“And until the American Negros lets the white man know that we are really ready and willing to pay the price that is necessary for freedom our people will always be walking around here like second-class citizens or what you call 20th century slaves. The price of freedom is death”- Malcolm X
As per tradition and norm in South Africa, the Nelson Mandela month, which also commemorated the centenary of his political life was a heavily dramatized moment conjuring up mixed emotions and feelings with millions rolling up their sleeves to engage in all of sorts of events and happenings playing out on our television sets and public spaces. This was nothing but a frenzy of a fake philanthropic agenda filled with programs run by white people and supported by black liberals in what they argue is a bid to do something “good” in taking out 67 minutes out of a full 24 hour day schedule, in the spirit and service of the Mandela legacy.
The philosophical structure and the entire ethos of the Mandela agenda is precisely set to push the liberal agenda of social justice and public good that Mandela as a political figure stood for and represented. And notably, for this program to get off the ground as it were, a scene of sheer spectacle and political grandstanding must overtake the deep and painful politics of national and historical importance troubling black people and then subsume them into this collective Mandela nostalgia and the Rainbow Nation fever. Surprisingly, this time around, the spectacle did not only come from your quintessential Mandela adorer or follower, but to my rude surprise, it also came from Ncedisa Mpemnyama. An avid Bikoist who is politically affiliated to a self-avowed Black Consciousness movement, Black First, Land First (BLF) whom by using the political narrative(s) of black existence, and by extension, black liberation give credence to what appeared to me as a poorly rehearsed #HandsOffMandela campaign and a #HandsOnEFF kind of distorted banal logic.
It has since become apparent that Mandela means different things to different people and movements. It is then within these aforementioned issues that I wish to give an input to this debate and also challenge exactly the backward single narrative of Mandela which seeks to salvage him from historical judgement in the ventilation out of the Mandela question into public discourse.
For starters, I think in true emotional blackmailer style, Ncedisa manages to beautifully draw to us the historicity of Mandela and how the latter came to be lorded over by ideologically misled blacks and racist whites alike, including your so-called white investors and the international community such as the United States (US) and the United Nations (UN) specifically as the quintessential liberator of black people, and ipso facto, the Father of the Nation.
Mpemnyama also touches, albeit briefly and in passing, on how the Mandela-cum-ANC led politico-constitutional pact of 1994 was on the grand narrative simply a legal elimination of grand apartheid. The absence however, of an ideology or a program to sway the means of production and ways of living on the side of the historically marginalized and excluded native Blacks, thus breaking asunder the apartheid-cum-colonial property relations, ensured a de facto continuation of social apartheid and a fatal abortion of the national question.
This much Mpemnyama agrees wholeheartedly with and even proceeds to place the blame firmly on the shoulders of Mandela and the neoliberal offensive he launched in South Africa that has since only culminated in the rapid decline in the standard of living of Black people. However in the same breath, and to my dismay again, after this heavyhearted brief confession made on the toxicity and dangers of the Mandela agenda in South Africa vis-à-vis liberal politics, he then immediately takes up a sharp and upright u-turn to start off his real intention for penning the article, which was to launch the #HandsOffMandela campaign and the #AttentionOnEFF brouhaha that in all truths left me scratching my head in confusion, although I curiously read further to grasp the basic stand of this thinking on his part.
As I read further, it became clear that what Mpemnyama was trying to impress upon in that messy scribbling of pen on paper published by Black Opinion newsletter (BLF’s official propaganda machine) was same the old hackneyed BLF agenda. This agenda insists on turning Biko’s corpus literature, an abiding gift and legacy to us and the succeeding generations and arguably the most vital contribution in the liberation struggle of black people from the clutches of white racism and betrayal by nonwhites who collaborate with oppressors, which is the grand philosophy of Black Consciousness into a one-size-fits-all designation. All this to try and accommodate what Biko had correctly delineated as nonwhites who work against the program of national reconstruction, the same way Mandela’s state project launched a neoliberal offensive.
To Mpemnyama, the fact that Biko demanded solid prerequisites for one to be locked within the political template of “blackness” and therefore earn the revolutionary respect and decorum that we should show to all Black people who rally behind the interests and ambitions of our freedom were ignored. This was done in favor of a more hegemonic discourse about Mandela – which often, to repel critics of him, slide into the most banal of arguments that says Mandela was only human too, and ipso facto, prone to mistakes so we must cut the guy some slack. Hence Mpemnyama agonizing efforts throughout the article, to argue that the historical critique of Mandela which correctly describe him as a stubborn and irredeemable nonwhite who sold out black people’s birthright to land for a mere spectacle of the Truth and Reconciliation Commision (TRC) and the constitution, no longer hold water.
Not only does Mpemnyama police our thoughts and the deep political reflections we have of Mandela, but moreover, to give currency to his strategy of manipulation and confusion-spreading, which expresses itself in a litany of crowd-pleasing sloganeering such as “Black First, Land First”, and “Peace Amongst Blacks, War to the Enemy”, he instead runs on hurried feet to portray Mandela as a victim of a white-led concerted program of erasure from the pantheon of world-wide leaders and so argues that the ostracization of Mandela is our ostracization too.
