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The Mandela Foundation’s verdict on the Mandela era: it failed …

- Professor David Everatt

In a little-heralded move in 2015, the Nelson Mandela Foundation released a “position paper” on race and identity.

In a little-heralded move in 2015, the Nelson Mandela Foundation released a “position paper” on race and identity. It was written by the Foundation’s CEO Sello Hatang and archivist Verne Harris.

Sadly, it triggered little debate, possibly overtaken by #Rhodesmustfall and #feesmustfall, the subsequent political fallout and rise of Fallist movements. This is ironic, given that the purpose of the paper seemed to be re-positioning the Foundation to be a part of the segment of civil society that regards 1990-1994 as a moment of failure.

The African National Congress (ANC) and other liberation movements were unbanned by the apartheid government in 1990. In 1994 South Africa had its first democratic election, which the ANC won. The four year period came with a number of gains, most obviously formal equality, gender equality and others. There was also defeat for many less savoury proposals such as minority rights and so on.

Inevitably, there were also compromises such as “sunset clauses” that guaranteed the gradual phasing out of white rule rather than one dramatic handover of power. These clauses ensured public service jobs for white people for a period of time. A key compromise protected private property - the latter arguably entrenching existing inequality and appearing later in the Constitution.

For a foundation honouring Nelson Mandela, this revisionist piece was quite a move. Here 1994 is re-imagined as a moment of defeat, in which “white” capital entrenched itself in return for political power for the ANC, and bought off the total defeat of total strategy for 30 pieces of silver.

That a complete military and political victory for the ANC was even on the cards in 1990-1994 is the product of malfunctioning hindsight. But it has become part of a discourse that looks back at 1994 as an opportunity lost, the onset of failure, because the present feels too much like the past and change is slow and uneven.

The paper does three quite remarkable things. It jettisons non-racialism (to which Mandela’s political life was dedicated) in favour of black consciousness. Secondly, it sees the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macroeconomic strategy, adopted while Mandela was president, as the source of our current malaise by “either setting or being closely aligned to a global neoliberal agenda”. Lastly, it writes off most of Mandela’s reign as comprising “grand symbolic gestures” and reconciliatory moves, which (it argues) failed.

New lingo

The paper ignores non-racialism by seeking to create new terminology. The authors ignore the fact that non-racialism emerged from the 1950s when racists were termed “racialists” and non-racialism was and is, at its core, anti-racist.

The authors drop any mention of non-racialism whatsoever. They fail to grapple with how South Africans get beyond the present other than by appealing to black consciousness and railing against white supremacy. This elision reflects an error in judgement. Non-racialism was born not out of a wishy-washy “can’t we all just get along” set of sentiments. It was, from the outset, the adversary of racialism, in the language of its time.

Graca Machel, the late former South African president Nelson Mandela’s wife at the annual Nelson Mandela Lecture in 2016. It is arranged by his Foundation. Cornell Tukiri/EPA

Although Mandela stood by non-racialism through his political life (after flirting with more exclusive Africanism while in the ANC Youth League), the authors argue that South Africans should rather use “non-racism”. To waste the long history and constitutional imperative around non-racialism seems at least poor strategy, compounding questionable history.

The paper adopts similar views to those expressed by various Africanist movements: that non-racialism is an outdated liberal colour blindness, a soft search for a “Kumbaya moment” rather than toughing it out by confronting race. There seems to be a desire to be “relevant” by pandering to a more racially muscular black consciousness.

Emerging from this view of history, the solution is to return to and tear up the compromises that were made. The next step is to organise an “economic Codesa” – the forum where all political formations negotiated the post-apartheid future – and, by destroying the economic underpinnings of white privilege, attain equality.

This is an undeniably attractive proposition. It however ignores context and what practically could be done then, or now. Rather than accepting the compromises that were required and taking the struggle for a just society forward, meeting old and new challenges as they arise, the Foundation’s proposed move is backward, to shred the 1990-1994 compromises and start afresh.

A meeting of equals

South Africa’s best known proponent of black consciousness, Steve Biko, wrote eloquently of the need for integration to be based on full and substantive equality.

This requires a meeting of equals, not the subsuming of black people into white society – a point central to critical race theory and identity politics. But this also applies to non-racialism, which asserts substantive equality as its starting point.

The authors of the “Position Paper” clearly find much to value in Critical Race Theory and black consciousness. But they identify a hierarchy within “race and identity” that is headed by white domination and black un-freedom. No intersectionality here, even though it is core to Critical Race Theory. No integrated approach that regards the challenges of race, gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity and so on as equally important and fundamentally linked.

No-one walks a single path through life. But the paper shows little appreciation of this. Race – white domination, to be specific – trumps all. Flowing from this logic, xenophobia was tritely rejected as an “unhelpful label”. That provides scant comfort to the victims of xenophobic violence that erupted a month or so after the paper appeared.

According to the authors, race “is still a critical fault line in South Africa’s social landscape”, a point all South Africans agree with. They go on to argue:

Public discourses on race, in our view, are dominated by expressions of denial, alienation, obfuscation and even self-hatred. Listen to the spiteful chattering on social media and radio talk shows, in letters to newspaper editors and at dinner parties. Listen to the often laborious constructions and deconstructions of the academy. Listen to the platitudes of politicians and bureaucrats either papering over or playing fast and loose with the pain and confusion of daily experience.

Few authors like being told, “it is more complicated than that”. But this is glaringly the correct response. The work of civil society, the efforts of individuals, of organised labour and feminist and LGBTIAQ+ movements, of civil and uncivil society, and of those public servants and politicians who try to do their work honestly, are written off in a pastiche designed to conclude that everything is dominated by white racism.


The Mandela government had three strategies for transformation: nation-building, interventions geared at redress and longer-term societal restructuring. The authors want these revived – because they have failed and “the state … has had little success in shifting apartheid-era socioeconomic patterns”.

Credited for his ‘grand gestures’, Nelson Mandela hands over the rugby world cup to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar in 1995 Reuters

The authors give Mandela credit for “grand gestures” in the area of reconciliation, but cannot square the circle: Mandela was also the president who ushered in the GEAR macroeconomic policy.

Nation-building was spearheaded by Mandela, for whom national reconciliation was the priority for his presidency.

Nifty footwork

There is also some adroit footwork here. Mandela is given credit for a number of grand symbolic gestures for reconciliation – even though they are regarded as ultimately futile. But then his name is not invoked in relation to GEAR, nor is he criticised for failing to push for “total victory”. The authors see the post-1994 strategies as necessary, but are unsure where to place blame for their failure.

The paper concludes gloomily that the notion that South Africa “belong[s] to all who live in it” – a statement indelibly associated with Mandela – seems to be “an impossible ideal”. Mandela emerges as a reduced figure in this narrative, from the iconic to the initiator of a set of well-meaning but failed interventions. Perhaps some revisionism away from hagiography is not a bad thing. Revisionism however should be based on decent history.

Looking to the future, the paper offers “key insights”, which are sadly pedestrian such as:

  • combating racism will not be easy or speedy;
  • there are no “quick-fix” solutions;
  • inequality must be challenged by economic growth (how growth will diminish inequality is not explained); and

South Africans need to engage in more dialogue.

The key problem with the Foundation’s paper is that it hankers for an opportunity to turn back the clock and rewrite 1994, rather than looking forward and rising to meet the new challenges of a democratic, unequal, racist and stubbornly human South Africa. Attaining formal democracy was a critical first step – but only a first step – in a long struggle to establish a just society. The Foundation should be leading us in the long walk ahead, not looking backwards.


David Everatt, Head of Wits School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand. . This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.