Interview: Rita Barnard on The Cambridge Companion to Nelson Mandela

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Title: The Cambridge Companion to Nelson Mandela
Editor: Rita Barnard
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 9781107600959

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Rita Barnard edited the The Cambridge Companion to Nelson Mandela. The essays in this companion were written by experts in history, anthropology, jurisprudence, cinema, literature, and visual studies, like Rita Barnard, Philip Bonner, David Schalkwyk, Deborah Posel, Brenna Munro, Zolani Ngwane, Adam Sitze, Jonathan Hyslop, Sifiso Mxolisi Ndlovu, Daniel Roux, Litheko Modisane, Lize van Robbroeck, Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe. The book celebrates the legacy of the South African icon. It also addresses issues like Mandela's decision to embark on an armed struggle, his solitary talks with apartheid officials, and the economic policies adopted during his presidency. Jonathan Amid interviews Rita Barnard on this tour de force.

Rita Barnard (Credit: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Bongiwe Gumede)
Jonathan Amid

Rita, before we get to questions, congratulations on an imaginative and thought-provoking collection of essays. The twelve essays in this volume, including your superb introduction and afterword, shed light on various previously under-researched, or indeed un-researched, areas about a man who has often appeared larger than life.

First things first: When did Cambridge decide that a companion to Nelson Mandela was needed? When did you come on board as editor, and what was the brief to you as editor and to those who ultimately contributed to the final product?

About four years ago Cambridge initiated a new series of companions on global “icons” such as (in the early volumes) Gandhi, Jefferson and, yes, Bob Dylan. Mandela was an obvious candidate for inclusion in this series, and I am sure the fact that he was reaching the end of his life was a factor as well. The idea started with Ray Ryan, the veteran acquisitions editor for CUP, who had worked with me in various contexts before (I’ve published a book and several book chapters with Cambridge and also reviewed many manuscripts for them over the years). Ray invited me to submit a proposal, which I did, after some helpful input from South African colleagues, especially Jonathan Hyslop. The proposal then went through a few incarnations in response to suggestions for revision from outside readers.

It was my task to assign chapter topics and find authors. To my delight, everyone I had originally thought of came on board and almost all of them were fine with the topics I had assigned them. There were two important exceptions: Deborah Posel had a counter-proposal for chapter on “Madiba Magic” and the politics of national sentiment and Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe had one for what became their daring and dark chapter on Mandela’s mortality. I was happy to incorporate these excellent ideas.

I should perhaps confess that I was alert to the fact that as a literary critic I was not an obvious choice for the editorship. In fact, I would not have taken on the job if it were not for the encouragement of a special friend, Henrika (Riki) Kuklick, the gifted historian of anthropology, who unfortunately passed away before she could see this book. Riki (who always kept a photograph of the handsome young Mandela on her writing desk) told me: “Oh, you’ll grow into the project.” True. I did have to grow – and fast – in the course of doing this book; but fortunately, as Bill Clinton once said, Mandela has the capacity to make us all feel bigger than we were before.

What was the process of compiling the volume like? What were the biggest challenges experienced, and some of your most rewarding moments? How did you manage the perceived responsibilities that accompanied your work here?

Anyone who has ever edited a book will know that it is a complicated sort of undertaking: you have deadlines, you have personalities, you are working with people to whom things inevitably happen in the course of their research and writing, you have a contract you are supposed to abide by, an editor to please, and so forth.

In this case there were a few additional difficulties. Because of the nature of the subject I felt it was important to bring in a diversity of views. This meant it was essential to include contributors from different disciplines, different intellectual traditions, different social and political backgrounds. Some were young scholars, like Litheko Modisane, and some were esteemed veterans in their fields, like Philip Bonner. Some had trained and worked in South Africa and some in the US and the UK. This diversity did add to the challenge; but it was by design. My task was to hold the project together, to ensure quality, and legibility, and impose an overall shape.

