Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Daniel Herwitz reviews The Cambridge Companion to Nelson Mandela

Rita Barnard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Nelson Mandela. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 349 pp.

Reviewed by Daniel Herwitz

22 July 2014

This book of twelve essays (almost entirely by South Africans) with an excellent introductory essay by Rita Barnard is inaugural. By that I mean it is the first of what will be a long history of publications in which the humanities recruit their variegated forms of understanding to the task of speaking to the life, political story, and persona of one of the great figures of the twentieth century, a man of paradigmatic integrity and moral stature, who inhabited the tumultuous whirlwind of political turmoil, postcolonial transition, a person who emerged from twenty-six years in prison to a South Africa poised at the precipice of a political change of which he had long dreamed and for which he had long suffered, then played perhaps a greater role than any other as negotiator, inaugural president and éminence grise in guiding South Africa from that precipice through its miraculous transition from 1991–1996 and beyond. It was Nelson Mandela, the master negotiator who held together the negotiations between 1991–1993 (and shared a transitional government with Frederik Willem de Klerk of the now defunct National Party), which led to the Interim Constitution and first free and fair elections in South Africa in 1994 and led to the Truth and Reconciliation committees and the Final Constitution in 1996. Refusing a second presidential term, claiming that the country should not unduly revolve around him, he left the presidency after one term and entered private life in 1998 then lived yet another lifetime establishing children’s funds, speaking at international HIV/AIDS meetings (where he chastised his successor Thabo Mbeki for his AIDS denialism policy) and appearing before the media with the likes of the Clintons, Lady Diana, and the Spice Girls.

The Cambridge Companion is no easy book to have put together because Mandela is no easy figure to write about. The humanities are accustomed to writing critically and at a distance about texts, events and persons, duly analyzing, contextualizing and as often as not shredding them in accord with their multiple theories and perspectives. And here is an icon of our time, a moral exemplar, man of the greatest possible integrity, against whose life the critical perspectives of the humanities would seem to falter, as if for once we have been blessed with the real thing, a man, a life, incapable of deconstruction. This may be a fantasy, this image of the diamantine, Christ-like Mandela. And yet, no one to my knowledge has yet ventured to deconstruct Christ. Even Fredric Nietzsche admitted that the only true Christian died on the cross, thus drawing a wedge between his critical target—the culture of Christianity—and Christ himself. Mandela was no Christian, although his moral ideals were a creative grafting of traditional African ethics with what he learned from the Christian missionaries during his formal education and again with the ideal of the law. He was a man who suffered, had difficult relations to his family, stood for violence in the dire circumstances of his country’s struggle, and made some disastrous political decisions during his brief tenure as state president, including his decision to appoint Thabo Mbeki as his successor, and his full throttled embracing of a neo-liberal economic agenda in 1996, which lead to the loss of two-million jobs in South Africa and little foreign investment. But writing critically about his political policies is different from thinking through his life and persona in the light of the critical theories of the humanities. There the task is more difficult.

Some of the best essays in this book are rather about how his stature was forged through contradiction, how he converted suffering, the experience of inequality, multiple cultural traditions, and what Philip Bonner calls the “antinomies” of his own life into freedom, power, and performance. David Schalkwyk explores Mandela’s long duration in prison during which he steeled himself in preparation for politics. This training of the self, Schalkwyk calls Mandela’s stoicism. It could otherwise be called a disciplining of the self (following Michel Foucault), a way of articulating a self through practices of reading and contemplation at a moment of (panoptic) incarceration.  Bonner explores Mandela’s progressive movement from the Africanist ideologies of his fiery youth to a larger vision of justice which was not ideologically driven (by communism, negritude, or liberalism) but remained open to in-filling in the light of circumstance and allowed him the flexibility to negotiate the hard issues of transition. These essays and others are about Mandela’s capacity to rise above or elevate the terms of his life, to work them through with the greatest possible exactitude, flexibility, and principle.

