Andrew Donaldson asks whether the time has not come to critically examine the mania for such Great Liberator idolotary


AS part of the recent Mandela Day celebrations, two new statues of the former president were unveiled by Cyril Ramaphosa in Qunu and Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. The good news, though, is that the vast majority of us will never see these monuments to political immaturity as there is no sound reason for sane people to ever visit these places. 

Mthatha, especially, is a dump, its only attraction being the highway out of there. That may seem harsh, but I speak from experience — and I’m not alone. This from the Mail & Guardian’s editorial last Friday: 

“Driving through Mthatha is almost like driving through a war-torn country. The streets are filthy, buildings verging on collapse, roads riddled with potholes, the people in perpetual states of poverty and lawlessness. So common is petty crime that people rarely react. If you think you are going to find any working services and traffic lights, think again. People are so used to living without running water that when it does flow they consider themselves lucky. The stench of raw sewage flowing down the streets is familiar.”

I was there to report on the official opening of the Nelson Mandela Museum in February 2000. I couldn’t wait to get away. The same, it seems, was true of Mandela. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The museum is housed in the Bhunga Building, the former offices of the Transkeian Territories General Council, and the old man was rushed through its collection of tat at an unseemly pace by his minders with a pack of foreign and local journalists in tow.

He was in an exceptionally foul mood. Why had he snarled when I approached with an inquiry on behalf the readers of South Africa’s leading Sunday newspaper? Was he not impressed with the porcupine quills on display, the tribal beadwork, the yellowing propaganda tracts and the faded news photographs? Where was the genial warmth trotted out for Naomi Campbell and the Spice Girls? 

I pondered over all this that evening in the bar of Mthatha’s dingiest motel and whether, that afternoon, in the glare of all those TV cameras, the father of our emancipation wanted to be someone else instead, or at least somewhere else, far from that circus.

But back to the present and these statues. There has been grumbling about expenses and the question of whether the money could be better spent, especially in an area of such appalling squalor and poverty. According to reports, these pieces cost R3 million to design, develop and install. Which does seem cheap, given the usual profligacy with such projects. 

The museum’s CEO, Vuyani Booi, told News24, that although the poor could not eat statues, having them would attract local and international tourists, while also expressing that they were aimed at developing liberation heritage tourism.

Such thinking, as the Mail & Guardian bluntly claimed in its editorial, is “bullshit”. Mthatha, the newspaper said, lies between Port St Johns and Coffee Bay. “If Ramaphosa, [Eastern Cape premier] Oscar Mabuyane and his government were serious about tourism, the state of these breathtaking towns with their scenic beaches would be central to development.”

It’s difficult to argue with that. The statues certainly won’t attract tourists to the area, but those that do come upon them by chance may conclude that it’s a bit odd to celebrate the heritage of liberation in a toilet town. The especially cynical, like yours truly, may also be puzzled by the statue in nearby Qunu. This piece depicts Mandela as a youth in “the attire of his Xhosa-Tembu culture”, as one report described it. It does, however, bear a striking resemblance to Julius Malema, albeit masquerading as a Yemeni bride.

Over on Twitter, or X as it has now been rebranded, former public protector Thuli Madonsela has waded into the issue, suggesting a “temporary moratorium on building statues with public funds” and instead using this money to tackle infrastructure inequality. She then adds: “We could name every bridge and every school or school facility we build after Nelson Mandela. This would honour what he stood for which was to be a bridge of possibility for others to use to cross over to a life where everyone’s potential is freed and all citizens’ lives improved.”

Hmmm. Rather not. Think of the havoc in giving those tourists directions. “Turn left on Nelson Mandela Street, then turn right on Nelson Mandela Avenue, go over Nelson Mandela Bridge and drive on past the Nelson Mandela Zoo, Nelson Mandela Park and Nelson Mandela High School, and there it is, the Nelson Mandela Theatre. Not to be confused with the Nelson Mandela Cinema next door. Enjoy the show…”

But Madonsela is correct in suggesting we put a stop to this monument frenzy. As it is, the ANC-led eThekwini municipality is reportedly “forging ahead” with a R22-million project to plonk statues of Mandela and Oliver Tambo on the lawns outside the Durban City Hall. According to mayor Mxolisi Kaunda, the project was first mooted in 2017 but was put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic as the statues were of Chinese origin. It is believed they are currently in storage.

Perhaps when we all grow up we could at some stage critically examine the mania for Mandela idolatry. The statuary does seem symptomatic of an unsettling combination of both national and origin mythologies. The religiosity in many of the pieces — arms outstretched in the manner of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer — frankly disturbs. 