The most trying moment occurred in January 2013 when I thought the manuscript was done, and my editor insisted, quite brusquely and without actually reading a word, that we cut it by a third. This we refused to do (I remember Achille Mbembe saying “Mandela deserves a big book”), not because we are recalcitrant people or unaware of the tough realities of academic publishing, but because we knew that we had created a unique product. We hadn’t just summarised extant views or put together old lecture notes: we had truly produced new knowledge. Our editor couldn’t see that doing a book on Mandela, especially in what turned out to be the last year of his life, was quite different from doing a brisk new academic book on Lincoln or Shakespeare. To some extent this is an understandable misprision, especially for someone who is not South African, not in love with Tata Madiba, as we tend to be: it is surprising how little academic work (other than biography) had been produced about Mandela at the time we were writing. Yes, there was Rob Nixon’s essay “Mandela, Messianism, and the Media” and Andrew Nash’s “Mandela’s Democracy”, but not much else. We truly had to open new archives and generate new vocabularies. Also, Mandela was still alive as we wrote; strong feelings about his meaning and his value (including his commercial value) were still very much in circulation in this country. In any event, we stuck to our guns, defended our work and its fulsome scope. Some tense weeks ensued. But, of course, in the end the press knew that the manuscript was valuable intellectual property and that they should rather be flexible than lose it.

There were three particularly rewarding moments for me as editor. One occurred when everyone’s work was finally in, and I began to see the patterns and structure and intellectual character of the book quite clearly and found myself able to write my introduction. Another was when I completed the afterword, a day or two after the funeral service for Mandela. All my friends with whom I shared the work, and even my crusty editor, liked the piece. I had such a tremendous sense of closure: I even joked to some close friends that Madiba had waited for us to finish. (Perhaps I should add that I was teaching a graduate seminar on Mandela at Penn last fall, and the news of Mandela’s death came the day after our last class. The final page proofs for the book were due – and ready – the very next day. That evening I flew to South Africa to witness the period of mourning and write the afterword. The timing was amazing.)

A final rewarding moment was the launch in Johannesburg on May 5th, which legends like Ahmed Kathrada and George Bizos attended. Mr Bizos even made an impromptu speech, recalling his first visit to Mandela in prison, when Mandela appeared in handcuffs, surrounded by a group of prison guards. After the two friends embraced, Mandela said, “Oh George, I have forgotten to introduce you to my guard of honour”, and proceeded to name the guards quite formally, one by one. It is a moment that readers of Mandela’s biographies know well; but it was so lovely to hear the story from the man who witnessed it. I was very touched.

Source: Cambridge University Press

Who is the target market for this companion? Do you see the volume as having as having a social role, or a part to play in “educating” the public as to broadening the way we understand a remarkable but complex figure?

The target market is primarily an academic audience of scholars and their students, but I hope that the prose is clear enough also to engage what they call in the trade “the intelligent lay reader”. I hope to see copies in every good bookshop in South Africa.

Now: the purpose is, broadly speaking, educational; but in a completely different way from the sort of commercially “uplifting” books that are on the market. This book is not about, oh, leadership lessons we can learn from Madiba. Indeed, Lize van Robbroeck’s fine chapter on “The Visual Mandela” offers a systematic critique of the way Mandela’s life story has been mediated to serve the ends of a kind of “pedagogy of citizenship”. The book is not iconoclastic in spirit, however: far from denying Mandela’s status as icon, we wish to show how the icon was constructed and under which historical circumstances this process occurred. We collectively tease out not only the complexities of Mandela’s personality (Phil Bonner calls them “the antinomies of Nelson Mandela”), but also the complexities of his times. This collection, in sum, is the first interdisciplinary, scholarly study of Mandela’s life, his most cherished relationships (especially with his second wife and with the ANC), his thought, and the way he has been represented. I would hope that it is educational, precisely in the fact that it does not have a single simple message or story, but is hospitable to divergent opinions, nuances, and contradictions.

What did you not want the Companion to be; or rather, were there any potential pitfalls you were made aware of or became aware of while editing the volume?

I did not want the prose to read like that of an encyclopaedia entry, lecture notes, or even a run-of-the-mill academic overview article, as is usually the case with collections of this sort. Fortunately the contributors all tried to reach beyond the ordinary and many wrote in a creative and elegant way.

