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Mandela Belongs To All by Mamphela Ramphele

29 May 2011

The temptation to deploy identity politics is always tempting, but should be resisted, writes Mamphela Ramphele May 29, 2011 Sunday Times

The contest for power in the run-up to the May 18 local elections raised a very sensitive issue of the ownership of national symbols, including former president Nelson Mandela.

I had hoped that the issue would go away with the settling of the dust of political campaigning, but it is disturbing to see the persistent statements that might undermine our constitutional commitment to a society “united in its diversity”.

The secretary-general of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, made a disconcerting statement on Justice Malala’s show last weekend that Helen Zille, as DA leader, should not be opportunistic and use Mandela’s legacy to project an image of the DA as a party living Mandela’s ideals. He went on to suggest that Zille should confine herself to using the names and legacy of Helen Suzman and Colin Eglin.

Mantashe’s statement echoes those of a few ANC members who publicly expressed concerns that the ANC leadership was allowing Zille to use Mandela as an icon. The ANC also took the extraordinary step of commissioning a “cleansing ceremony” of the Solomon Mahlangu statue in Tshwane after the DA held a Freedom Day rally there.

The ANC positions reflected in these statements raise fundamental issues about the quality of our democracy and the commitments to building a society belonging to all South Africans. First, Mandela the icon belongs to all South Africans as the father of this nation.

He worked tirelessly to project himself as such, going to the extent of reaching out to those who opposed the political settlement he championed. Mandela can’t be appropriated by any sector of our population. Second, Mandela was not just the president of the ANC, but also the president of South Africa. His legacy belongs to the state, which is bigger than any party, including the ruling party.

The conflation of the person of president of the state, the government and the ruling party is at the heart of our failure to establish an accountability culture in our society. The ANC has to challenge itself to re-position itself as a political party of the future, beyond relying on its struggle credentials. Third, Mandela is an international icon. He belongs to Africa and the world as a leader who came to be embraced by all as a transformative figure in world history. He cannot be contained by any party, country or region.

We should be proud of this fact, rather than claim exclusive ownership of the man. Fourth, the suggestion that Zille, as the leader of the DA, should confine herself to valorising Helen Suzman’s leadership and legacy raises another troubling issue of the danger of identity politics. Suzman devoted her life to fighting for the rights of people, regardless of political affiliation. Many of the long-term political prisoners who were treated inhumanely in prisons, including Mandela, had her as their champion. She played a critical role in ensuring access of all political prisoners who were eligible to distant learning and academic development. That she has not been recognised as a national hero is thanks to identity politics, not the quality of her contribution.

The ANC, as a majority party, should be more generous in acknowledging the contributions of non-ANC members to the struggle for freedom. This would enhance, not diminish, its standing in our society. The suggestion that only ANC members are entitled to embrace Mandela the icon, and that valorising other national heroes who are non-ANC is not for them, poses a danger to our democratic order.

Healing the divisions of the past is a responsibility of all South Africans. The temptation to deploy identity politics is always tempting, but should be resisted. Imagine if the Republican Party in the US had objected to Barack Obama’s use of Abraham Lincoln’s Bible at his swearing-in ceremony in 2009 on the grounds that Lincoln had been a Republican? Obama used the symbolism of the Lincoln Bible to signal his commitment to serving all Americans and celebrating all national heroes.

We need to outgrow our tendency to cling to divisions of the past and rather build bridges to a united future. The key issue for our democracy as we move forward is how we build a culture of openness and debate that focuses on performance on issues of policy choices, effective implementation and accountability.

The longer we delay issues-based politics, the longer we will continue to see the contradictory responses of citizens. Many of those who vote for the same failing representatives at local, provincial and national levels, and then turn around and destroy public property in anger against failure to deliver on promises, have yet to understand their roles as citizens. Many voters behave, and are treated, as subjects by those who only engage them to get their votes without any follow-up on working with them to meet their basic needs.

The civil rebellion in the Middle East and North Africa is a result of the failure of governments towards their citizens, to whom they are accountable. Over many years, citizens in that region were treated as subjects given hand-outs without any engagement with their views on broader policy questions and performance of government. Subjects may take long to revolt, but eventually they do, as the uprisings there have demonstrated. Focusing on issues and not personalising politics is particularly important as we create opportunities for the new voters to understand and play their roles as engaged citizens.

The Independent Electoral Commission, which has done a great job over the past 17 years, should play a bigger role in voter education beyond teaching voters how to vote. Voters need to know that they are the shareholders of South Africa Inc and the real sovereigns of our democratic state. We owe it to future generations to create a climate in which they can live and work together as fellow citizens without continuing to be prisoners of the past.

The impact of Mantashe’s statement on all those young white and black South Africans who exercised their democratic right to align themselves with parties other than the ANC and who love and revere Mandela as the founding father of the nation can only be bewilderment and disappointment.

South Africa has demonstrated its capacity to rise to the challenges of building a democracy on the ruins of an oppressive system. The longer we delay issues-based politics, the longer we will continue to see the contradictory responses of citizens. The recent peaceful, fair and free local elections should embolden us to commit to strengthening our democracy and making our country an example of a prosperous society united in its diversity.

Ramphele is a businesswoman and a social commentator.