The death of former president Nelson Mandela was a wake-up call for many South Africans. It was only after the death of this world renowned icon and freedom fighter that I truly realised how much influence Madiba had sparked all around the world: the Eiffel Tower lit up in the colours of our national flag, a heart-felt poem was written and by the marvellous Maya Angelou, a larger than life-seized mural of Madiba’s face was displayed in Vietnam and hundreds of A-list celebrities who had and had not met Madiba in person, sent special tribute messages and condolences to our grieving nation.
The world seemed to have come to stand-still with all mourning except the youth of South Africa- the very people for whom Madiba and his comrades had risked their lives.
On too many occasions I have found myself biting my tongue as I listened to teenagers also known as the born-free generation of South Africa, speaking about how Mandela was treated as though he was the only one who fought in the struggle… over-glorified they say.
There were slurs about the unnecessary inclusion of his face on the national currency, complaints about the naming of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and Nelson Mandela Square. Young people were furious that so many of other brave freedom fighters’ names were seldom brought up in historical discussions. Eventually there was an air of resentment towards the former president even as he lay in his deathbed.
Looking at these concerns, they seem to be quite valid concerns particularly because Mandela, himself, refused to be idolised, insisting that nay statue made of him should be life-sized. More importantly, these concerns show a youth which is so modest as to be concerned about the unnamed heroes who were a part of the struggle too.
Wrong. These were teens who scowled and moaned, “not again” when the discussion turned to South African history; teens who very much preferred using up their history lessons learning about the Russian Revolution or the Berlin Wall. I had asked myself that if these young people were so fed up with only hearing about Mandela’s victories and were really so eager to hear about the other freedom fighters, why did they not simply do some independent research?
We live in a time where we have access to information at our fingertips so we have no excuse for describing Freedom Day as “a tribute to Mandela, Chris Hani and the others.”
Perhaps I was being biased because I am naturally inquisitive and when we visited museums and watched documentaries, I jotted down (in my notebook, on my arm, on a serviette…anything) the names of significant role players of my liberation. I knew names they did not and the only reason was because they could not be bothered about the other people who had been exiled, shot, tortured, kidnapped for their freedom.
This leads me to another eye-opening event: the release of the U.S. made film, Long Walk to Freedom. Former west-worshipping South Africans suddenly hated the idea of Mandela’s story, our story, being told by Americans and not us. We adopted an entitlement to Madiba and our cultural identity in film which had not been so sturdy before.
People fumed on social media, fussing about improper accents, hard-to-decipher pronunciation and plenty of other whinny complaints, while some simply preferred Idris Elba to star as Madiba for his good looks and charm. Coincidentally, a number of my friends and I had joked and complained about the same thing for the past couple of years as this was not the first time we had Americans telling the South African story.
There had been Jill Scott as Mma Ramotswe and Anika Noni Rose, her secretary in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Denzel Washington as Steve Biko in Cry, the Beloved Country, Sidney Portier as Mandela in Mandela and de Klerk and most recently, Jenifer Hudson as Winnie Mandela in Winnie.
This sudden outburst as though this was something completely new to South Africans made me realise that our people do not care for films of our historical background, otherwise these issues would have been brought up a long time ago. Even if given the chance to see these films most of us would probably rather remain engrossed in our daily episode of Scandal: The Fixer or Take Me Out SA
The question to ask then is: why do we allow other people to tell our stories for us? Is it because our scriptwriters and directors overlook the significance of our history, are they too busy trying to emulate the scandalous soapies and reality shows from American channels? Do we not trust our own actors enough? Is this because we are not concerned with transforming our history into an art which can be preserved and made accessible to many audiences for decades to come? Are we simply uninterested and less fazed by our own history than other people are, as shown in the world’s response versus the South African teenagers’ response to Nelson Mandela’s passing?
Another great irony here which must be stressed is our false honour. Parents are quick to scold the youth about having an opinion against the African National Congress because they cannot possibly understand what it has really done for this country.
We, after all, are the generation that does not have to wonder what the restrooms of white people look like, the generation that takes for granted that they can have white people stand behind them in queues in a grocery store or have white girls and boys sit beside them in classrooms.
Perhaps it is time that African parents introspected and accounted for the amount of knowledge about African history which they have passed down to their children. How many parents have taught their children who Chris Hani really was, the role of Cyril Ramaphosa in the Truth and Reconciliation process, what the ideas of Black Consciousness were, who the AWB were, or who Tsiestie Mashinini and Antoinette Sithole are?