It is as if we, the sheeple, exist solely through the munificence and grace of our messiah. That is why his sainted image must be on display at evert turn; to serve as our guiding light as we make our way in the world that he has delivered unto us. There is a great urging that we be inspired by his selfless sacrifice. For without such inspiration, we are nothing, lost and forsaken, bewildered and bedondered.

Growing pains

The EFF’s tenth anniversary celebrations come to a head on Saturday at the FNB Stadium outside Johannesburg. Dubbed the “festival of the poorest of the poor”, the fighters will be marking a decade of “unbroken struggle” and, according to one report, the reinvigoration of “a waning political consciousness among the South African public”. 

Here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), we’ll be listening out for mention of VBS Mutual Bank’s liberation — although it is entirely possible that observance of this victory over capital may be lost in the din of amapiano music and AK47 gunfire.

Meanwhile, there is an exhibition devoted to the redshirts’ brief history at the Uncle Tom’s Hall in Soweto. There is significance in the choice of venue. The EFF was launched here following Julius Malema’s expulsion from the ANC. 

There’s some irony about the hall’s name. The slave and title character of the American abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is widely regarded as a selfless humanist who gives his life to protect others who have escaped bondage. However, he is also seen as being inexplicably sympathetic to white slave owners and this has led to the use of “Uncle Tom” as a derogatory term for an exceedingly subservient person, a fawning “house negro” who is all too aware of his or her own inferior racial status. 

But hey, it’s just a label and we’re not reading too much into this. Take the EFF’s commander-in-chief: to some he is a radical firebrand and a revolutionary, to others a failed cabbage farmer. Whatever you may think of him, though, Juju remains the same delightful rogue with advanced anger management issues who once swore he’d kill for Jacob Zuma. A leopard, they say, never changes its spots. The same is true of the hyena.

Meanwhile, another EFF milestone was reached in the Labour Court on Friday when it ruled that the SA Revenue Service was entitled to dismiss a junior investigator, one Benneth Mathebula, who had called in sick one morning in September 2020 only to be spotted later that day by a supervisor, Pule Mantsho, taking part in a redshirt protest outside a Sandton Clicks store. 

At the time Clicks stores had been targeted by the EFF over an allegedly racist hair product advertisement. Mathebula could not resist the call to arms, to strike a blow for dry and damaged hair. He told his boss he was ill and wouldn’t at work that day. Alas, Mantsho spotted him in full tsotsi tsotsi mode on the TV news that evening. 

Being a tax executive, and therefore not one to rush into matters half-cocked where burden of proof is concerned, Mantsho spent a week trawling YouTube and other social media sites to gather evidence of Mathebula’s presence at the EFF protest. He then confronted Mathebula, who responded that, yes, he had been ill in the morning but “later on that day I became [a] bit better after taking some medication”.

So much better, in fact, that when a pal suggested a trip to Sandton, he agreed. “I did not see anything wrong with that,” Mathebula told Mantsho. “Actually I thought maybe it is good to go out and stretch a bit, as I was not bedridden and I felt probably after that I would be fine. So it is true that you might have seen me, unfortunately, the following day I got worse and I did let you know.” This was in a sick note which, as Daily Maverick’s Marianne Thamm has noted, was true to the Zuma sick note tradition: the “nature of [Mathebula’s] illness” was “due to a medical condition”.

Mathebula was dismissed in March 2021. He took the matter to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation, and Arbitration which ruled that his sacking had been “substantially unfair” and ordered SARS to reinstate Mathebula and pay him for his loss of salary. 

SARS, never a bunch to willingly part with tom, no matter the circumstances, appealed to the Labour Court to review the matter. They ruled that, in all likelihood, Mathebula had never been ill that day “and, in fact, he was  malingering in order to avail himself for the protest action”. Judge Graham Moshaona added: “If he was able to clap hands and sing, it must follow that he would have been able to perform his contractual duties.” 

Facetious and unduly harsh? Probably. But these comments do suggest that, where the EFF’s supporters are concerned, the unbroken struggle still is no picnic. Mathebula’s dismissal is not the sort of sacking these people signed up for.

A legal matter 

Friends of deputy president Paul “the Don” Mashatile are seeking a High Court interdict preventing Media24 publications from referring to them as members of the “Alex Mafia”. Bridgman Sithole and Mike Maile, both described as “businessmen”, first approached News24 on 6 July through their attorneys, demanding a retraction and an apology for naming them in a report on Mashatile and his associates.

The media house refused. Its lawyers wrote back, “The term ‘Alex Mafia’, within the context of News24’s reporting, is a colloquial description that is part of the political lexicon of South Africa and is not intended or understood to be a literal reference to an organised crime syndicate or ‘mob’, as your letter suggests.”

Well, that’s a relief. There we were, thinking that they were literally … oh, never mind. We await further developments with some interest.