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.

Former South African President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela at his home in 2008. Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

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.

But Biko was also quick to point out that while part of this was because of acts of commission by the white regime—the imprisonment, the bannings and the assassinations—some of it was an act of omission by black people themselves:

The real moral of the story is that we blacks must on our own develop those agencies that we need, and not look up to unsympathetic and often hostile quarters to offer these to us.

But how do we explain the lack of intellectual initiative today, when there are no “hostile quarters” to stop black South Africans from creating the necessary intellectual infrastructure? 

In June 1998 I wrote an op-ed in the weekly newspaper the Mail and Guardian appealing to the new black millionaires in South Africa to provide private funding for new black-led think tanks: “This would not be just a matter of social responsibility but a pragmatic investment in the generation of new ideas.” But whenever I raised this with my former comrades who had hit the jackpot, they always asked me about ROI, which I never understood until someone told me it was “return on investment.” I was probably just as infuriated by the pretentious business jargon of our nouveau riche as I was by the myopia of it all.

Why should it matter that black people should write Mandela’s story? Was he not, after all, a symbol of all humanity, not just black people? That is correct if the symbol we embrace is black people as a whole, not just Nelson Mandela. After all, Mandela was a product and an embodiment of their struggles for freedom, equality and peace.

I fear, though, that for many white people, Mandela was more of a revelation. To the older whites, he was not the “terrorist” they had been brought up to hate. He turned out to be a suave, highly educated, lawyer-turned-revolutionary. To the younger whites, he became different from the rest of the black people because he was not angry.

That is partly because the angry Mandela had been effaced from history. The idea of Mandela as a fighter for justice is eclipsed by Mandela as promoter of reconciliation—as if those two goals cannot be reconciled. Connecting those goals is, of course, the unfinished business of Nelson Mandela, just as it was for Martin Luther King Jr.

But none of these nuances about Mandela will come out as long as there is no serious scholarship about him. There are so many dimensions of the man that are lost in the one-dimensional representations we get from the media. The dimension that really fascinates me is his sense of history, which I saw only toward the end of his life. He went in a trance when he recited the poetry of S.E.K. Mqhayi, arguably the greatest writer and poet in the first three decades of the 20th century. It is not insignificant that Mandela grew up at a time when Mqhayi was at his intellectual peak. In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes about Mqhayi’s influence on him.

I suspect that Mandela’s longing for history has everything to do with age and an insatiable quest for identity. I think this is the reason he chose to be buried among his family in Qunu. No matter how much elevation the world accorded him, the pull of home was irresistible in the end. This is an important symbolic statement by Mandela in a world that seeks to erase all talk of identity.