I was also, frankly, very concerned that all of the black South African contributors should remain on board: their voices – their presence in the volume, if you will – was crucial. I was particularly grateful that the young film scholar Litheko Modisane agreed to contribute at a rather late stage and that he produced such a fluent chapter on Mandela in film and TV.

Another pitfall, of course, was the fact that we were writing about a man whose health was failing and whose death would certainly be an international event. How could we avoid being overtaken by history? When Mandela was hospitalised last June, my editor wanted to freeze production; but I insisted, after it became clear that Mandela’s illness might be protracted, that we move on. It seemed unethical to wait. At this point I worked through the entire manuscript with a former dissertation student and friend, Jennifer Glaser of the University of Cincinnati, who is a wonderful reader and writer, to get a fresh and clear sense of whether the book needed to be changed much in the event of Mandela’s passing. We concluded that very little required adjustment: even the final chapter on Mandela’s mortality, which is a kind of proleptic eulogy, needed very few adjustments in the end. Apart from tenses, only a subheading that read “Pre-Mortem” was changed in the event – not to “Post-Mortem”, by the way, but to the more evocative and challenging “Dreamworlds”. This said, I did worry a lot about this piece and about the timing of the book.

Source: Wikipedia

The twelve essays on offer are all highly competent explorations of Mandela’s life, legacy and symbolic value, whether in explicitly political or figurative/narrative economies of meaning. Would you briefly introduce each essay for us and speak to the rationale behind the decision to approach each individual scholar/author?

This is a broad question and I would do best to refer our readers to the introduction, where I interpret the contribution of each chapter. Perhaps two examples will suffice for the purposes of our conversation.

Let’s start with Jonathan Hyslop. I am an admirer of his work, and two of his essays came to mind as I was planning this book: “Gandhi, Mandela, and the African Modern”, in which he writes about how the city of Johannesburg shaped the politics of these two giants of the 20th century, and “War Envy”, in which he writes, in a more personal way, about his time in Zimbabwe and reflects on the allure of militarism – of the image of the freedom fighter – and how this attitude actually poisons contemporary politics in Southern Africa. I had a feeling, therefore, that Jonathan would be the right person to reflect on Mandela’s decision, in the early sixties, that the strategy of non-violence was spent and that the ANC should embark on an armed struggle. Jonathan’s essay turned out to be very interesting indeed. Under the title “Mandela on War” he writes about the influence of Clausewitz’s famous treatise on war on Mandela’s thinking about the uses of violence, arguing, ultimately, that for Mandela, as for Clausewitz, war was useful only insofar as it served political ends. Mandela, in other words, was ever the strategist, and, despite his militant self-styling in the period before his arrest he was not, like many of his ANC comrades, drawn to militancy for the sake of its dubious and dangerous glamour.

Another contributor who was on my list from the start is Brenna Munro, a young English woman who did her PhD at Virginia and now teaches at the University of Miami. I was an outside reader for one of her early essays and for her groundbreaking book on queer sexuality and the struggle for democracy called (in a beautiful phrase from Albie Sachs) “South Africa and the Dream of Love to Come”. When it came to choosing an author for a chapter which I’d always imagined under the rubric of “Nelson, Winnie, and the Politics of Gender”, she was my first choice: I felt there was no one who could compare with Brenna when it came to a mastery of contemporary theories about sexuality and gender on the one hand and a feeling for the telling empirical detail on the other. This chapter was no easy assignment, by the way. Brenna’s task was not only to describe Nelson Mandela’s performance of a particular kind of black masculinity, or to reflect theoretically on how the idea of the nation is shaped by imaginings of a (heterosexual) national family. She also had to write about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a fascinating and troubling figure, and had to do so in a way that addresses Winnie’s crimes unflinchingly, while also recognising that any interpretation of her political meaning must (a) be cognisant of her very real sufferings under apartheid and (b) concede that the simple binary opposition of the saintly, rational (man) Nelson and the wicked, excessive (woman) Winnie plays into familiar gendered stereotypes. The result is a beautifully written and courageous chapter.

