The Mandela that I Know, by Siyabulela Mandela

Siyabulela Mandela is the Team Leader for Journalists for Human Rights in South Sudan and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations and Conflict Resolution in the Department of Politics and Conflict Studies at Nelson Mandela University, South Africa.

This working paper was written for the George Mason University in the US


Ah Dalibhunga!



During my time as a student activist, and as an Academic Officer for the Student Representative Council (SRC), under the leadership of South African Student Congress (SASCO), I was involved in heated debates over Nelson Mandela’s Legacy. At the centre of these deliberations was a dominant narrative that Mandela sold-out the struggle for liberation during the 1991 -1994 Congress for Democratic South Africa (CODESA) negotiation process. This view of Mandela as a sell-out became more prominent during the Rhodes and Fees Must Fall Movement and among the leaders of the movement and some from within the circles of my comrades.

During the Rhodes and Fees Must Fall Movement from 2016 to 2017, though I was a masters student at the time, I was considered a senior comrade within the student politics circle and I had already crossed over to workers politics representing the workers within the University as an Office Coordinator and at times a spokesperson of National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU) with a mandate to crystallise the needs and aspirations of the workers throughout the institutional committees of the University. However, as one who comes from the Mandela lineage my commitment and contribution to the movement was often viewed with suspicion and questionable judgement influenced by this dominant narrative of Mandela as a sell-out.

During this movement I became a critical link between the students and the workers and I was responsible to mobilise the workers to participate in various strikes or protests with crystal clear declarations and demands, free education for the poor, end to outsourcing of service workers within institution of higher learning (Securities, Cleaners and horticulture workers) and employment of these workers permanently within the university in order to end their exploitation and lastly decolonisation of the academic curriculum. This movement laid bare the frustrations of my generation with the snail pace that the liberation of majority of Black people has taken.

There were arguments advanced that the compromises made during the CODESA negotiations has delayed the complete liberation of an African, citing the failures of the land reform process (Willing Buyer-Willing Seller policy) and the fact that the ANC that Mandela led during these negotiations only gained a political liberation which afforded them a right to govern without the economy of the country which largely still rests in the hands of the White South Africans. Thus, what the majority of the oppressed people in South Africa gained was an incomplete liberation, and that is to say political freedom without the land and economic freedom is an incomplete liberation.

It is upon this backdrop that my generation relegated Mandela to the position of a sell-out, and while I share many of these sentiments with my comrades  and my generation, I have always found myself in sharp contrast with their views of  Mandela’s legacy and I have always vehemently rejected the notion that Mandela was a sell-out.  As a scholar of history, politics and international relations I often wondered on whether my generation suffered from intellectual bankruptcy or they failed to comprehend the political and economic history of South Africa.

I echo the sentiments that the revolution was betrayed, and as Misimang, posit the blame cannot be placed on Mandela’s feet for that betrayal but it lies squarely with the generation of leaders who followed him. Unlike Mandela, these leaders and former freedom fighters once emerged into power they squandered the state resources, South African parliament degenerated into a house of political merchants who are willing to trade the country to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, corruption and maladministration has became the characteristic of many post liberation governments in Africa, and South Africa is no exception. The liberation was indeed betrayed, but Mandela was and will never be a sell-out.

In defense of Nelson Mandela’s legacy, I will endeavour herein to clarify some of these historical contradictions, and more importantly I will advance an argument that Mandela was and will always be remembered as a pragmatic leader and a multifaceted individual who upon studying the political and economic landscape of his era made decisions based on the balance forces and material conditions of his era in order to usher his people to the dawn of a democratic dispensation. I will attempt, also to address the deliberate agenda from many western countries that seeks to present Mandela’s legacy as a singular story, as much as Mandela was a negotiator and peacemaker, he was a pragmatic leader of the liberation movement, who advocated for political violence when the non-violent policy proved ineffective, while staying true to his ideals of freedom, co-existence of all races, political and economic equality for all.

