‘I am not a liberator. Liberators do not exist. The people liberate themselves.” – Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Argentine-born revolutionary.
The narrative about how former president Nelson Mandela liberated South Africa from the clutches of the apartheid has been inculcated deeply into the minds of those of us born in the post-apartheid era.
Those of us who started primary school in the townships in the late 1990s have a vivid memory of how our teachers suffocated us in propaganda about Mandela, reminding us daily about how we were able to study without fear of police vans swooping on the townships to disrupt schooling.
Those of us who later attended multiracial schools in the suburbs have a vivid memory of how teachers would consistently remind us that in the not-too-distant past, we never would have been seated next to our white or Indian classmates. We were told it was because of Mandela that we were able to play on the same playgrounds with other races.
This did not end when we exited the school gates. At home, we were reminded daily how lucky we were to be born in a democratic dispensation – thanks to Mandela.
Our pastors at church called him a messenger of God sent to liberate his people. The media amplified his messiah status. White capital made billions on the “Mandela brand”.
And, of course, the ANC-led government capitalised greatly on this deification of Mandela.
So it’s not difficult to understand why today, so many people, including my generation, have elevated the former president to a deity.
The Mandelafication of our country was not an event, but a deliberate process of socialisation spanning decades.
All agencies of socialisation in our country have significantly contributed to the legitimisation of this narrative of Mandela, the greatest liberator. It is a narrative that I believe must be challenged.
One of the biggest dangers with the deification of Mandela is it inherently distorts the genesis of our history. Mandela is a product of the ANC, which he joined in 1944 – the year in which the ANC Youth League was founded.
There is a tendency to speak of our liberation struggle as though it began in 1912 when the ANC was founded. This is why it’s so easy to believe an ANC leader is our liberator. The truth is that our struggle for liberation began centuries before the birth of the ANC. As far back as the 1700s, Cape Frontier Wars were fought with the Boers.
These wars were waged due to colonial expansion into the Eastern Cape, which in turn dispossessed Xhosa and Khoikhoi people of their land and cattle among other things. Across South Africa, similar wars of resistance against settler colonialism were fought.
The liberation history of our country began long before the ANC was born. Long before there was ever a Mandela. Unfortunately, because this history has been subordinated, the names of its heroes remain unsung.
Another big danger about the deification of Mandela is that it distorts history. When Mandela is posited as the liberator, something atrocious happens: the people of South Africa are reduced to mere decorations in our liberation history. The truth is that they played a far more significant role.
While our liberation struggle history began with the arrival of settlers as far back as the 1600s, it peaked in 20th century. This was due to a number of reasons, one of which was the wave of resistance and liberation struggles that swept through the African continent.
By the 20th century, nearly all African countries were engaged in the battle for the soul of their sovereignty. South Africa was also caught up in this wave.
In 1960, the country entered into a fully-fledged armed struggle. The catalyst was the massacre of anti-pass campaigners in Sharpeville and Langa. The campaign was led by the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) under the leadership of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, one of the greatest revolutionaries.
Shortly after this, the liberation movements were banned. Political activists were incarcerated. Some fled into exile and others were forced to go underground.
In 1963, the Rivonia Trial began and a few months later Mandela, along with other activists, was sentenced to life imprisonment. He would be released almost three decades later.
While Mandela was languishing in prison, ordinary citizens intensified the Struggle. Workers and students in particular waged a relentless struggle against the system.
In 1976 it was students who brought the apartheid regime to its knees. They were not trained by Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), they were not ANC members, but students inspired by the Black Consciousness philosophy articulated a decade earlier by another great revolutionary, Steve Biko.
Along with ordinary South Africans and political activists, the youngsters set in motion the wheels of a vehicle that would ultimately lead to our liberation.
These same ordinary South Africans organised campaigns aimed at putting pressure on the regime to free political prisoners, Mandela included. They mobilised the international community to join in the Struggle. All their efforts led to a negotiated settlement and a democratic dispensation.
The reality is that ordinary South Africans liberated Mandela in more ways than Mandela liberated them. They fought when he was in prison. They campaigned for his release. And they voted the ANC into power. They are the true liberators of my generation.
Don’t misunderstand me: Mandela was undeniably one of the most important figures in the country’s liberation history. He became a symbol of our struggle – by deliberate design. But he is not a liberator of black people. It is both ahistoric and apolitical to appropriate the liberation of millions of people to a single individual, especially one who spent most of his activist years incarcerated as ordinary people were continuing the Struggle and resisting their own oppression.
I am tired of being told I owe eternal gratitude for my freedom (however little it is) to a single man, because I do not. Mandela did not give me freedom – it was never his to give. My freedom is a result of the serving, sacrificing and suffering of many people, most of whom history books don’t mention.
The narrative that Mandela is the liberator rather than one of the many contributors to our Struggle is vulgar. It is vulgar not only because it is rooted in falsification, but because it threatens to rewrite history. No greater injustice can be committed than to deny future generations the right to learn about their true history – a weapon needed for their own liberation.
My generation grew up being fed propaganda. We grew up being taught an ahistoric history. May this injustice not continue, one I don’t wish upon my own children.
[Malaika Wa Azania is the author of Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation. This article was first published: 19 July 2015 on Sunday Independent . Re-posted by AfricaFightNow.org! with the author’s permission.]