The volume is divided into three parts: Part 1: “The Man, the Movement, and the Nation”; Part 2: “Reinterpreting Mandela”; and Part 3: “Representing Mandela”. What was the animating logic behind this decision with regard to structure? It appears to work tremendously well, I might add.

I’m happy if it seems to work. The structure emerged only after all the chapters came in; the proposal was not divided into parts. The decisive chapter here was the one by Philip Bonner. Phil originally had a narrower remit, but when his wide-ranging reflection on the antinomies of Mandela’s character came in, it seemed to me that this chapter had to be the opening one – not least because it is the most narrative (and perhaps therefore the most reader-friendly) one in the collection. It occurred to me, then, that the first four chapters, if placed in the order in which readers view them now, actually map out Mandela’s life in a chronological way (while also launching several interrelated arguments). Bonner takes us up to the arrest and the Rivonia trial; Schalkwyk deals with the prison years; Posel contemplates Mandela during the transition to democracy; and Munro maps out Mandela’s entire life story, but extends the narrative by addressing his marital problems after his release from prison, as well as his happy union with Graça Machel late in life. With that section in order, the other two seemed to fall into place: there are four chapters concerning Mandela’s thought (in relation to tradition, law, and the armed struggle), and four chapters concerning Mandela’s image and its mediations.

The collection is defined by its various engagements with politics and the political. What does the political mean to you, as a scholar in many areas, and how did this conception impact on your role as editor?

As a literary scholar and someone who for many years headed a programme in gender, sexuality and women’s studies, I suppose my view of the political is more capacious – some might well say fuzzier – than that of, say, someone properly trained in political science. I do tend to include under the term a broad array of discursive and lived practices, which shape our societies, our subjectivities, and our collectivities. This said, I don’t think the redefinitions of the political that emerge from the collection arose out of any preconception on my part. Just as I was surprised to discover the book’s structure, so, too, was I surprised when I realised that the collection, while attentive to such matters as, say, Mandela’s relationship to the ANC, his early activism, and his presidency, expands our understanding of Mandela’s legacy by considering three additional modalities of the political: the politics of gender, the politics of the body, and the politics of affect. I could attempt to define all of these phrases here, but I would rather suggest that readers peruse the book with these rubrics in mind, and see how their own understanding of these terms/concepts unfold in the course of the encounter.

Let me add, however, that I wish we had a chapter in the book that deals explicitly with race and the political economy, especially in relation to the macroeconomic changes promulgated during Mandela’s presidency. We had such a chapter, but it was unfortunately the one piece that got cut in order to shorten the book during those bad weeks in 2013. I do feel the gap left by this excision and I was therefore happy to note that there is now a special issue of Review of African Political Economy on “Nelson Mandela and the Political Economy of Unfinished Liberation”. This work would seem to me to be a crucial supplement to our contribution.

Source: Namibian Sun

Mandela, even after his death – perhaps even more so – is a figure that immediately elicits a surge of emotion from all that have ever encountered him in close working relationships. What kind of affective dimensions do you see as hallmarks of the writings brought together here? Would you agree that the collection demands both an intellectual response from readers and an affective, emotional reaction? Which essays made you think the hardest and longest, and which, if any, made you cry?

Well, this is a question that I would love to turn back to you, Jonathan. Are you asking me this because you yourself were moved?

Look, this is an academic book, and one that sets itself the task informing and interpreting, rather than moving or entertaining – though if we manage to do those things too, I would be pleased. There are several moments where I think some of the passions we felt as writers – in response to poignant events in Mandela’s life – shine through. I think, for instance, of the passages in David Schalkwyk’s chapter on the prison years that describe the brutal hardships suffered on the island and the prisoners’ dogged strategies for maintaining dignity. Or of the moment in Zolani Ngwane’s chapter where he speaks of the separation of many black children from their parents at a very young age. This is something, he points out, that gets treated as a “traditional” way of doing things, but that is actually very traumatic and painful – as, indeed, one senses in Mandela’s autobiography when, after his father’s death, he takes leave of his mother and heads off to the regent’s place at Qunu. Then there is, of course, Nuttall and Mbembe’s wrenching chapter about Mandela’s mortality, about which I will speak about in more detail later, but which deserves some comment here. It refers to many moments of devastating sadness and loss: not least when he is bluntly informed by his warders that his son Thembi had been killed in car accident – after which he cannot bring himself to speak to his comrades and retreats to his cell, where eventually Walter Sisulu comes to hold his hand in silence.