I write this exposition on Mandela’s legacy (The Mandela I know) as a tribute to my great-grandfather Nelson Rholihlahla Mandela as a descendent of King Ngubengcuka of the Thembu Kingdom, also as a descendent of The House of Mandela and a son to the late Nosipho and Boy Mandela. I pledge my allegiance to my ancestors; Madiba, Sophitsho, Yem-Yem, Gqolomsila, Dlomo, Zondwa and the House of Mandela to whom I draw inspiration, protection and wisdom from and I stand in the shoulders of my ancestors.

On this day, the 18th of July, the world commemorates the Mandela Day by dedicating Sixty Seven Minutes doing charitable work and service to our neighbours and community to celebrate the 67 years that Nelson Mandela has dedicated in a struggle against colonialism, Apartheid and all forms of inequality, injustice and as an advocate for peace and human rights. On this day, the world over we are called upon to reminisce on the legacy of this giant of history and to emulate the ideals and values that he dedicated his life fighting for in order to create a better life for all.

As I add my voice to many across the world who have studied and are inspired by Mandela, I endeavour to clarify some of the misconceptions and mistakes on Mandela’s legacy and to endeavour to put things into perspective in the scholarship of Mandela. Lastly, I endeavour to inspire my generation and the generation yet to come to understand this simple clarion call to action advanced by Frantz Fanon that ‘Each generation must discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it, in relative opacity.’ I hope this tribute to Mandela entitled “The Mandela I know” will inspire my generation in Africa and the world over to discover our mission, change the world and fulfil Mandela’s vision of an Africa that is developed and at peace with itself.

Mandela’s heritage

Mangcu, correctly problematize the nature of framing of Mandela, he points to some critical and yet elementary mistakes in almost all the biographies which misrepresent his heritage and history including that of those from the House of Mandela. A common mistake is that Mandela was both Thembu and Xhosa. This is based on the flawed notion that the Thembu and the Xhosa are the same people because they spoke the same language. The House of Mandela is traditionally located in the Thembu Kingdom, which is led by its own King, from the First House of Dalindyebo. Though the Thembu people speak the language Xhosa, they are not from the Kingdom of the Xhosa people, for the Xhosas have their own King (King Sigcawu) and their traditions and customs are different from those of the Thembu people. These Kingdoms are geographically located from the same province, the Eastern Cape, however they are different people.

The configuration of the Thembu Kingdom is according to five houses with each allocated its traditional responsibilities and a Chief, and Nelson Mandela is the descendent of the firth or the last house, the House of Mandela which is traditionally known as i-Xhiba. The soul existence and traditional responsibility of the House of Mandela is to play a role of mediating royal family disputes. It exists separately from the other houses so that it could play this role dispassionately. Mandela was born into that culture of dispute resolution or peacemakers, and raised within it and made to understand it and beyond the Thembu royal Kingdom these skills Mandela would use to bring South Africa together in 1994 and would later help to broker peace in Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Lesotho to cite but a few demonstrations of his heritage and leadership. Mandela was shaped and formed by the experiences and material conditions of both his heritage and his time and the strategies and tactics he adopted to confront the challenges of his generation were informed by both his heritage and his experiences.

The Leader of Non-Violent Movement

Mandela inspired and recruited by his fellow comrade, and friend Oliver Tambo, joined the African National Congress (ANC) which was formed in 1912 as a political organisation to represent Africans who felt disenchanted with the British colonial rule. The ANC since its formation engaged in peaceful acts of resistance aimed at forcing the colonial government to eventually recognise the rights of Black people in South Africa. The ANC that Mandela joined approached the struggle  for freedom and equality through a non-violent approach inspired by other non-violent means of revolt to injustice and repression such as the Civil Rights Movement as led by Martin Luther King Jr and others in the United States of America and the Non-violent movement as led by Mahatma Gandhi in India. The History of resistance against colonialism and apartheid by the ANC was undergone through three phases. The first was dialogue and petition; the second direct opposition and the last the period of exiled and underground armed struggle.

