Book Review: The Meaning of Mandela

January 13, 2024
2 mins read

Separating the Icon From the Myth
Tuesday, June 5, 2007.
By Andile Mngxitama
“Nelson Mandela stands out as a global icon for peace, love, and reconciliation and magnanimity [and] we should understand more the historical forces and social values that shaped and influenced his leadership.” —Archbishop Desmond Tutu, from the foreword
The Meaning of Mandela edited by the Xolela Mancgu is a compilation of three essays on Mandela by perhaps the most prominent and celebrated Black intellectuals on earth today- Henry Louis Gates Jr, Cornel West, and the first African Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka.
The monograph is based on their lectures on “the meaning” of Mandela organized by Mangcu. That the three came to South Africa and shared a platform, talks to the amazing capacities of Mangcu as an intellectual entrepreneur. The foreword by Archbishop Tutu attests to the weight of the big names associated with the project.
The Gates Jr essay is a delightful journey of a young gifted black intellectual’s tribulations in a quest to bring to life Encyclopaedia Africana, which was first conceived by W.E.B.DuBois as the most effective way to fight racism; but the essay says very little about the meaning of Mandela per se.
Soyinka on the other hand warns against the “banalisation of [the] symbol of Mandela”; but ultimately shies away from engaging in a critical discourse about why Mandela’s image seems freely available to less than noble causes such as the “soulless, [and] truly horrendous” sculpture dominating the Mandela Square in Sandton.

Cornel West’s essay, however, is majestic in its reach, and mesmerizing in its delivery. He imbues Mandela with the great Socratic spirit of “going against the grain” in search and service of the truth; and warns against placing Mandela on “some pedestal”. He further asks questions in general about the dogma of “market fundamentalism”, which presents privatization as the only answer to “structural issues” – reminding us that it was under Mandela’s stewardship that South Africa abandoned the RDP for the market fundamentalist GEAR policy.
Consequently, this then begs the question how Mandela’s leadership would therefore fare against the charge by the likes of Chinweizu, the Nigerian writer, that “the class-stratum that led the decolonisation movement in Africa was a caste of comprador-African agents of white supremacy”; including icons such as Mandela and Nkrumah.
To his credit, Cornel West, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, has warned against the “Santa Clausification” of Mandela – Big smile, domesticated, tamed, defanged with toys in a bag”.
As a contribution towards a “systematic scholarship” on Mandela, The Meaning of Mandela is therefore rather disappointing. What aggravates this judgement is the fact that too many books have now been written on the subject with no useful account on the real meaning of Mandela.
It’s about time that we moved from the hagiography of Mandela to a self-confident evaluation of his contributions. The “myth” of Mandela needs to be explored with some degree of distance if any meaning can be yielded on his place in our torched history and a future that can work.
Andile Mngxitama is a South Africa-based writer. He blogs frequently at Black Looks.
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