I was certainly moved when I wrote in the introduction about the “politics of sublime”, so beautifully expressed in Mandela’s discussion of the meaning of freedom at the end of his autobiography. And I would hope, finally, that the afterword captures something of the sense of commingled grief and celebration we all felt during those remarkable days of mourning in December 2013.

Now, on the more intellectual side. What made me think the hardest? I would say that the most troubling question is raised – and answered, but not in a way that precludes further thought – in Deborah Posel’s chapter on “Madiba Magic”. She challenges us to consider what long-term effects a “politics of enchantment” might have on the shape of our democracy today: on a polity that seems to be under the sway of so many kinds of magical thinking, not least the fetishised magic of the commodity. What does it mean, in short, to have Mandela’s face circulating on banknotes these days?

How large was the shadow cast by Mandela’s (ghostwritten) Long Walk to Freedom? Were there any “myths” or untruths about the man that you wanted to speak to?

The format of our collection, as a set of argumentative, interdisciplinary essays by multiple authors, provided an opportunity to undercut the narrative seductions of Long Walk to Freedom, a work in which the tropes of the Bildungsroman coincide powerfully with a redemptive national allegory. All of us had to wrestle with the question of how to use that text without simply rewriting it – for there have been so many rewritings: the biographies (which inevitably follow the same narrative script), the comic book, the films, etc.

The chapter by Daniel Roux, “Writing Mandela/Mandela Writing”, is concerned with the question you raise. Roux deals precisely with the narrative form (the Bildungsroman), the characteristic tropes (chiasmus), and the recurrent motifs (eg gardening) that shape Long Walk to Freedom. And he has quite a bit of fun demonstrating how hard it is for those who try to debunk the saintly Mandela actually to do so. The very ambition seems to hamstring the effort. Why show someone isn’t a saint, just a man, unless one operates from the premise that he is somehow extraordinary? And so the hagiographic story is reinscribed again and again.

This said, I do think that, without debunking Mandela, our collection challenges certain myths, presuppositions and interpretations that have been in circulation. Jonathan Hyslop’s chapter, for instance, works against facile comparisons that are often made between Mandela and Gandhi as proponents of non-violence. (Mandela himself felt more of an affinity to Nehru, whose autobiography he read with great interest. And it is always fun to note that, while Gandhi was willing to strip down to a loin cloth, Mandela always loved fine clothes.) Hyslop also questions the opposite temptation, one that presents itself especially to people schooled in postcolonial studies, of reading Mandela’s turning to armed struggle through the lens of Franz Fanon’s theorising about the redemptive possibilities of anticolonial violence.

I would say, further, that Philip Bonner’s chapter about the antinomies of Nelson Mandela makes it clear that one cannot read Mandela’s character and life story in a straightforward, linear fashion: there were opposing impulses and tendencies in his personality which profoundly influenced his actions and were never thoroughly resolved. The “long walk”, as Phil says, often assumes the appearance of a series of impetuous leaps forward when considered close-up.

Finally, while it doesn’t formulate this position explicitly, I think that David Schalkwyk’s chapter implies that it is too simple to see Mandela as an exemplar of forgiveness, a kind of Christian moral hero, who suffers without becoming bitter. Schalkwyk’s reflections on Mandela and Stoicism emphasise, instead, the extreme control over the expression of emotions that Mandela mastered during the years of imprisonment. The suggestion here is that there may well be something strategic and political, rather than ethical or saintly, about his conciliatory behaviour in the wake of his release.

A picture of Mandela seems to emerge that suggests his profound awareness and understanding, especially during his time on Robben Island, of the role of the individual in the collective context, of the need for the individual’s needs or desires to be subsumed in service of greater ideals. Would you agree?

