Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Part of Mandela's legacy – framing a dynamic and progressive South African identity

Nelson Mandela created a challenge, an invitation, for people to adopt a South African identity that transcends or co-exists with other cultural identities. Most South Africans had not had this before – not in any inclusive sense. Some aspired to it but had no concrete manifestation or execution of this in their lives. It required a figure or voice, an exponent, to create the inspiration for this. In this sense Mandela the changemaker and bridge-builder positioned himself in words, dress and discourse to carry forward this role.

The discourse had wide appeal; it revolved around the language of the United Nations and notions of a common humanity. It links to Edward Said's reference to an "interplay of different voices, in what is an harmonious whole". It also has congruence with Eastern notions of the universal society and with P.R. Sarkar who spoke of a "human culture  ... a connecting link between one person and another, between so-called nation and nation". Madiba's language of an inclusive South Africanness also intersected with the ANC’s core notion of a shared sense of belonging, within a framework of equality, a view which was seen as radical in the fifties but that is now widely accepted as mainstream and reasonable. On the other hand, it also meant under-emphasizing class as an issue and downplaying the prominence of the working class within the ANC's constituency. Many in the 'left' may not have been too pleased with this, but Mandela’s approach to belonging left the space open for others to assert, as part of the whole, the needs and perspectives emerging from the working class.

Significantly, Nelson Mandela did not use notions such as the “rainbow nation”. That was a Tutu-ism. Mandela shied away from interpreting the desired new culture as a single thing, something that was complete, fully defined and certain. The new culture he was inviting people into was a work in progress, a platform, a dialogue between different aspects. There was a willingness to engage around a shared common identity. It is not clear to me whether he sent the invitation signals to all groups equally, especially given the many pressures and multiple roles he played in that intense peak period of the 90s. My sense is that he concentrated on sending this message to the Afrikaner community. A much lower level of effort was devoted to the Indian and Coloured communities, to marginalised ethnic or language groups within the African community or to certain outlier groups such as immigrants.

Despite this, and especially if we take into account his immense influence, Nelson Mandela did the most to create an overarching identity that is at the same time an  inclusive and open space.