An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


1990 – The Release of Nelson Mandela

1990 – The Release of Nelson Mandela

11 February 1990 – Paarl

Writing about Mandela is incredibly difficult. Partly, it’s because so much has been said already. He is almost universally held up as a force for good, a freedom fighter who managed to win a democratic election and defeat Apartheid. I am nowhere near an expert on South African history, and so cannot give the arguments about “terrorism” the nuance and context they deserve. Writing about how the white establishment in Africa and Europe treated him abominably seems like shooting fish in a barrel. Yet that “Long Walk to Freedom” is iconic. Coming so soon after the Berlin Wall, it seemed to herald the end of the repressive political regimes of the twentieth century. I could not choose anything else for 1990.

A recurring theme in this series has been about explaining the importance of “myth”. The Berlin Wall was more than a wall. Chernobyl was more than a health and safety snafu. And it stands to reason that Mandela was more than a politician. He represents the death of Apartheid and the birth of modern1 South Africa. But hagiogrpahy – the creation of saints – is important. It’s not simply a case of propaganda (though this is part of it). Nor is it entirely cynical or manipulative. It is part of a crucial process of owning our own histories, giving us ideal types against which we can measure our present and guide our futures. In the end, it doesn’t matter if Isaac Newton was a paragon of rationality; if Margaret Thatcher was a great leader; if Ghandi was tolerant of all; if Hitler was pure evil; if Pele was the greatest footballer of all time. What matters is that these historical legends exist. At least in a political sense.

Where history can help is by contextualising both the “real” lives of the Florence Nightingales and Wolfgang Mozarts and the subsequent use of their legends by their apostles and enemies. For instance – did the 1994 election allow Mandela to become the symbol of ‘democratic transition.. and reconciliation’?2 Is that more important than Mandela’s “real” life? Or are the two inextricable?

Which is the more important depends on the questions one asks and for what purpose. If we want to understand how a movement could shift from violence to democratic tactics, then the role of Mandela and the political context of 1960s versus 1980s South Africa become important. If, however, we want to understand the political discourse of the 1990s and twenty-first century, then the image of Mandela may offer better explanations.

Indeed, Raymond Suttner has argued that the focus on Mandela as an icon has made it very difficult to write a narrative history about his life. Many spend their energies explaining the meaning of Mandela ‘rather than purely narrating’. Because, clearly, Mandela was never a uniform entity. He and South African politics changed a lot over his lifetime.3 For Western audiences, ‘popular narratives of race and redemption’ are perhaps more palatable than a full consideration of the reasons behind racial governance in sub-Saharan Africa.4 And whatever you do – don’t mention that he was a communist!5

Francois Pienaar receiving the Rugby World Cup from Nelson Mandela. ((Source)

Francois Pienaar receiving the Rugby World Cup from Nelson Mandela. ((Source)

Being geographically and politically distant also meant that Mandela and South Africa were refracted through the prism of television. His release from prison was in many ways the first of a series of “episodes”, which included meetings with world leaders and – most notably – the Rugby and FIFA World Cups of 1995 and 2010.6 A ‘safe’ image of Mandela as ‘international statesman’ became vital to the reintegration of South Africa into the post-cold-war international community. Philippe de Brabanter has argued that Time made a conscious effort to avoid references to communism and violence when it chose excerpts of Mandela’s autobiography to publish.7 At the same time, it was clear following his death in 2013 that many right-wingers who had opposed him in the past were unable to express anything but admiration for a man who had come to symbolise liberty, democracy and a post-racial world.8

In the end, this article hasn’t really been about Mandela. What it shows is that myths and legends are an integral part of history. They should not be dismissed simply as distortions. They are driving forces in their own right. Historians of different types ask different questions at different times. Some will be interested in “real” lives and events; others will be more interested in how those events have been refracted through the prism of history. What makes a good historian is the ability to be able to separate these issues and contextualise them. This will become ever more noticeable as this series progresses. Mandela was released 25 years ago. We do at least have the benefit of some historical distance when we come to assess him. This will not be the case with some of the later articles. So, with that disclaimer/excuse for lazy writing – let us proceed with the 30-for-30!

  1. Meaning “present-day” rather than “modern”.
  2. Xolela Mangcu, ‘Nelson Mandela in the history of African modernity – Towards a reappraisal of existing approaches’, Bulletin of the National Library of South Africa, 68(2) (2014), 187-97.
  3. Raymond Suttner, ‘(Mis)Understanding Nelson Mandela’, African Historical Review, 39(2) (2007), 107-30.
  4. Maryann Martin, ‘Throwing off the yoke to carry the man: Deconstructing the myth of Nelson Mandela’, Topia, 12 (2004), 41-62.
  5. Philippe de Brabanter, ‘”Long Walk to Freedom” or how “Time Magazine” manipulates Nelson Mandela into unwittingly forging his own image’, Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire, 73(3) (1995), 725-39.
  6. Martha Evans, ‘Mandela and the televised birth of the rainbow nation’, National Identities, 12(3) (2010), 309-26.
  7. Brabanter, ‘”Long Walk to Freedom”‘.
  8. Julian Borger, ‘The Conservative party’s uncomfortable relationship with Nelson Mandela’, The Guardian, 6 December 2013, 15:03 GMT < > (accessed 16 March 2015); ‘Twitter fact-check: David Cameron didn’t want to “Hang Nelson Mandela” in the 80s’, New Statesman, 6 December 2013, 11:25 GMT < > (accessed 16 March 2015).
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