There is a lovely line in chapter 2 where Schalkwyk writes about how Mandela came to realise that “the burden of selfhood in prison is not only a weight to be carried, but a refrain to be sung in unison.” This is an attitude that also informs one of Mandela’s most stirring political statements, the defiant declaration read out by Zindzi Mandela to a crowd in Jabulani Stadium in 1985: “Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.”

However, the relationship between the individual and the collective is rather complicated in the case of Nelson Mandela. Among the authors in the book, Sifiso Ndlovu is the one who most powerfully emphasises the fact that Mandela saw himself as a loyal ANC cadre. Ndlovu presents a view of Mandela’s presidency as expressive of certain Africanist aspects of the ANC as a political movement – a collective ethos being one of them. If pushed, I would characterise this as what literary critics used to call a “strong misreading”: committed, compelling, but vulnerable. Bonner is probably on the money when he argues that there was always a tension between Mandela’s individualism and his bowing to collective discipline; this is one of the “antinomies” of Nelson Mandela he describes so persuasively.

I might add here, in response to your mention of selfless service to a cause, that there is something quite sad about Mandela’s last days. One of his attending physicians in Pretoria made it clear to me that Mandela was ready to go, that he even asked why the money for his care couldn’t rather be spent on young people. Yet he was kept alive – for political purposes, reasons of convenience, who knows, but reasons and desires that were not his own. Here, too, collective wishes may have trumped the individual’s self-interest and compelled a further sacrifice.

Source: Wikipedia

Which “mask” do you think was easiest for Mandela to wear in his lifetime, and which role do you think he was most reticent about playing? How “new” are the readings of Mandela as visual subject/object, and of his visual performances and performativity?

Several contributors to this volume comment on the moment when Mandela appeared in court during his 1962 trial dressed in African garb, complete with skins and beads. So mesmerised are we by this moment that my friend Jennifer Wenzel at the University of Michigan, who read the whole manuscript during those difficult weeks in early 2013, observed that perhaps we should call the book Twelve Ways of Looking at a Leopard-Skin Kaross”. (The funny thing, by the way, is that this is actually a misdescription of Mandela’s costume. At the book launch in Johannesburg, Verne Harris of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory revealed that Mandela actually wore a jackal skin – they have it! Thus myths are made, right?) Now, most South Africans probably know the brief film clip of Mandela walking into court in this costume; but to understand its profound effect – of challenging colonial justice, and, as Adam Sitze argues in his chapter “Mandela and the Law”, performing the role, not of accused or subject, but of sovereign – we need to remember that he conducted his own defence in that trial. In other words, Mandela didn’t stand silently in the dock in that garb, but acted and spoke in a manner appropriate to a professional lawyer, while also contesting the right of a court where no black man could sit in judgment to pronounce on his guilt or innocence. It is hard to think of a more stunning and dramatic instance of political performance. This was a world historic coup de théâtre: one that, as it were, exploded the very theatre in which it was staged.

As to the other side of your question: reticence, reluctance. I have no doubt that the most difficult moment in Mandela’s career in the public eye was when he announced his separation from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. His face on this occasion is, indeed, mask-like; but he is not playing a role. He is forced to be the private man, the failed and hurt husband, before the cameras and microphones.

But may I return to the public roles he played? Danny Herwitz from the University of Michigan observed at the Cape Town launch of this book that Mandela had “star power”, that mysterious quality that lights up a special individual’s screen test. He looked presidential – and how! None of the great black actors who have impersonated him, some of them handsome and imposing (think of Sidney Poitier and Dennis Haysbert – Morgan Freeman, I’d say, is not nearly tall and good-looking enough to come close) has been able to beat him at it. Part of this power surely lay in the fact that Mandela quite simply enjoyed the performative aspects of his political life. Just look at that dazzling, brilliant smile he wears along with the Springbok rugby jersey and cap after the final game of the 1995 World Cup. Sure, he is playing a role for the crowds, but he is genuinely loving it.

