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Carrying our historical sufferings with care

| September 12, 2018 | 0 Comments


It was with interest that I read Barbara Houghton’s article on the transformation journey at Springfield Convent School (see “Liberation without transformation? What I thought I knew and what I didn’t know”, Independent Education, volume 21, no. 2, winter 2018).

I read that the students at Springfield were studying the representation of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in various obituaries, following her passing in April 2018.1 For me, her death raised fundamental questions of representation within the South African story, be it at the meta-national level, or, of greater interest to me, within what we deem to be independent education. In our discussions of what is the independent schooling sector, whose voice is authoritative, and which parts of the independent schooling sector have remained marginal in the grand narrative that is told? In his seminal work on South African private education, Little England on the Veld: English Private Schools in South Africa, Peter Randall, as the title indicates, told only part of the story of private education in South Africa up to the 1980s.2What Randall did for recording elite white protestant education, Pam Christie did for Catholic education.3 However, a comprehensive historical account of missionary education, for black South Africans, has yet to be written. In other words, the whole story of independent schooling in South Africa has yet to be told.

Madikizela-Mandela: saint or sinner?

The present day ISASA encompasses the broad tent which is independent education. However, as with perspectives of Madikizela-Mandela, there is a danger that a singular outlook is imposed on a diverse body that is ISASA. When Madikizela-Mandela passed away, I noticed with bemusement that in some renditions of her life, her contribution to unshackling South Africa from the evils of apartheid was deemphasised. Instead, her insistence that the violence of apartheid be fought back with whatever weapons were possessed by the oppressed and her dominant villainous role in the antiapartheid struggle were featured. There is no question that Madikizela-Mandela’s call to arms did have grave consequences for those black South Africans that found themselves on the receiving end of her injunction. However, with the passage of time, the deep despair of those who had to live under the unrelenting brutality of apartheid, seems to fade under the erasure of the necessity of reconciliation and uniting a fractured nation. During a time of helplessness for apartheid’s victims, it was Madikizela-Mandela, who was the face of resistance – whatever it took. Ironically, it is generally accepted that even in fighting a virtuous war, there will be collateral damage. As the African proverb observes, “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”. It would seem that the allure of the righteous victim refuses to fade. When eulogising her mother, Zenani Mandela- Dlamini, noted this double standard from a feminist perspective: Over the past week and a half it’s become clear that South Africa, and indeed the world, holds men and women to different standards of morality. Much of what my mother has been constantly asked to account for is simply ignored when it comes to her male counterparts. And this kind of double standard acts also to obscure the immense contribution of women to the fight for the emancipation of our country from the evil of Apartheid. I say ‘fight’ because the battle for our freedom was not some polite picnic at which you arrived armed with your best behaviour [sic].4 In a visceral way, the death of Madikizela-Mandela reminded many black South Africans of how much they had suffered. For me, some of my earliest memories are fleeing from police and hiding under beds during the 1976 uprising. Long receded traumas came to the fore, when we were reminded of her 491 days of torture and isolation. As Njabulo Ndebele says in his novel, The Cry of Winnie Mandela,5 “I, the child of Major Theunis Swanepoel, born in his torture chambers, nurtured in Brandfort, and matured in Soweto, took on the world alone”.6 Her travails were public and relentless, “. . . countless arrests, charges, courtroom dramas, interrogation and torture, imprisonments, detentions, restrictions, bannings, banishment, and the continued absence of [her] husband”.7

Examine all aspects

Thus, it would seem that the person that Madikizela-Mandela became, was forged in the cauldron of the worst of the repressive system. However, when victims become perpetrators of grave misdeeds, their victimhood should not absolve them of their misconduct. As with all human beings, the aggregation of their person is not their greatest misdemeanour or their most laudable act. The true assessment of any human is a composite of all the above: at their most admirable and despicable. In the days following the passing of Madikizela-Mandela, I questioned what her record was. Had she fallen victim to her blind adherence to her cause? Ndebele puts it thus: It is the horror that attends the quest for causes. The desired light of the future explodes into a conflagration: overwhelming light that blinds with shock, confusion, and mayhem. Those who claim to struggle for freedom bring along with them instead a chilling lawlessness, and even more, the righteousness that goes with it.8

Zapiro zeros in on key elements

As with every South African current occurrence, it is to Zapiro9 I turn to confirm and sharpen my examinations of the developments in our country. Zapiro can be relied on to expose hypocrisy and does not flinch from the truth. His analysis is often perceptive and revealing of the essential aspects of his subject. You need only see his characterisation of the props and the gestures he uses to depict South Africa’s past three democratically elected presidents. As an observer, I have still not surmised his assessment of the present incumbent. As shown in his memorialisation of Madikizela-Mandela, he draws her in the defiant gesture of “Amandla”, calm and certain, looking straight forward. Drawing her wearing her iconic head-dress (doek), Zapiro provides his summation of Madikizela-Mandela: resolute, courageous, compassionate, unbowed by torture, inspirational, fearless and loved. As Ndebele writes to his introduction to his book, “The woman before me resembled the good against which humans over millennia have picked up arms against evil”.10 However, incisively, Zapiro is not about hagiography. He draws a small thread at the end of the doek that portends to unravel all these positive characteristics and represents vigilantism. Without detracting from what made Madikizela-Mandela iconic and appreciating why she was given the nomenclature, “Mother of the Nation”, he reminds us of the flaw that threatened the features that undoubtedly made her a major figure of the liberation struggle. Madikizela-Mandela’s under-appreciation of the corrosive effect of mob justice, has this effect on her legacy. On her passing, the flippant, maligning comments about Madikizela-Mandela, reminded me of the work that diversity and transformation entail. If we as a country cannot understand the significant consequences that apartheid had on its victims, reconciliation and nation building are in peril. During the grave days of systematic violence and violation of black11 peoples’ being, there were figures who gave hope. Although those people showed heroism, as with all us, they were merely human.

A call for new voices

This brings us to the work that ISASA and its member schools must always remind themselves of. Our country’s history is that of exclusion and negating on the basis of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and class. What we now know, is that authoritativeness is not the preserve of any group. New voices must be incorporated for a fuller picture of our country, association and schools. Evoking dominant authorities from a fraught historical past, in the present context, is insufficient. Let us be open to hearing multiple perspectives and carry our historical sufferings with care.

1. See:
2. Randall, P. (1985) Little England on the Veld: The English Private School System in South Africa. Ohio: Ohio University Press.
3. See:
4. See: full-speech-14437110
5. Ndebele, N., S. (2006) The Cry of Winnie Mandela. Banbury: Ayebia Clark Publishing.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. See:
10. Ndebele, N., S. (2006) The Cry of Winnie Mandela. Banbury: Ayebia Clark
11. “Black” as defined by Black Consciousness.

Category: Spring 2018

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