Arts & Life

Mandela: A much celebrated – but often misappropriated – legacy

If Nelson Mandela is observing the global outpour of affection that has met his passing, then he is no doubt doing so with dignified humility. But between the gentle nods of gratitude, the man must be looking for something more. He wasn’t just a secular saint; he was a formidable intellectual, a crafty negotiator, a pragmatic strategist, and – at perhaps his most fundamental – a politician with a mischievous sense of humour. It is easy to romanticize Mandela, to revere the moral guidance he showed South Africa and the world, but only romanticizing him is to do the depth and nuance of his person an injustice.

There are two things in particular that the heightened emotional response to Mandela’s death risks glossing over. First, the principles that informed his astounding endurance both in prison and as president is not rooted in a particular social identity. Many social movements that like to claim Mandela as either a supporter or an example forget he never christened his cause the ‘Black South African cause.’ And as leader of South Africa he never prioritized the South African identity above those of other countries. What drove Mandela was an ideal, an unwavering belief that people should have control over their own futures.

Mandela worked with a variety of groups in the struggle against Apartheid, including Marxist parties. Communists throughout the world have for this reason ‘claimed’ Mandela as theirs. What they forget is that Mandela oversaw the writing of the most liberal constitution in the world, one that gets its pedigree from the American one. It is anchored in the protection of an individual’s ability to choose the nature of their life, and in the – philosophical and political – belief that an individual has the capacity to do so.

Other social movements, including some indigenous ones, have ‘claimed’ Mandela as an example for leading a particular people to freedom. What they forget is that Mandela shunned political identification with just one group, and the nationalism that can be the result of such identification. He famously said that he fought against ‘white domination and black domination.’ Mandela obviously identified with his race, his family, and his community at a personal level, but he rejected the idea that the political arrangement for society should do so. His conception of the South African state would identify with South African citizens, and be neutral towards their skin colour, their gender, their religion and their sexual orientation.

Many white South Africans, and in particular Afrikaners, failed to see this element in Mandela’s political philosophy. They saw Mandela’s rise to power as ‘black’ rise to power. From this perspective it wasn’t a liberal democracy that had arrived, but a ‘black government.’ Such a belief has unfortunately been vindicated by many within the African National Congress who see South Africa through a racial lens, and themselves as representatives of black South Africans only. This, however, is not Mandela’s legacy. Mandela himself can justly be compared with Martin Luther King, Jr. in that his hopes and dreams were rooted in abstract principles of freedom and equality for all persons, not in the age old paradigm of Us versus Them.

The second element to Mandela that the contemporary moment is likely to gloss over is his fundamental practicality. The man was, in his heart of hearts, a politician. He had well defined goals that could manifest in actual government policies, and he was adamant about achieving those goals. He had dreams yes, but they were dreams rooted in a potential reality. In his own words, he was ‘no prophet.’ His struggle wasn’t utopian; it was for a very real version of South Africa, with free and fair elections, with opposing perspectives, policy ideas, and bitter conflicts played out in the legislative arena, with political winners and losers.

For Mandela, there was no necessary tension between practicality and the moral high road. He ultimately preferred collaboration and dialogue because it was a morally superior path to violence, but also because violence was a strategic error; it would lead to more violence and ultimately cripple the same country he was invested in. Mandela’s morality had a practical component built in.

As leader of the liberation movement, Mandela held onto peaceful resistance only until such resistance became nothing but a moral stand with no impact on the worsening conditions many South Africans faced. At that point he engaged in ‘economic attacks’ on the Apartheid state, such as pulling down power lines. Later, it was a shrewd pragmatism that let him encourage his colleagues to learn the Afrikaans language, to understand their culture and symbols, and to grasp what was most important to the Afrikaner identity. This political savvy is the reason Afrikaans leaders engaged with, and ultimately respected, him.

What people often celebrate as Mandela’s absolute grip on right and wrong is in fact quite the opposite; it’s his ability to see and think about the other side. His moral core, the thing that fascinates so many people, rests on appreciating the different ways people conceptualize right and wrong. It was this appreciation that allowed him not only to free those who oppressed him, but to actually forgive them, and to craft a constitution which would guarantee their rights as much as his own.

The only perspective Mandela flat out rejected were the ones whose main focus were dismantling other perspectives. This doesn’t make him a relativist. Mandela likely would have rejected the idea that if you weren’t a moral absolutist, you have to be a relativist. As mentioned, he had an unwavering belief in individuals being free and equal, and this belief was anchored in the profoundly moral idea that nobody has a monopoly on what is valuable and meaningful in human life. He certainly had his own ideas about how to live a meaningful life, but his nuanced morality didn’t feel the need to project that onto others. The political arrangement he fought for was ultimately one that wouldn’t construct the narrative for people’s lives, but would allow them do so themselves, without one particular ideology or one group taking the reins.

Those who wish to employ Mandela’s legacy for their own cause should think twice about what the man himself would say about their approach. He will quite likely want to nuance it in some way. People tend to align Mandela with whatever moral cause is orientated against some form of political power, but that is simplifying the man. He would reject fascism for its obviously oppressive tendencies, but he’d likely critique the absolutism of something much more benign, such as pacifism, as well. He, after all, considered force seriously, and used it sparingly, at times. Similarly, social movements rooted in nationalism, even indigenous or anti-colonial ones, shouldn’t appropriate Mandela as their example. He had little patience for placing one social identity above another, even in the context of a liberation movement. His conception of South African citizenship applied equally to all; there was no ‘citizenship plus’ for those who had been oppressed.

Mandela is rightfully celebrated throughout the world, but such celebration shouldn’t replace the man with a myth. The man is much more interesting. He isn’t a South African blend of Ghandi and Mother Theresa. And he isn’t the catchall for every social justice movement. He is a politician that fought for a political arrangement blind to difference in order to let it thrive, and therefore by definition, no one particular group of people, or one specific conception of what is valuable and meaningful in human life, can claim him.


Johanu Botha is a student of public policy and political philosophy. His hobbies include the mandolin and intermittent bouts of existential angst. You can reach him at