In 1948 the Afrikaner Nationalist Party came into power and introduced the Apartheid system which advanced an agenda for separate development of different racial groups in South Africa driven by an ideology of White supremacy and racism. Apartheid was a social system which severely disadvantaged the majority of the population, on the basis of their pigmentation which was different to the skin colour of the rulers (The English and Afrikaners).

In basic principles, apartheid as a political and economic system adopted the same policy of segregation used under the British colonial rule in South Africa. What was distinct about the Afrikaner Nationalist Party’s apartheid system was that it made segregation part of the law, and apartheid cruelly and forcibly separated people and adopted violent and punitive measures to punish those who were at odds with the system.

Following the introduction of the apartheid system and its laws, the ANC responded by introducing their program of Action in 1949, supporting strike actions, protests and other forms of non-violent resistance. Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu became the catalysts for an armed resistance against apartheid in this period. In 1952 the ANC started the Defiance Campaign led by Mandela as a volunteer in Chief and a leader who played a significant role in organising and coordinating its activities. This campaign called on people to purposefully break the apartheid laws and offer themselves for arrest. This strategy was informed by an idea to collapse the system from within by filling up prisons while mobilizing international support for the ANC struggle against apartheid. Black people got onto ‘white buses,’ used ‘white toilets,’ entered into ‘white areas’ and refused to use passes. The Defiance Campaign led to more than 8 000 people being arrest and still the Apartheid regime continued unabated its repressive, racist, and violent system.

Mandela: The Commander in Chief of The Armed Forces

There is a dominant mythology evident on both European and Western scholarship that seeks to present Mandela as only a Chief advocate of for forgiveness and non-violent forms of resistance while completely burying his pragmatic approach on the use of political violence as a Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces to compel the apartheid regime to reconsider coming into the negotiation table. In fact, in the 1980, Mandela was regarded by the western countries like the United States and the United Kingdom as a terrorist advancing a communist agenda in Southern Africa. In this section dossier on Mandela’s legacy I endeavour to expose this mythology and present Mandela as a commander in chief of the armed forces and a pragmatic leader that convinced the ANC to abandon the ineffective non-violent approach against the government that met with brutal force any opposition to its illegitimate authority.

In June 1955, the ANC adopted the Freedom Charter in a conference in Kliptown articulating the demands and crystallising the aspirations of the oppressed peoples in South Africa. The freedom Charter also served as a springbok by the ANC to launch a multi-racial ideology and shifting away the perception that it was an African-only organisation.

The Apartheid regime through its repressive laws intensified its segregationist and racist policy and met with brutal force any opposition to its illegitimate authority. The events of the late 1950s and early 1960 compelled the ANC through its Youth League led by Mandela to reconsider the strategies and tactics used in advancing a relentless struggle for freedom and equality. The most significant catalyst that led to the armed struggle was the Sharpville Massacre on 21 March 1960. Where the government violently crushed a peaceful anti-pass demonstration organised the Pan African Congress resulting to the death of 67 people with 186 wounded.

For Mandela this was a turning point, and addressing the local and international press in a safe house he argued that “If the government reaction is to crush by naked force our non-violent struggle, we will have to consider our tactics. In my Mind we are closing a chapter on this question of a non-violent policy. There are many people who feel it is useless and fatal forus to continue to talk peace and non-violence against the government whose reply is only savaged attacks on an un armed and defenceless people… and I think the time has come for us to consider in the light of our experiences in this stay at home whether the methods we have applied so far.”

At an ANC Working Committee meeting in June 1961, the 43 year old Mandela presented the proposal for a military wing and after weeks of deliberation within the organisation and other Allies in the liberation movement Nelson Mandela (ANC) and Joe Slovo of South African Communist Party were mandated to form the new military organisation and its high command. On 16 December 1961, Umkhonto we Sizwe was launched as the Armed wing of the African National Congress. Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the nation) or MK as it was commonly known aim was to “hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom.”