I would also remind our readers of the care with which Mandela, back in the 1950s, presented himself as the successful lawyer, with his formal suits and ties. That this particular persona was extremely important to him is evident, I would suggest, in his dogged persistence in his pursuit of his LLB degree, which, as Sitze’s chapter reminds us, he achieved only in 1989, after having taken no fewer than sixty university courses in law (many of which he failed, too). I thought of this when I watched the recent biopic starring Idris Elba. Elba certainly captures Mandela’s powerful physical presence; but he is too overtly sexy. In those years in Johannesburg, Mandela was careful to perform a certain professional dignity; he was not only physically imposing, but also wanted to look respectable and intellectual. Those pictures of him, thoughtful and serious, taken at the office of the Mandela and Tambo firm are quite moving – especially when one bears in mind the strenuous attempts of the government at that time to deny black South Africans a place in the professions, in education, in the city – hell, even in the building in which Mandela and Tambo conducted their business.

Does the collection delve into Mandela’s life as it speaks to questions of race and gender, and the relationship he had to tradition and modernity? Which spaces/places seem to appear most frequently as sites of meaning for Mandela, and for the writers involved here?

Yes, certainly. I have spoken about the question of gender in relation to the chapter by Brenna Munro. But, inevitably, the question of race, or, as Phil Bonner so usefully puts it, the oscillation between non-racialism and Africanism – a constant in South African political history – is omnipresent. Indeed, we see this oscillation in the book itself.

Perhaps I might single out here Lize van Robbroeck’s meditation on the various modes of blackness performed by Mandela, Obama and Zuma as one of the most interesting parts of the book. She suspects that a symbolic deployment of African tradition – think Mandela in his kaross or in his Madiba shirt – is much easier for a global (or, shall we say, a white South African and Euro-American) audience to handle than an Africanness that is, well, not a symbol, but the thing itself – think Jacob Zuma’s polygamy. It is a troubling hypothesis, as Van Robbroeck would be the first to admit, and one that I am perhaps summarising too simply and briskly here: I do invite readers to peruse this chapter for themselves.

As to the question of tradition and modernity: the original proposal for the book had chapters on each of these. But one of the reviewers (it may have been the good Mbongiseni Buthelezi) asked whether the words “tradition” and “modernity” must always, predictably, come up when one speaks of Africa. It struck him as hackneyed and boring. Zolani Ngwane and I then conferred at length and we decided that these terms were far from exhausted in their interpretive implications for Mandela’s life. As I see it, the whole book unfolds a conception of Mandela as modern, in various senses of the word. Indeed, this line of thinking starts in the introduction, where I speak of Mandela as the quintessentially modern subject because of the multiple, disjunct temporalities and places that he had to straddle during his life – and not least during the apartheid years, as a migrant to the City of Gold. For even as apartheid tried to turn back the clock, it created an uneven and harsh modernity in its temporal and spatial disparities: disparities that black South Africans had to find original ways to navigate, endure, and survive.

The collection also deploys “tradition” in multivalent ways: Ndlovu, the historian, sees Mandela as closely tied to the world of the ancestors and ubuntu, while Ngwane, the anthropologist, probes the meaning of the term more sceptically. Ngwane considers which modalities of tradition are perforce local – a matter of practices that are tied to a particular cultural habitus and place – and which modalities are more amenable to abstraction and symbolic deployment. And he probes how “tradition” is experienced quite differently by different classes of subjects: children and women, poor men and elite men, and so forth. He concludes that the latter – a category that includes Mandela – are freer than other subjects to deploy tradition in an innovative and symbolic way (as Mandela did in that kaross outfit of his) – often serving the ends of nationalist politics, with the result that such leaders are viewed not as renegades or modernists, but as default elders.

In sum, I think I can claim that we don’t use those two complicated and multivalent terms in boring ways, fixed as binary opposites of each other, but find, in our reflections on Mandela, ways to redefine and reanimate them.

Tell us a bit more about the relationship between Mandela and the law, and Mandela as mediator between worlds, as translator of sorts, that emerges as one reads the essays in sequence?

