Reject personality cults

JOHANNESBURG - Last December, South Africa (SA) and the world buried Nelson Mandela, a freedom fighter who led his people — to freedom — from the most vicious form of institutionalised racism in modern times.

He was the face and symbol of the epic struggle against apartheid, and even 27 years of incarceration could not diminish his immense influence on events that ultimately led to freedom.

Such universal acclaim and adulation can understandably lead to a conclusion that this was a heroic struggle by one man to liberate his people, but nothing could be further from the truth.

As Mandela would repeatedly remind people, this was a collective effort by many unsung heroes and whose role is often understated, if not unrecognised, as the struggle against apartheid succeeded owing to many individuals and institutions who made it their life mission to destroy a system that dehumanised those who did not belong to the white race.

The African National Congress (ANC) also played a central role in the fight against white domination from its formation in 1912, but like other nationalist movements across Africa, the ANC’s demands were modest.

They amounted to no more than a demand for civil rights. At their inception, nationalist movements did not have the confidence and boldness to demand self-rule on the basis of universal adult suffrage.

Put simply, their demands did not go beyond an abolition of racial discrimination in all its manifestations.

In another view, a lack of formal education, among native populations in colonised Africa, was largely responsible for this confidence to demand unqualified national independence at the very beginning.

As such, young people like Mandela injected radicalism into conservative movements thus elevating demands from racial equality to total emancipation.

Led by Anthon Lembede’s ANC Youth League, which was formed in 1944, this group radicalised the party to a point of embracing the armed struggle as the only way to confront an intransigent white racist regime.

Along with Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and others, Madiba used the league to push for a more militant and confrontational stance against a National Party that had passed a number of laws to entrench its rule.

These legislative pillars included the Bantu Authorities Act, Group Areas Act, Population Registration Act and the Suppression of Communism Act.

As such, the 1952 defiance campaign, which led to the treason trial was a clear response and realisation by nationalist forces that the nationalist government was on a course of the total, and permanent subjugation of non-whites.

And a youthful Mandela played a leading role in this increasing militancy against the apartheid regime, and he did this as an ANC cadre — whose role was what mobilised the masses.

In other words, critical as his role was in the radicalisation of the ANC, he was part of a collective. The party was always bigger than any individual.

With the post second world war seeing a global move towards decolonisation and human rights — largely in response to nazism and the holocaust horrors — the apartheid regime benefited from the cold war and arms race as western powers needed SA’s uranium to develop their nuclear capability in a move, which almost threatened the world with a mutually destructive nuclear war.

Strengthened by this support and legitimacy from powerful nations, this made the struggle of nationalist forces more difficult and led the ANC to adopt the armed struggle as the only means to liberate Africans from white domination.

As Umkhonto we Sizwe’s first commander-in-chief, perhaps this was the birth of the Mandela legend since he was — upon returning home and after his military training in Algeria — arrested in 1962, imprisoned for life in 1963 and following the Rivonia trial, and thus becoming the symbol of the struggle against apartheid.

As such, the international campaign for the isolation of SA was centred on his release.

On the other hand, the ANC in exile not only built Umkhonto we Sizwe, but more impressively mobilised international opinion to an extent that the United Nations declared apartheid as a crime against humanity.

From sustaining the struggle against white domination, the party has also produced outstanding leaders including founding president John Dube, Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo and it is that democratic tradition that has enabled the ANC to produce accountable leaders that have sustained the party.

And it was the institutional strength of the party that ultimately led to liberation in 1994 and, though, Mandela was at the helm, he could not have achieved this without the contribution of his predecessors, and others in the ANC, and its military wing.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the apartheid regime was at its strongest owing to a booming economy, which enabled it to build a powerful military force and maintain high morale among whites.

The regime looked invincible, but the 1976 Soweto uprising and subsequent unrest across SA shattered that myth.

This internal unrest led to increased international sanctions and cultural boycotts with devastating effect on the economy, and white morale.

It is important to recognise that the internal struggle was led by a myriad of organisations which, though in sync with the objectives of the ANC, were not led by it.

These groups included the United Democratic Front, whose campaigns rendered the country ungovernable and led to increased international isolation as the regime responded with increased brutality.

This period in the history of the struggle against apartheid is mentioned to underscore the point that it was a collective effort by many individuals and organisations that were independent of the ANC, and Mandela.

This observation does not in any way minimise the central role played by the dominant party, but to simply recognise the critical role played by other individuals and organisations outside the ANC.

Mandela’s leadership was absolutely indispensable to the remarkable, orderly and peaceful transition in 1994.

He could, however, not have achieved this without the support of his party which had an 80-year history in the struggle.

Even, though Mandela was, perhaps, the most outstanding of the ANC’s 12 leaders since its formation, he was always cognisant of the fact that he was part of an institutional and collective endeavour by people in, and outside his party whose efforts defeated apartheid.

The lesson for Africa as it grapples economic backwardness and the resultant political instability is that individuals, no matter how great they might be, are always part of a collective.

It is only the concerted efforts of institutions and individuals that bring liberation as well as economic development in a post-liberation era. And Africa must move away from personality cults to building strong institutions.

Outstanding individuals can play a big role in history, but if truth be told, they always do so as part of a collective. Mandela’s story tells us that.
 

    Comments (3)

    Well said... Yes, we so need strong institutions and not strong men in our nations! Good institutions transend generations whilst personality cults die off as supporters expire!! Lets invest in institutions

    gino - 10 June 2014

    Well said... Yes, we so need strong institutions and not strong men in our nations! Good institutions transend generations whilst personality cults die off as supporters expire!! Lets invest in institutions

    gino - 10 June 2014

    In the case cited above, Mandela himself became the embodiment of the fight against apartheid. Put differently, the whole struggle against apartheid was institutionalised in the person of Nelson Mandela, that's why he remains a global icon in life & death. His personal effort and sacrifice against racial subjugation will forever remain unequal despite being part of a collective. Notwithstanding his desire to share the glory with the rest of his comrades, there is no doubt about the enormity of his individual contribution relative to his peers.

    Willard Dick - 14 June 2014

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