Top critical review
Nelson Mandela deserves better than this
2 September 2018
Who isn’t familiar with the life of Nelson Mandela? The answer is, of course, those who are too young to remember the great man. So it is an excellent idea to use the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday to introduce that generation to the story of his heroism and achievements. And how better to do this than through the eyes of his own great-grandchildren? So I thought this book an excellent idea – until I actually read it.
The first problem is that the format involves Zazi and Ziwelene Mandela questioning their grandmother, Zindzi, about her father. So the account of his personal suffering, and the sacrifices he made for his country and its people, as seen through the eyes of his daughter by his second wife, naturally dwells also the hardships inflicted on his family. So the story, as told, is as much a eulogy to Winnie Mandela as to Nelson. Now I would not expect young children to be introduced to the more unpleasant sides of a relative’s character. But I am uncomfortable that other young readers are being taught to admire a woman who cheerfully advocated ‘necklacing’ her enemies, and was personally complicit in the torture and murder of black children, such as Stompie Seipei.
The second issue is this. Throughout the book, the terrible injustices of the apartheid regime are spoken of in terms of what “white people” did to “black people”. Although this is mitigated somewhat by Sean Qualis’ illustrations, which include white faces among the protesters, such a characterisation is a terrible injustice to activists such as Denis Goldberg (tried alongside Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, and like them, sentenced to life imprisonment), Albie Sachs (ANC member who lost an eye and an arm to a car bomb) and Fr. Michael Lapsley (who lost both hands and an eye to a letter bomb, for his opposition to apartheid). Of course, such people were a minority (both as a proportion of white people, in their opposition to apartheid, and as a fraction of those who suffered for their opposition). But it is beliefs that cause evil actions, not skin colour. To classify the ‘good people’ versus ‘bad people’ by their skin colour, rather than by their actions is to perpetuate the evil myth propagated by the apartheid regime: that the colour of their skin makes people fundamentally different.
The question is asked by one of the grandchildren is an excellent one: “Why?” But the answer given – “because of colonialism” – is useless. Obviously the real answer is complex, but the statement as given is both untrue (in that there were many countries colonized by European powers, but apartheid was not the result everywhere) and too glib. Colonial impulses sometimes resulted in paternalist arrogance, sometimes in policies of extermination and sometimes in a fear of the indigenous population that resulted in systematic oppression. When a child wonders why people do bad things, to fob then off with an “ism” is to replace understanding with rhetoric. Even small children can understand that people may become afraid when outnumbered and then come to hate what they fear, and that hatred often leads to cruelty. Understanding that people sometimes do terrible things when they are afraid is an important lesson. Teaching divisive rhetoric instead is unhelpful.
Nelson Mandela’s vision of a “rainbow nation” is being undermined by such language. His greatness was in responding to injustice not with a thirst for revenge, and a desire to invert the scales and give black people power over white, but to transcend that understandable impulse, and work to create a country where skin colour ceases to define a person. He saw the opposite of segregation as integration.
It is important that the new generation should learn about Nelson Mandela. He is more than “the first black President of South Africa”. He was a great leader, who took a path of incredible self-sacrifice, then had the greatness of spirit not to be embittered by the price he had paid.
But this is not the book to teach them about him.