The MK began with acts of sabotage by bombing electric power stations, police stations and other infrastructure and these actions were aimed at destabilizing the government and bringing the country to its knees while avoiding direct and open battle with a heavily armed regime. Mandela became the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces on MK and was responsible to recruit and facilitate the training of the MK soldiers and mobilize monetary and military support in Countries that sympathised with the Struggle for liberation in South Africa including, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Nigeria, Liberia and Ethiopia in Africa, and Russia and Cuba to cite but a few. Mandela received his military training in Liberia and Ethiopia while mobilizing international support for the armed struggle against the apartheid regime.

The Freedom Fighter

Mandela exhibited his pragmatic leadership style within and outside the African National Congress. As demonstrated above Mandela’s political party (ANC) that he was recruited to join its national executive committee in the 1950s, since its inception in 1912 adopted a non-violent approach in a struggle for liberation and equality. The ANC as a pollical organisation established by the Black educated elites vehemently rejected armed struggle as a means to wage a struggle against British colonialism and apartheid. Mandela, after a critical examination of the tactics used by government in response to the non-violent resistance to apartheid convinced the ANC that it was time to resort to coordinated political violence and wage an armed struggle against the minority regime.

Mandela was unequivocal about the meaning of freedom as a total dismantling of apartheid regime and its institutions and his life was totally dedicated in uprooting oppression and restoring dignity and yet when we talk of Mandela today we focus on his message of peace and healing. Today forgiveness is seen as a central component of Mandela’s legacy and this excessive focus on forgiveness diminishes Mandela’s political legacy and blunts his power. The rainbow nation and forgiveness narrative which is so dominant in South Africa when invoking Mandela’s legacy puts white people at the centre of the frame and the narrative of political transition in South Africa in a popular imaginations has become a tale of forgiveness rather than a story of justice. In Mandela’s 75 years career as a leader and an activist, he never dithered in his commitment to those who have been the greatest victims of apartheid, and that was Black people.

Thus, Mandela was shaped by these experiences and he later joined the National Executives ranks of the ANC and dedicated his life in dismantling the illegitimate regime and institutions of apartheid and fighting for freedom and equality. Mandela was arrested on several occasions and stood trial four times from 1952 to 1964 and it is in the Rivonia Trial of 1964 to which Mandela faced with a possibility of a death sentence made a speech from the Dock, 20 April 1964 ‘I am Prepared to Die for  a democratic South Africa.’ Mandela, accused number one was sentenced with seven of his comrades to life imprisonment and went served 27 years of his sentence before he was unconditionally released.

The Peace Negotiator

As cited above the history of resistance against colonialism and apartheid by the ANC was undergone through three phases. The first was dialogue and petition; the second direct opposition and the last the period of exiled and underground armed struggle. Mandela was born in July 1918 at the time the African National Congress which he later joined was advancing the dialogue and petition phase against the British colonial rule. Mandela’s father, Gadla Mphakanyiswa Mandela, who was the Chief of the House of Mandela within the Thembu Kingdom was also a traditional and modern politician dating back to the Thembuland of the 19th century as Mangcu notes. Mandela’s father who was constantly at loggerheads with the colonial administration was latter deposed of his position as the Chief of the House of Mandela by a colonial magistrate and banished from his land which was an assault on the institution of the chieftaincy.

In November 1985, Mandela once again demonstrated pragmatic leadership and ceased an opportunity by unilaterally go against the wishes of the ANC and initiated talks with the illegitimate apartheid on what became know as ‘Talks about Talk.’ The ‘talks about talk’ between Mandela in prison and the leaders of the apartheid regime about the possibility of being in a negotiation table with the ANC and The Congress Alliance occurred during the period 1985 to 1989. During this period Mandela met with both the last two presidents of the illegitimate apartheid government, PW Botha in July 1989 to who he has rejected his conditional release in February 1985, and FW De Klerk in December 1989 who later released Mandela and other political prisoners unconditionally on 11 February 1990.

The talks about talks between prisoner Mandela and the leaders of the illegitimate apartheid regime culminated into the 1991 to 1993 Congress for Democratic South Africa (CODESA) negotiation process in which Mandela demonstrated pragmatic leadership. In 1992 the CODESA negotiation process reached a stalemate and it was a peak period of progressive anti-apartheid momentum and Black on Black violence sponsored by the apartheid regime ravaged the country. The year 1993 became a watershed event when in April, Chris Hani the influential General-Secretary of the South African Communist Party and Chief of Armed Forces for the ANC was assassinated by right-winged Janusz Walus and violence motivated by racially fuelled riots became an order of the day.

