How the Mandela Myth Helped Win the Battle for Democracy in South Africa


Article by: The Conversation

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Political history scholar Jonny Steinberg’s 2023 book Winnie & Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage is a double biography of South Africa’s most famous political figures – Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela Mandela – and their role in the country’s struggle for democracy. It’s also a book that shatters countless myths about the couple and the liberation struggle that have been formed in popular culture and even academic tellings of history. As South Africa commemorates 30 years of democracy, we asked Steinberg for his views on how and why these historical myths are formed.

Winnie Madikizela Mandela and Nelson Mandela were mythologised for the greater good. Shawn Walker/Getty Images

How did Winnie and Nelson become so mythologised?

It may be best to start with a working definition of myth. I don’t take myth to mean fiction; to mythologise isn’t necessarily to make things up that are not true. To say that a person is mythologised means that their personal story is told in a way that exemplifies something bigger, generally a lesson, like how the oppressed should respond to their own suffering, or how oppressive systems of rule should end.

To begin with, Winnie and Nelson mythologised themselves. Both intuitively understood that their greatest talent lay in public performance. Not just any public performance, but the sort that is exemplary, that embodies a collective spirit, a set of yearnings.

When Nelson went underground to start the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC) liberation movement Umkhonto we Sizwe he understood not just that he must wage an armed struggle, but that people must see what a black man who chooses to fight looks like.

Same with Winnie. When she appeared in court in Johannesburg when Nelson was arrested in 1962, she brought two pairs of clothes: a traditional Thembu outfit for the courtroom to match the jackal-skin kaross she knew he would be wearing, and a business suit for the illegal march that would commence in the street after the hearing. She understood that for a black woman to confront the enemy in style was not a trivial matter or a mere detail. They both knew that wars were won and lost by the power of the myths one’s appearance tells.

But while Nelson and Winnie were responsible for the beginning of their mythologisation, others came on board later. In the late 1970s, ANC leader Oliver Tambo was approached with the idea of celebrating Mandela’s 60th birthday. He understood immediately that he’d been presented with the opportunity of crafting a hero figure to embody the struggle for freedom. He did not consult with the ANC executive because he knew they’d shout it down, warning of personality cults and so forth.

And so he gave the ANC the most powerful weapon imaginable, a simple story about a good man and a good woman who loved one another and had been torn asunder by an evil regime. Stories like that are worth their weight in gold. Imagine if the Palestinians had a story like that at their disposal now in their fight against Israeli occupation.

How does this play into the broader popular narrative about liberation?

Well, it meant that the very idea of freedom was embodied in a person, Nelson Mandela, which is an extraordinary thing, when you think about it. Would South Africa have been torn apart by civil war without the myth of Nelson Mandela? It’s a counterfactual question, the answer to which we’ll never know. But it’s certainly plausible to argue that we could not have crossed the bridge from apartheid to democracy without a blinding myth to mesmerise us all, so that we could walk together into the unknown.

That’s the positive side of the story. The negative side is that myths conceal a great deal. Tambo told colleagues quite bluntly that he promoted the myth of Mandela because Mandela was ANC and if the myth worked, rivals like the Pan Africanist Congress and the Black Consciousness Movement would lose. And so leaders of those movements like Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko faded. ANC partisan history became hegemonic history. Vital, uncomfortable questions were suppressed. Like what it meant to be black and to reconcile with whites and on what terms such reconciliation was acceptable.

How did you arrive at a different telling of their stories?

I think that the Mandelas really did embody the story of their people’s struggle for freedom, but not in ways that they could control. I was so moved to discover that Nelson thought his life tragic in much the same way that the lives of so many black men under apartheid were tragic. He was a patriarch, and he was robbed of the means to protect his family. This humiliated and embittered him. It’s a quintessential South African story. Winnie, too. The insurrectionary violence of the 1980s was so scarring. So many people lost control over the violence they wielded. She was one of those people.

Winnie and Nelson’s story exemplifies all the pain and damage this country went through. They arrived at their freedom, but, just like their people, they did so battered and bruised. That they both had the strength to conceal the extent to which they were damaged seems heroic to me. They understood that they carried the myth of their people on their shoulders, and that if they broke, so would their people.

Is South Africa ready to view this struggle history through a clear lens?

If you’re asking whether there can ever be a single, objective way of understanding the past, one that we can all agree on, the answer is surely no. There is far too much of the past in the present for it ever to become uncontentious. But I do think that it is both possible and very important to fight against the falsification of the past.

There’s a big difference between mythologisation and falsification. The former is about fashioning the facts of the past to tell a value-laden story, which is fine. The latter is to make up facts about the past, which is truly scary.

When people say that Winnie didn’t hurt anyone in the late 1980s, that it was all fabricated by a shadowy enemy, they are doing harm. Similarly, when people say that Nelson did not beat his first wife, Evelyn Mase, when there is plain evidence that he did, they are doing harm. It is possible both to mythologise the past and to be brave enough to confront what actually happened there.The Conversation

Jonny Steinberg, Senior lecturer in African Studies, Yale University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.