Mandela’s Challenge for South Africa’s Black Intellectuals

The iconic leader’s death comes at a time when the country’s black intelligentsia are the least prepared to write a fuller narrative of its history.

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Former South African President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela at his home in 2008.

Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

Some years ago I initiated a research program on African identity at the Human Sciences Research Council, which is the largest government-funded social science research institution in South Africa. The highlight of the program was a series of lectures by author and playwright Wole Soyinka, professor and The Root Editor-in-Chief Henry Louis Gates Jr. and professor Cornel West on “the meaning of Mandela,” followed by the publication of a book of the same title. Inspired by what Gates had done with African-American studies at Harvard, I thought we could build a “dream team” of our own on the southern tip of the African continent.

We did not do badly at all. The initial staff consisted of Mcebisi Ndletyana, who is now the head of political economy at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection; Claude Kabemba, who heads the Open Society’s Southern Africa Resource Watch; and Pumla Gqola, who is now a renowned author and professor at Wits University.

I was on the verge of signing on Steven Friedman, one of the country’s leading political analysts, when trouble broke out. The chief executive officer, Olive Shisana, informed me that people close to then-South Africa President Thabo Mbeki were not too happy with me continuing to write a column criticizing the president on a weekly basis. In short, I could not bite the hand that fed me. Shisana wanted me either to stop writing the column completely or to pass it through her for vetting. To make a long story short, I resigned to pursue life as an independent researcher.

Sadly, that was also the last to be heard about the HSRC as a space for black public intellectual deliberation.

Even though Mandela did not come to the lectures, he graced with his presence the launch of the book The Meaning of Mandela: A Literary and Intellectual Celebration. One of the things I said at that launch, which I repeat here, was that we South Africans are particularly bad at writing up our history.

To be sure, Mbeki initiated the Road to Democracy in South Africa project, whose history of the struggle went back only to the 1960s, and largely from the perspective of the African National Congress. Then the president’s friends established the Centre for African Renaissance (now known as the Institute for African Renaissance Studies) at the University of South Africa. A couple of years ago, one of Mbeki’s advisers, Joel Netshitenze, one of the brightest lights in the movement, established the Mapungubwe Institute. That, I am afraid, has been the extent of black-led research institutions in South Africa over the past 20 years of our freedom.

And so, Nelson Mandela’s death comes at a time when black intellectuals are the least prepared to write a fuller narrative than has been made available so far. The irony is that black people set up more research institutions during the struggle against apartheid than during the period of their freedom.

In the 1970s the Black Consciousness Movement published newsletters and newspapers such as The Voice and the popular literary journal Staffrider. Other publications were Black Viewpoint, Black Perspective and Black Review. The Institute for Black Research was formed in 1975 to train researchers and to stimulate writing in the black community; undertake surveys on community issues; and compile, publish and distribute books, monographs and journals. The Institute of Black Studies provided a forum for community-based discussions.

Steve Biko, who founded the Black Consciousness Movement, explained the need for these programs in a preface to Black Viewpoint in 1972. He might as well have been prophesying the current state of black intellectual culture:

We have felt and observed in the past the existence of a great vacuum in our literary world and newspapers. So many things are said so often to us, about us and for us but seldom by us. This has created a dependency mood amongst us, which has given rise to the present tendency to look at ourselves in terms of how we are interpreted by the white press.