South Africa was at the brink of a civil war that even the illegitimate apartheid government was not in a position to avert, and the principled and pragmatic Mandela was called into action to steer the South African ship into calm waters. Mandela and not the president of the illegitimate apartheid government appeared for the first time in the national television as though he was the president of the country to address the nation and appealed for calm and his people heed his call. The stalemate was resolved, and the CODESA negotiation process resumed and heralded to the dawn of the democratic dispensation in April 1994 when Mandela was elected as the First Black president of the Democratic South Africa.

The First Black President of The Republic of South Africa

Mandela was a pragmatic leader, though he was loyal to the ANC until his departure, his openly made this clarion call to South Africa that ‘ you must support the African National Congress only so far as it delivers to its promises, and if it fails to stay true to the mandate given by the people, you must do to it as you have done to the apartheid regime. Nowhere have I had in Africa a sitting president who would confidently make such declaration nor have I witnessed an administration in Africa that remain true to the mandate given by its people as that of Mandela transitional government. When one critically examines Mandela’s legacy they would find a leader that was principled and pragmatic, always prepared to throw away a theory or an idea that did not serve his cause which was not forgiveness but the liberation of the oppressed Black people.

Mandela set out to reconstruct and develop the new South Africa and adopted policies and established institutions along this line in order to bring about redress and afford his people peace dividends.  Among these policies is the Rural Development Programme (RDP) which had a mandate to provided social housing for the previously disadvantaged majority of Black people and the provision of social grants for the poor, orphans and the elderly. There is no government in Africa that provides the social serves that the Mandela administration instituted and there is no transitional government in Africa that survived without the country relapsing into violence of a civil war immediately after a peace deal except for South Africa as was led by Mandela.

In a bid to mend the wounds of the past, Mandela’s administration established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission based on Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act No 34 of 1995. The commission was devised as a peace and reconciliation tool used to bring together both the victims and perpetrators of the violent apartheid regime to deliberate on what happened in the past, the victims of violence came to the hearings in hopes of finding closure on the disappearance and death of their relatives while the perpetrator gave testimony and requested amnesty from prosecution.

The mandate of the commission was to bear witness to, record and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, reparation and rehabilitations. The TRC became a critical component of the transition to full and free democracy in South Africa. In contrasts to its successes however, the TRC’s flaws included the inability to bring most of the leaders of the apartheid regimes such as FW De Klerk its last president to testify before the commission, the inability to discover the full story of some of the atrocities committed during the violent apartheid regime and its failure to provide reparations and rehabilitation to the victims citing inadequate funding from the government.

While Mandela became a committed and unwavering champion of forgiveness, it was crystal clear that if forgiveness had been standing in the way of justice or maintaining oppression, he would have stopped advocating for it. This pragmatic and resolute leadership style was exemplified by Mandela both during the liberation struggle and in his administration as the President of the transitional government. This is by no means a way to devalue forgiveness as an important step towards reconciliation, but as Msimang contends, it cannot be reduced to the only story about Mandela’s legacy. The challenge that confronts Msimang about forgiveness is that it is used to appeal to White fears and anxiety about Black rage and these White fears and anxiety always supersedes Black people’s pain and Black peoples need for Justice. The land question and land reform debate in South Africa could cited here as a case in point.


In my last attempt in this exposition of Mandela’s legacy, perhaps it is opportune time that I allow Madiba to speak for himself and address the dominant narrative among my generation that Mandela was a sell-out. In 1985, the then President of the illegitimate apartheid regime PW Both offered to release Mandela on condition that he denounce political violence  and abandoned the armed struggle, in his response Mandela delivered a letter of his rejection to Botha’s offer and it was read by his youngest daughter Zindziswa Mandela who died four days ago (13 July 2020) at the time of the writing of this paper. In the letter Mandela writes:

I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom. Too many have died since I went to prison. Too many have suffered for the love of freedom. I owe it to their widows, to their orphans, to their mothers and to their fathers who have grieved and wept for them. Not only I have suffered during these long, lonely, wasted years. I am not less life-loving than you are. But I cannot sell my birth right, nor am I prepared to sell the birth right of the people to be free. I am in prison as the representative of the people and of your organisation, the African National Congress, which was banned… I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.