Mpemnyama writes and I quote, “As for the black left, namely, the likes of Pan-African Congress of Azania (PAC) and Black Consciousness organizations of today: their obsession with Mandela as a sell-out is now used by the white world to lower Mandela from the global icons in order to reorganize the pantheon of global icons without a black face”, he then proceeded with a question to make those who support this supposed “erasure” feel bad about themselves, and thus asks: “shouldn’t the face of Mandela be amongst the global icons with all his neoliberal politics” (emphasis on mine). To me this is clearly what Mandela means to an avid BC adherent, a “global icon” whose footprints must be kept alive at the cost of the black political aspirations.
It is in this view I hasten to ask Mpemnyama why the face of Mandela should be there with such desperation considering how the post-apartheid political ontology he (Mandela) helped birthed has legitimated black land dispossession and our social displacement? I ask this as I have serious issues with the philosophy and the assumptive logic upon which such a declaration is pronounced by Mpemnyama. This seems to suggest that we draw inspiration from the white right-wing international community, which includes the likes of America and Europe who were the ones that placed Mandela on an international pedestal in the first place.
Secondly, let’s imagine for a minute, and let’s imagine if Mandela ceased to be seen as the global icon and the quintessential liberator for the mess black people find themselves in, a position worse than before he was released. Are we then not accepting that as an important push back against the liberal and anti-Black agenda he had always stood for in this country with the international backing? Why sustain Mandela’s longevity in the pantheon of global ranks of leaders when Mandela has only served to tighten the chains on our feet and hands? What does Mpemnyama want black people to do and most importantly which ideological labor and cognitive map do we even apply in our defense of Mandela?
To go off on a tangent a little bit, I recall a letter written in her own blood (figuratively speaking) from a prison cell with a white supremacist bullet still lodged in her body, a letter smuggled out of prison doors by her lawyer and addressed to blacks in America, Assata Shakur writes: “I love my people, but I don’t know if they love me”. I am here thinking, if Mandela at any point, in his nearly three decade prison term have a similar question in mind about Black people of this land, and if yes, what does it mean to love your people in the existential sense of pursuing the ultimate sacrifice you could ever give them, namely, a compromising free and relentless dedication and pursuance of freedom? The same spirit and valor so greatly displayed by many great men and women of our country and continent who all gave their lives in the struggle and many perished in their quest to realize this noble cause.
Mpemnyama must provide the answers since he has made the claims he made about the “obsoleteness” of our Mandela critique. Otherwise, over and above the nauseating noise Mpemnyama makes, what he doesn’t say in this noise is how a true philosophy of resistance and liberation that honors black existence in all its brokenness and beauty requires of the undying love and complete embodiment for ones people’s spiritual and material aspirations that Shakur so passionately thought about. It doesn’t require unprincipled unity that genuflect at the liberal chants and arguments to accommodate house-slaves and volarize them as global icons as Mpemnyama would have us believe. It requires the political convictions of great men like the late Robert Sobukwe (of the same PAC Mpemnyama regrettably degraded) which led him to say that it was necessary for us to speak the truth before we die, but what is the truth about Nelson Mandela? And does our bitterly sweet transition or the ambiguous continuum of the post-apartheid political design predicated upon three pillars, viz., (1) Reconciliation, (2) Peace and (3) Black Land Dispossession, mean we must not tell the truth(s) involving persons responsible for the making (even at shallow political representational level) of this post-apartheid ontology and the problematic Black existence experienced under it?
Mpemnyama’s article when properly unpacked and debunked is intellectually dishonest and misleading, but moreover, it is also a living proof that jokes can write themselves into paper. We must insist that he drops Black Consciousness from this dreary narrative and the comedy of resuscitating Mandela from the grave and (re)positioning him into the global pantheon of leaders on the ticket of the black agenda and the black struggle.
There are a few more issues that I would like to deal with which were evident points of weakness and (under) theorization on Mpemnyama’s pro-Mandela letter which of course later on became less about Mandela and more about the BLF’s own arrogant political program of bullying almost every, if not all, current black political organizations like your EFF, PAC, AZAPO etc., so that they submit to the political dictates and whims of a few group of ex September National Imbizo (SNI) members who claim de facto authority on the ideological discourse while they remain very soft and conciliatory towards the ruling African National Congress (ANC). BLF, we also know does this for pure campaigning reasons, we know they are going to parliament next year, so in order gain traction on the ground they will stop at nothing including consorting trumped up charges.
Again, as if white supremacy is not devastating enough on our pained bodies, we now, in our black spaces of thought have to deal with the ideological arrogance of these Black Consciousness and Pan Afrikanist self-avowed intelligentsia who are justifying the ideological support of ANC Uncle Toms. They do so as they are deep inside the pockets of ANC-factions, they are more interested in the ANC than they are in black people. They will readily undermine all efforts undertaken by others that have only served to raise the discourse of national consciousness of our people against the current dispensation.
