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Mandela and the relay race we must run

The binary view of Mandela as either a political saint or a sinner blinds us from seeing our role in the race that Madiba was only a part of. It is a race that is still being run today as Fikile Ntsikelelo Moya outlines for us.

I am certain that there are many people across the world, and not just women as the stereotypes often suggest, who are relieved that the World Cup is over. It's just the way that things are!

Regardless of how universal a feeling might appear, there will always be exceptions to the rule. And those that for whatever reason do not embrace the universal feeling should not have to justify or explain themselves to that do.

This will be useful to remember, if and when you encounter anyone unimpressed with Nelson Mandela on the day that marks his 100th birthday.

South Africa and one of the world’s most eminent statesmen of the 20th century will once again be fêted at home and abroad on his birthday.

As per custom, Mandela will either be valorised as a saint who brought South Africa back from the brink of disaster or as the villain who sold out black people by making historically advantaged whites better-off with less guilt and kept black people landless and poorer than ever they have been.

The “Mandela-is-a-sellout” theme was developed by those who, curiously, think of the struggle for human rights and dignity for black South Africans as a once-off event that reached its end date on 27 April 1994.

Incidentally, those who keep the “Mandela-is-a-saint” theme suffer the same shortcoming. These, assume that after April 1994 black people should “just stop complaining and get on with life”. They are intentionally and cynically blind to the reality of life's conditions: that for many black people are the same, or sometimes even worse than they were during the apartheid years.

Let us return to yet another sporting analogy.

The struggle against apartheid and white supremacy and for the restoration of land, social and economic justice, dignity and human rights of black people, could be likened to a relay race.

It is a race that started with the very first conflict between the indigenous people and the new arrivals who wanted to usurp their land holding the belief that their tailored clothes and superior weaponry gave them the natural right to subjugate those that they found already living on the land upon which they wanted to stake their claim.

The baton has been exchanged many times. From the first battles of what would later constitute the Wars of Dispossession (also called the Xhosa wars) between 1779 and 1879 which were also part of that relay race; to the uprisings in what is today called Limpopo, between Sekhukhune and the British in 1879; and the Bambatha Rebellion in 1906.

When Clements (corr) Kadalie led the Industrial and Commercial Union affiliated dock workers on a strike that prevented the exports and imports of goods through Cape Town harbour facilities in 1919, he too was part of this continuum.

The Defiance campaigns of the 1950s, the anti-pass resistance in Sharpeville, the Poqo uprisings, the June 16 Student protest and many other skirmishes not mentioned here, with differing levels of violence and ferocity, were all part of the relay race.

Therefore, to blame or praise Mandela for the political project that came into being in 1994 is to be ahistorical.

Just like Makhanda, the Left-handed Charlotte Maxeke and many others before them, Madiba received the baton and ran with it.

In the same vein that it would be silly to say that the generations that led to Madiba taking the baton were sellouts because they did not deliver the ultimate prize, it is equally absurd to call Mandela a traitor because he negotiated a settlement that is less than what the oppressed deserved.

At best, Mandela can be accused of not running the relay as fast as some thought he had the talent and speed to do.

But fortunately – the race is not over.

Those who recognise the shortcomings of the 1994 settlement must also see their role in continuing the race. They must recognise that, just as in a relay race, every generation must do its best, regardless of how those who handed on the baton did.

To sulk because the runner before you did not, in your opinion, run their best race, only delays the whole team and makes the one who sulks as guilty as guilty of the ultimate outcome as the runner before them.

So what are we to do?

In the relay race, the runner who is about to take the baton always holds his hand behind his back,  fixes his eyes forwards and begins to build momentum even before they feel the baton hitting their hand.

Then, when the baton hits their hand they run as fast as they can.

Instead of complaining about how generations before us, including Mandela’s, have performed we can learn something from relay runners.

As we take notes we must remember that, while it is true that only one of the runners will finish the race, it does not mean that the finisher is the most important runner. Every stage of the race requires every participant to give their best.

The race is not over.

And the generational challenge given to us is to run as fast and as best as we can so that the next runner starts from a more advantaged position than we did when the baton reached our hand. Who knows, if we do this then the next runner might just be the one who will win the gold for us all.

Image: Flickr

* 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.