There are two essays, those by Ngwane and Sitze, that play with the fact that Mandela as a young man had the ambition of becoming a court interpreter, a translator. For Ngwane, the court interpreter (think of Sol Plaatje or Budlwana Mbelle) is one who stands “in a hermeneutic relationship between custom and colonial law” and this, as you have perhaps already suggested, is for him analogous to the role that nationalist leaders of Mandela’s generation end up playing. For Sitze, whose chapter is very densely argued and draws on fascinating primary research, translation assumes the more radical character of betrayal (tradutore, tradditore): in Mandela’s court performances he sees an undermining of the structures of South African jurisprudence from within.

I think I’ll keep my response to that, though there is more to say. But you can imagine how stunned I was when the trope of translation became an issue at Mandela’s memorial service, with the fascinating figure of Thamsanqa Jantje, the sign language interpreter, who had a vision of angels entering the stadium and could not perform his duties properly. In some ways that seemed to be fitting, almost a kind of magical realist conclusion to this line of inquiry, if you know what I mean.


Before the afterword, the volume has a grand, elegiac final piece by Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe, one that fittingly considers Mandela’s mortality. How did this essay come about, and how difficult was it for you and the writers to capture an appropriate sense of tone when writing about such a momentous occasion?

The authors themselves are, of course, the best authorities on the difficulties that arose during the writing process. But let me offer the following, quite speculatively: I have always felt that there are two reasons for Nuttall and Mbembe’s decision to write on this topic. One was the strong national sentiment that the image of Mandela in his frailty seemed to evoke and the way in which the possibility of Mandela’s death seemed to raise profound questions about the current condition of our nation. The controversy over Yiull Damaso’s painting of Mandela’s body on the autopsy table, discussed in the chapter, brought such questions dramatically to the fore in 2010. The second reason may be the fact that the authors, like Mandela, suffered the loss of an infant daughter. Now, people relate to Mandela in many different ways, but I’ve always felt that Nuttall and Mbembe were particularly sensitive to the many experiences of loss, the moments of closeness to death, that Mandela had to endure during his long life. The result is a chapter that, while recognising Mandela’s stature as a hero of the twentieth century, also brushes the triumphal narrative of his life against the grain, revealing a story that makes Mandela appear not exceptional, but in fact representative for a man of his generation – precisely because his many losses bring to mind the fragility of black family life under apartheid. I think the chapter is moving and innovative for this reason.

Ultimately, what are you most proud of with this groundbreaking work?

I am most proud that it is done; that we pulled it off, despite many stumbling blocks, and got it on the shelves and before the great public. Anyone who has published a book knows that it is wonderful to see the final object, if only because it means that no further work can be done on it.

Thank you very much for answering these questions, Rita, and congratulations on a stunning book once again.

Thank you, Jonathan. And my thanks also to LitNet for hosting this interview. Editorial work is seldom recognised as creative or even intellectually demanding: it tends to be rather inglorious and invisible. (Indeed, a recent blog by Sarah Blackwood has likened it to women’s carework.) So, I truly appreciate this conversation.



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  • Pierre van Niekerk

    Is werklik ’n vreemde reis, 'n vreemde perspektief. Byna Boheems om Madiba se reis deur die literêre perspektief te lees en dan jou eie gevoelens en indrukke oor hom op twee vergelykende denkbane te plaas. Jou eie en dan 'n literêre ander. Veral omdat mens nooit lees van sy rol en aandeel in die Kerkstaatbom van die 80's nie. Wat waarskynlik sy eie Damaskuspad was. Wat, wie weet, dalk die beginpunt van vrede was wat hy laat lewe kry het vir SA. Maar skrywers gerieflik verkies om dit nie deel van sy reis en invloede te maak nie.
    Dan iewers is daar die stil stemme van jong mense en kinders wat slegs op grafstene praat: "Hier rus ek en Soldaat X en Y en bomkind Z, Comrade ...”
    En ek, twyfelaar wat oor alles wat gesê is en word, en nie oor die bloed wat ek gesien en beleef het vrede kry nie, die verliese aan alle kante weet net, niks wat nou gesê word, gaan gister heelmaak of veredel nie.

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