For example, the PAC’s critical role historically on the land question can never be trampled on and degraded just to elevate some Mandela into global spotlight. This in the same way the EFF (with all its work-in-progress contradictions) must be commended for bringing back into national discourse the land question. As well as artistically and energetically articulating it with verve and due diligence as we help strengthen its shortcomings. Any refusal on the part of Mpemnyama to recognize the aforesaid facts is disingenuous.
Also let us hear of what Mandela has, and by extension, the ANC done besides preside over the abject poverty of our people birthed by landlessness? The answer is obvious even to a person on the streets, that is, the ANC has has killed black people in Marikana. The ANC has ensured that blacks live and grow up within the framework of shanty towns and informal settlements. There is therefore less explanatory substance to be derived out of Mpemnyama’s passionate diatribe against the EFF (which does not hold any governance) while soft on the ANC sell-outs (the incumbent ruling party since the dawn of this anti black democracy).
It is clear to me that Mpemnyama’s reading of Biko is very suspicious and messy.
For pedagogical purposes in assistance of the uninitiated, the Black Consciousness philosophy in simple terms, had always been a pedestal for unity in action and the agenda of decolonization organized by and led by black people. The political exhortation was that, see through BC lenses and you are one of us, otherwise you are a non-white and a house-slave and by extension the enemy of the black revolution. How is Nelson Mandela, not befitting of this designation, having went to prison for that long and sent by white people then only comes out to declare how he fought against black domination?
The Django film reference made by Mpemnyama is yet another case of selective reading of the overall Django film’s political question in order to give credence to how he wants us to imagine the Mandela question in SA. Django does indeed embark on a resolute mission to free Candy from captivity – who was his partner, but the problem is that out of this Candy finding mission, Django misses the golden opportunity to disrupt the slave plantation project in its entirety. Instead, like an untrained revolutionary he simply went there, killed the master and freed his woman and left the rest of the other slaves behind, in shackles. I argue, that this contradiction reflects how Django, the free Black slave (and in the normative sense of freedom) did not have a revolutionary or liberatory framework or even claim to have one, unlike Mandela whom we all know is lorded over as an international leader worthy of a personal space in the global pantheons of revolutionary icons alongside the like of Amílcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, Marcus Garvey and WEB Du Bois to name just a few. Secondly, the same Mandela, Mpemnyama argues should not be criticized but embraced, had the political power to complete the black liberation project and change the winds of history. He however deliberately chose to abandon it at the behest of his white counsel, thus condemning us to poverty and indignity in perpetuity.
Mpemnyama’s selective and phantasmagorical reading of the Mandela question and subsequent conflation with Django is a sick joke that must be laughed out of court. It flies in the face of objective reality about the importance of the political power Mandela wielded vis-à-vis Django. Mandela referred to himself and wanted blacks to take him as a national leader, so it is within this national framework and historical analysis does critique of him stem from. It is not a critique labored out of nothing. Therefore, Mpemnyama’s penchant for this quick covering up of the deeds of reactionaries, even when they unashamedly held them till the last hour of their lives, is a rude interruption of a genuine and a frank conversation we, as blacks, should have to answer to the question on whose name was the agenda of national liberation sold so as to avoid the repetition of historical blunder.
Mpemnyama must not force a failed national leader down our throats and elevate him to global status using black ideas of engaging white power. Honestly speaking, what whites say about Mandela and the critique they hold of him is never our agenda, never was and never will be. Therefore we can never be preoccupied with strained relations of master-baas when we have a betrayed liberation project to think about and reconstitute which is clearly something Ncedisa needs to seriously think about. However, as an Afropessimist and student of the black existential discourse, I agree that at an ontological level, in our conceptualization of anti-black racism we are aware of the common positionality shared with Nelson Mandela. This is that of being Othered and Black(ened) and are submused by what the Black American scholar, Frank B. Wilderson lll called a relation of “Subjective-Presence-as-Absence”.
Mandela programmatically defined himself outside of the articulation of black-freedom-dreams consolidated by his abortion of the agenda of national liberation. So Mpemnyama’s clumsy retrieval of the Mandela legacy on the basis that he is black like the rest of us from what he has dubbed the “global racist erasure mechanization” harbors on his undue conflation of the paradigmatic-theoretical and programmatic-political axes structuring black non-existence. This position is reactionary and conceptually violent as it can end up seriously undermining programmatic actions we can take at the individual body-level to engage the powers and is politically unworkable. This is because we cannot work with reactionaries, whom like Malcolm X had prophesized, want us to walk around as second class citizens. Comrade Malcolm X was correct in having said that the price of freedom is death, and in addition, long and lonely torturous nights in prison cells and captivity. Mandela’s long jail time and ultimately death, was a serious push-back against the political aspirations of Black-freedom-dreams and I hope all of us would not wish to be like him.
Mpemnyama’s views must be taken with a pinch of salt so that one is careful not to (re)produce and (re)plicate these lousy attempts to compound matters to an already complicated black political left program that, as its aims and objectives, is set for the complete (re)thinking of the post-apartheid political ontology and the program of the liberation of black people.
Mandisi Gladile is a member of the EFFSC Mosoenà Branch, based at the Vaal University of Techonology. He enjoys social and political gatherings as well as reading African literature and imagining the possibility of a revolution.