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Mangope is no hero

In reflecting on the life of Lucas Mangope, some hard facts seem to have been forgotten. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya argues that a celebration of the late leader’s bricks and mortar achievements belongs in the same category as praising colonialism because it brought heathen natives civilisation and Jesus. It is offensive to those who lived under his oppressive regime.

The outpouring of grief and surprisingly (at least for some) positive sentiments over the death of former Bophuthatswana Bantustan leader, Lucas Mangope, reminded me of the Biblical account of how the freed Israelites suddenly yearned for days when they lived under the yoke of Egyptian oppression.

“Didn’t we tell you this would happen while we were still in Egypt? We said, ‘Leave us alone! Let us be slaves to the Egyptians. It’s better to be a slave in Egypt than a corpse in the wilderness!'” Exodus 14:12

It was not like the Egyptians simply made them sit on different park benches and swim at inferior beaches. According to the Biblical report of conditions in Egypt, “the Egyptians worked the people of Israel without mercy… and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.” (Exodus 1: 13 and 14).

Despite this, they had the temerity to tell the one man, who not only committed class suicide by leaving the comforts of the royal house, but brought them out of 400 years of slavery and somehow made the sea part for their safe passage, that he had wasted their time and compromised the quality of their lives.

Alas, humans have not changed much in the 4000 years since Moses heard the concerning news that the people he had risked his life for now thought things were better under a regime that made their lives “bitter with hard work” and “ruthlessly made them work as slaves”.

There are many ways of saying this, but all of them amount to saying that Mangope was not exactly a champion of human rights and civil liberties. Not only was he happy to collude in denying South Africans their citizenship by opting for pseudo independence, but he was also willing to cede his “independent state” to Botswana if push came to shove.

Yet he is celebrated today for not being “all that bad”. The main reason for this is that those who lived under his rule can point to bricks and mortar examples of why he was not all that bad.

They can point to the real assistance farmers (subsistence and commercial) got, how entrepreneurs thrived, students received financial support to pursue higher education and how there was a real sense of personal safety and security in a low crime era.

All of these things are real and are not to be scoffed at. The average person is not interested in the vagaries of ideology. They want the work, bread water and salt Nelson Mandela promised them when he was inaugurated as the first democratically elected president of South Africa in 1994.

As Karl Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels pointed out: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.”

All of the foresaid could create the incorrect impression that I am arguing that “human rights” are pointless and what is to be pursued is bread and butter issues.

This is a false dichotomy. Bread and liberty are not mutually exclusive concepts. A dictator does not become any less of a brute because they gave one and took the other.

History is replete with examples of bad people who did good. The only time the Italian mafia was successfully contained was under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. German industry and technology boomed under Hitler.

Indeed, South Africa recorded dramatic industrial growth under the same Nationalist Party that also gave us apartheid.

If we were to reduce a regime’s achievements to how it fares with regards to providing material benefits for its people, even if oppresses them, then we would be guilty of the same offence as that regime: dehumanising ourselves.

Mangope’s apologists seem to forget that he enforced his rule with an iron fist. They seem to have forgotten the reign of terror conducted by one of his henchmen Brigadier Andrew Molope.

So brutal was Molope in enforcing Mangope’s rule that even his widow, Sina Molope, told the Truth Commission hearing the amnesty application of the four MK soldiers who killed him that “you have killed a person who was a fearsome murderer”.

If it is true that you can judge a man by the company he keeps, it is instructive that faced with his Waterloo moment, it was the self-appointed defenders of white supremacy, the AWB, who quickly mobilised and rolled their vans into Mangope’s homeland to try and secure their friend. The misadventure ended badly for the AWB commandos.

If anything, the debate over Mangope and his legacy is a proxy one. I doubt if it is even a debate. It is commentary of the failures of the democratic state to live up to the expectation to deliver bread and liberty.

Mangope is no hero. To reduce human beings to entities that can be satisfied as long as they have shelter and full stomachs perpetuates the other crimes already committed against them, that of denying them their very humanity.

To laud Mangope for his bricks and mortar achievements belongs in the same category as praising colonialism because it brought heathen natives civilisation and Jesus. It is offensive to those who lived under his oppressive regime.

Of course, nobody is perfect and everyone has a good and a bad side. But very few openly choose to side with regimes that dispossess people of their land, oppress people because of the colour of their skins and are willing to disenfranchise their own people in their own country. That the oppressed ate makes no difference to their condition of being unfree. Inmates in South African prisons are not any less unfree just because they eat three nutritious meals a day, or are provided with shelter.

What we need in South Africa is a recognition that the democratic ideal is not delivering the full package to all South Africans, especially those who lived under oppression.

Freedom is a hollow concept if it does not translate into the amenities and tools to make life better and safer for the present and future generations.

If Mandela was a Messiah, 2018 South Africa is crying out for a Moses who will get them through the unending wilderness where many feel they have exchanged one form of captivity for another.

The likes of Mangope being celebrated as heroes – and talk of colonialism having had redeeming features – will unhappily continue until the ruling classes start having a deeper appreciation of what Amilcar Cabral meant when he urged his followers to “always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head”.

He went on to say: “They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children”. SA.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.