A year on – Mandela: Myth and Reality

Mandela conferenceOn the anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies is convening a conference to examine the complexities of Mandela as a nationalist leader: his relationship with the South African Communist Party, his management of the transition from apartheid and his record as president.  While in prison he had become the focus of ANC and international anti-apartheid campaigns against apartheid. His face became the symbol of a people’s oppression and the inspiration of their liberation.  The iconography escalated on his release: his name become synonymous with the ANC and the hopes of black South Africans.  The “˜Rainbow Nation’ that was used to frame the early years of ANC government was founded on Mandela’s image and his oft-repeated messages of reconciliation and unity. It seemed almost sacrilege to question his policies or criticise any perceived failings during and after his period in office.

This was all reflected in the long drawn out coverage of his illness, death and funeral.  Television, radio and print media gave blanket coverage to his life and work: much of this was relatively superficial, and understandably hagiographic. A year later there is the opportunity and the need for a more dispassionate assessment of the Mandela phenomenon:

  • the continuing importance of debates about the armed struggle and his relationship with the Communist party;
  • Mandela’s role in Africa during and after the liberation struggle;
  • discussion of his part in the difficult, negotiated transition;
  • a sober assessment of Mandela’s record in office, as revolutionary leader turned administrator, and national leader in the rapidly changing post-Cold War world;
  • the complexities of his legacy.

The day will kick off with the documentary film maker Khalo Matabane showing his Mandela documentary and answering questions on the making of the documentary and how he represented Mandela to South African audiences.[i]  This will be followed by a panel with Stephen Ellis, Moses Anafu, Tom Lodge, Hugh Macmillan and Saul Dubow discussing the liberation and armed struggles, Mandela’s relationship with the SACP, his links with independent African states and the nature of the transition to free elections.  This will be followed by an examination of Mandela’s role as president, his leadership in South Africa and Africa, the development of the economy and the problems of corruption – with Dr Funmi Olonisakin, Desne Masie, Knox Chitiyo, Paul Holden and Merle Lipton.

The final session with Winston Mano, Richard Dowden and Peter Biles will look at the construction of a media icon and the development of the global image of Mandela including before his imprisonment, in the transition period and covering his relationship with the media as president and as a retired president but key public and international figure.

The conference is being organised by the ICWS, in conjunction with two of its Senior Research Fellows, Keith Somerville (former BBC World news programmes editor and currently Lecturer in Humanitarian Communications, Centre for Journalism, University of Kent; and Martin Plaut (former Africa Editor, BBC World Service News).


[i] The conference organisers would like to sincerely thank the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, South Africa, for paying for the transport and accommodation costs of Khalo Matabane

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