the forgiveness of a saint. No one wants to deal with the raw, rage and anger of the likes of Mam Winnie Madikizela because her view centres Black voices and doesn’t bend under whiteness.
The way Nelson Mandela is treated and revered worldwide means that holding him accountable or questioning some of the decisions he made for us would be seen as blasphemous. The reality is that no one is above being questioned, held accountable, or making bad decisions on occasion. For so many of us, who grew up hearing about the hero who had set us free, it has served as a gag of sorts. How do we openly and honestly dissect the wrongs of the person who set us free? How do we say under Tata’s leadership we were sold dreams and left in the same place we were before the apartheid regime had ended?
Holding other Black people accountable is even more difficult because it can feel like a kind of betrayal. Just like we wouldn’t speak to strangers about things happening at home and within our families. No one wants to talk about their uncle who is looting or intimidating. The historical impact of sanitising and refusing to discuss our heroes and their leadership shortcomings is a monumental flaw. It is what has emboldened the next cohort of leaders of our country. They know and understand our psyches and understand that we would not have questioned Tata, so why would we question them? Why would we hold them accountable in spaces where everyone else, who is non-Black, can hear? The fear is that it provides others with a licence to be awful and racist by critiquing the leadership of the nation.
In some aspects questioning decisions made by Madiba feels like a betrayal and that seeps into the larger African National Congress (ANC) which serves as his legacy. This leaves us with a frustrated, hurt, and angry generation of youth who feel unheard and stepped on while the people in leadership continue to eat and drink our resources. There is a desperation within the youth to be led but no one to do the leading, we are left with a jaded next generation who are jobless and vulnerable. They see the ills of the system but don’t feel empowered to change and shift the status quo.
Talking about Tata Nelson Mandela’s legacy this Nelson Mandela Day should revolve around honesty, debate, and unpacking our collective trauma around discussing our elders and their wrongdoings. It is entirely possible for us to celebrate Tata, while still discussing with the next generation of leaders where he could have done things differently. We must be able to see our heroes in their fullness and understand that they too are humans and are fallible. We should celebrate Madiba’s dedication to the end of apartheid, but critique his meekness in some instances. We should talk about Madiba’s kindness and benevolence and the fact that we have many more unsung heroes. Most importantly, we need to discuss with the youth various types of leadership and how they can empower themselves through critiquing and questioning the status quo. Just because it is how it has always been; doesn’t mean it is how it should be.