Every one of them (and they are all worthwhile with some really excellent) addresses Mandela’s stature: his political stature and power to lead, his celebrity role, image and star quality, his traditional stature from a line of Xhosa chiefs. Mandela’s power and success had everything to do with the synergy of these aspects. He could lead because of his talent for politics but also because of his royal stature, his beautiful, intense physiognomy; think of the lined face, chiseled from fine marble and with eyes resolute as hard diamonds and yet melancholy at the edges, carrying the scarifications of history. He was distant, and seemed in his distance to signify the royal authority of the African chiefly tradition; he had the pedigree and the historical story to compel awe and the negotiating ability to bring about consensus where powerful disagreement remained. This fusion of moral integrity with star quality and royal authority is rare enough, all the more so when the person is called forth to play a central role in history.

There is another difficulty that the humanities face in writing the Mandela story. How to write without inadvertently succumbing to the great man thesis of history, the idea that Mandela was the demigod beneficently turning the wheels of history almost single-handedly. How to avoid this when Mandela was indeed sine qua non to the political transition; subtract him and it is difficult to imagine that process having had the successful outcome it had. Daniel Roux in a useful essay reminds us not to judge the South African history of the past twenty five years in terms of the Mandela story, from the miraculous years of his reappearance on history’s center stage to his deflationary passing, associated with the failure of multiparty democracy in South Africa, the increased corruption of his own party, and the slow pace of social development. On the other hand, Deborah Posel reminds us that this fusion of the national with the Mandela story was critical to nation building during the 1990s. Not only did the African National Congress willfully construct the Mandela image, so did the National Party, wanting their constituents (anxious about retribution and anarchy under “black rule”) to trust that Mandela would care for all South Africans and rule reasonably (meaning he would not do to them what they had done to him, and to most South Africans). In the spirit of reconciliation State President Mandela took tea with Betsy Verwoerd, the wife of the architect of Apartheid, and publicly celebrated that paradigmatically Afrikaans sport, rugby. And so Mandela’s image, and the vast enchantment around it, proved crucial to the success of the political transition. In the right circumstances enchantment is fundamental to nation building, Posel argues, even if it drapes hard realities under the aesthetic cloak of myth.

And so—this is another theme in the book—the construction of Mandela image, and related, the Mandela performance, variously stylized for different circumstances and publics. Philip Bonner writes of the famous moment when Mandela appeared at the Rivonia Trial in traditional African garb; Zolani Ngwane explores Mandela’s upbringing at the “court” of Cheid Jonginthaba Dalindyebo as a source of his performance, image, and thinking. There are essays on Mandela’s image in films and in visual culture by Litheko Modisane and others, and the volume ends with a fascinating discussion by Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe who seek to imagine how the cycle of myths around Mandela will continue to play out after Mandela’s death. Their essay written at the moment before his death and published immediately after dates the book exactly. Another book of essays, produced ten years hence, will find new ways to compose and decompose the Mandela story because that story will have lived another life after his death: as personal life story, political narrative, national myth, morality tale, and also brand.

As for the brand, walking in Cape Town in 2010, I passed a design shop with a large silkscreen of Mandela in its window. In the silkscreen Mandela was shown in quadruplicate, each quadrant a different dayglow color. The Mandela image was flat and expressionless, as if done by Andy Warhol. Mandela is now stamped on the South African currency, his face at the center in the manner of George Washington on the US dollar. Andy Warhol’s great Two Hundred One Dollar Bills (1962) presents Washington in various states of flatness and fading. The work reveals what might be called the double life of the icon. To be an icon is to be in constant circulation, a mythic figure compelling awe. And yet circulation also flattens out the iconic persona like a faded one-dollar bill or ten-cent coin. This will be one Mandela fate: to exist in this double life in the future as an object of awe but also flattened currency. But there will be others. His life story will be revised, his politics reinterpreted like Gandhi’s. Like Gandhi, it will take time for reasoned, critical (and perhaps even deconstructive) judgments to arise. This book is a superb start.



Critical Inquiry wishes to add the following corrections to the above review. Nelson Mandela was in prison for twenty-seven and a half years, from 1962 to his liberation on 11 February 1990. He subsequently served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. We thank our reader Munyori Buku for the correction.