Of late, the grand old man of African statesmanship, Nobel Prize winner and former President of South Africa, Mr. Nelson R. Mandela has been in hospital. Given his age it should be no surprise that his number is due to be up any time soon, and this great icon of freedom, anti apartheid and all manner of other good and proper causes will be with us no longer. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that this thing ought to be weighing a lot more heavily on my mind than it actually is. Granted I’m not South African, still it’s Nelson Mandela for crying out loud!
As a very young African (born pretty much yesterday) what does Nelson Mandela really mean? What does Mandela represent, to the kids of the 90s and noughties? Or rather what should he represent? There are the oft repeated facts that we learn about in the history books: the 27 years in Robben island, the founding of the ANC youth wing and its militant wing, and if you want really stretch that far back, the skipping town to avoid marrying that girl that had been lined for him as part of his people’s culture and his position. For many of us youngsters these facts are just that, dry facts you read about in some history curriculum on your way to sitting an exam, or at best stories you here from an elder relative. Let me give a breakdown of this on a personal level. When Mandela, stepped out of Robben Island to freedom, I was still in nursery school. When he was elected 1st President of a truly free South Africa, I was just entering the 2nd grade, and when he quit active politics, in 1999 I was still a year short of facing the first major examination of my life (Kenya’s Certificate of Primary Education)
The only Mandela someone like me can truly relate to (or rather really claim to be a witness to) is the retired old statesman that occasionally graces charity concerts; who’s birthday everybody seems to be particularly keen on being seen to be celebrating. Sure these initiatives (the 46664 campaign in particular come to mind) are very good, and do continue to touch the lives of millions the world over, I can’t get over the feeling that in all this he’s merely a very recognizable spokesperson, and that I’ve missed out on the substance that made this particular spokesperson so recognizable in the first place.
I know, by dint of being an avid, maybe even obsessive history addict, which in theory Mandela is supposed to represent a particularly difficult and bitter struggle for recognition of the humanity of the black person. Not just in Africa, as it shook off the shackles of colonialism, but also as a focal point against race based discrimination the world over. So how does that connect to the world I function in today? It’s certainly not the kind of modern day ‘anti-imperialism’ slogans of the Musevenis and Kenyattas (junior not senior), and their campaigns. I know classic jingoism when I see it. The likes of Nkrumah, Mandela and Kenyatta (senior not junior) weren’t fighting imperialism as some cheap tactic to manufacture a common enemy to distract from the real problems their constituencies, were they? They were actually confronting the very manifestation of imperialism of the day, by demanding that the African rule himself
That is the past. With the present Mandela, possibly passing on (God forbid) where does the young generation of Africans begin to make sense of the anti-imperialism that was then and the thing calling itself by the same name now? Because of the generation of leaders that headed authentically anti-imperialism), independence moves, Mandela likely represents the last, and if young people as myself cannot connect properly to what their struggle meant, then how do we make progress on the thing they started?