On the eve of his 95th birthday on 18 July this year, the image of South Africa’s globally most recognised icon and strongest unifying national symbol, former state president Nelson Mandela, is under siege as diverse groups jostle for prominence under the umbrella of his name. And the outside world is taking notice as just short of two decades of democracy, South Africa’s lack of a broad-based national identity is exposed.
After the recent controversial ‘photo opportunity’ with the frail 94-year-old Mandela surrounded by current African National Congress leaders, The New York Times reported: “As Mr Mandela fades away, the struggle to claim his legacy, his image, his moneymaking potential and even the time he has remaining, has begun in earnest.
“The governing African National Congress, which Mr Mandela led for decades, is accused of using him as a prop to remind voters of the party’s noble roots at a time when it has come to be seen as a collection of corrupt, self-serving elites.
“The party’s main rival, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has come under fire, too, for using a photo of him embracing one of its white progenitors – spurring complaints that the opposition is trying to co-opt Mr Mandela’s image to unseat his own party.
“And all the while, his descendants are engaged in a very public fight over Mr Mandela’s financial legacy. Angry that a trust set up for their welfare and upkeep is partly controlled by someone they consider an outsider, his friend George Bizos, the family has gone to court to remove Mr Bizos as a director.
“Everyone wants a piece of the Madiba magic, said William Gumede, who has written extensively about Mr Mandela, using the former president’s clan name. ‘This is just a preview of what will come when he goes.’”
Illustrating the extent to which the dividing lines between the ANC as a political party and state resources have faded over the past 19 years, the paper notes how the photo opportunity, which was first and foremost a party event, was “captured by a government camera crew and broadcast nationwide”.
Ironically, the ANC recently launched an attack on the DA for using a picture of Mr Mandela embracing the foremost icon of white liberal resistance to apartheid, the late Helen Suzman – accusing the DA of “a cynical and opportunistic exercise in propaganda”.
The ANC ‘photo opportunity’ with Mr Mandela most probably came in reaction to the DA’s election campaign publication and could be read as indicating the extent to which the party feels vulnerable in the run-up to next year’s general election.
DA leader Helen Zille in turn hit back, saying: “We cannot just sit back and allow the ANC’s propaganda to falsely paint the DA as the party of apartheid. And we will reject the ANC’s lie that if we win an election we will bring apartheid back.”
Mr Mandela has earned the respect and admiration of most South Africans across all race and political divisions for his reconciliatory efforts after the historic national peace and constitutional negotiations of the early 1990s.
The latest round of controversies surrounding Mr Mandela’s image and his legacy sadly illustrates how South Africans have failed to establish unifying national symbols and loyalties across dividing lines since 1994.
It may also be seen as a commentary on how political mobilisation by most political parties still relies on the issues of the past and mere perceptions and symbolism, instead of issues of the day.