Though Mandela was imprisoned for five more years after rejecting an offer to sell-out the liberation struggle, the principled and pragmatic Mandela did return in on 11 February 1990 and he ushered his people to a democratic dispensation as their First democratically elected president and led an ethical government answerable to the people.

As previously advanced, Mandela was a multifaceted individual and a pragmatic leader and thus any study on Mandela has to move from a premise that there is no singularity on Mandela’s Legacy as demonstrated above. Lastly, the legacy of Mandela will never be complete without including the role that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela played before and after Mandela was imprisoned and it was Winnie, his wife who kept the memory of Mandela alive and who ran the “Free Mandela Campaign” and mobilized young people into persistent protests in defence of her husband. I suppose, in this exposition of Mandela’s legacy, the role of Winnie madikizela-Mandela is among its limitations including Mandela as a Lawyer and Mandela as a Prisoner.


About the Author

Siyabulela Mandela is the Team Leader for Journalists for Human Rights in South Sudan and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations and Conflict resolution in the Department of Politics and Conflict Studies at Nelson Mandela University, South Africa.


Nelson Rholihlahla Mandela’s royal salutation as the traditional Chief of the House of Mandela, within the Kingdom of the Thembu people.

Nelson Mandela Lecture 2019 by Sisonke Msimang.

These are the clan names commonly used by the people from the Thembu Kingdom, which are the names of the ancestors and Great leaders of the Thembu Kingdom.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks,1952.

Xolela Mangcu (2019) Mandela: The Untold Heritage, Journal of Southern

African Studies, 45:6, 1033-1050, DOI: 10.1080/03057070.2019.1688000.

The other house in the Thembu Kingdom are the House of Dalindyebo (Where the Kind comes from), Mtirara, Mathanzima, Mnqanqeni. All other house are led by their Chiefs reporting to the King. Nelson Mandela was the Chief of the House of Mandela.

Xolela Mangcu (2019) Mandela: The Untold Heritage, Journal of Southern

African Studies, 45:6, 1033-1050, DOI: 10.1080/03057070.2019.1688000.


The most significant and violent laws introduced during the Apartheid system were: Group Areas Act, 1950, Population Registration Act, 1950, Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, 1949, Immorality Amendment Act, 1950, Separate Representation of Voters Act, 1951.

Trials and Prisons chronology, Nelson Mandela Foundation Archives.

The Freedom Charter, Kliptown, 1955.

Mandela speaking underground with local and foreign press on the ANC adopting armed struggle against the apartheid regime during his first TV interview in 1961 by ITN reporter Brian Widlake.

Manifesto of UmKhonto we Sizwe, Leaflet issued by the Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe, 16th December 1961.

UmKhonto we Sizwe – Structure, Training and Force Levels (1984 to 1994) by Tsepe Motumi, African Defence Review No 18, 1994.

Nelson Mandela Lecture 2019 by Sisonke Msimang.

Nelson Mandela, speech from the Dock, 20 April 1964.

Trials and Prisons chronology, Nelson Mandela Foundation Archives.

South African History Online, accessed July 2020.

Xolela Mangcu (2019) Mandela: The Untold Heritage, Journal of Southern

African Studies, 45:6, 1033-1050, DOI: 10.1080/03057070.2019.1688000.


South African History Online, accessed July 2020.

Nelson Mandela Lecture 2019 by Sisonke Msimang.


Ibid, 2019.

Statement by Nelson Mandela read on his behalf by his daughter Zinzi at a UDF Rally to celebrate Archbishop Tutu receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Jabulani Stadium – Soweto, 10 February 1985.


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