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.

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.

In the end, he seems to have answered a question Soyinka asked in his “meaning of Mandela” lecture in 2005. Concerned by what he called the banalization of Mandela, Soyinka said this:

It strikes me as poor reward that even as we continually debate issues of identity, we have moved to deprive a man to whom the world owes so much any lingering sense of his own identity … I constantly ask myself what such a man must feel in those moments when all human beings try to seize the reality of his existence. Social identity, cultural identity, all make for good discourse, but what of the individual identity? What of that seizure of one’s inner self from which all external activities take their authority, their conviction and their mandate? My fear is that Mandela probably gave up on that entitlement a long time ago.


Not quite, Wole. Mandela held on to that identity until the very end and beyond. That’s what kept him going in a world that tried to put him down or pull him apart—in prison, out of prison; in power, out of power; in death and beyond. That is why and how he was able to withstand all pain and pressure so he could marshal the energies of his people toward freedom. They carried him, as he guided them. He was not being facetious when he spoke out against being elevated. He knew, in a way the world never seemed to understand or accept, that he never walked alone. Hamba kahle, Tata. Enkosi.

Xolela Mangcu is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town and a nonresident fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the author of Biko: A Life and editor of The Meaning of Mandela.