Nelson Mandela Foundation

"The struggle against apartheid can be typified as the pitting of memory against forgetting. It was in our determination to remember our ancestors, our stories, our values and our dreams that we found comradeship." ~ Nelson Mandela

Mac  Maharaj  Joel  Netshitenzhe Tribute 2013 1

Mac Maharaj (left) and Joel Netshitenzhe shared their Madiba memories in a stirring tribute at the NMF

In this spirit, South Africans gathered at the Nelson Mandela Foundation on 12 December to get a glimpse into the Madiba memories of two prominent players on the South African political landscape – Mac Maharaj, spokesperson for South African President Jacob Zuma, and Joel Netshitenzhe, executive director of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection.

As guests experienced at the event, memory can be a powerful agent for change and can take on many forms.

It can be frivolous: speakers recalled, for example, how Madiba would insist on wearing the same shirt more than once on state visits and how he liked his newspaper to be perfectly folded after being read.

It can be personal: Maharaj remembers Mr Mandela taking time out of his schedule to buy chocolates for his wife, who was sick at the time. And how Madiba didn’t understand the money when he came out of prison as the South African currency had changed while he was incarcerated.

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Memory can be reflective: Netshitenzhe remembers contemplating the fusion of public and private life for someone in Mr Mandela’s position of leadership. The thought struck him during a turbulent plane trip with an apparently calm and collected Madiba. He remembers how shaken Mr Mandela was when the turbulence ended. “It struck me how, even though he was frightened, he couldn’t show his fear because his public and privates lives were so fused.”

It can be institutional: Maharaj recalls coming back to Mr Mandela with an “agreement package” from the Codesa talks in 1993. “Will it get us the majority vote?” Madiba asked, in keeping with his ability to distil concepts and focus on what was important.

It can be national: “Avoid Mandela-exceptionalism,” said Netshitenzhe. “He only got to be who he was through his fellow South Africans.”

The creation of memory around the legend of Mr Mandela will not stop with his passing. Netshitenzhe said viewing Madiba’s body lying in state was one of the most moving experiences of his life. This, too, will pass into memory, as will the experience of listening to two such influential South Africans sharing stories of the great man, whom they both knew as a struggle hero, statesman and friend.

The overriding message that came out of the unique tribute was the importance of harnessing our Madiba memories, be they frivolous, personal, reflective, institutional or national, and using them to plot a constructive and positive future for South Africa.

Both spoke of the need to transform Mr Mandela’s “political miracle” into a “socio-economic miracle” and how it is up to everyone to make it happen.

“Reflection should start with us criticising ourselves,” said Maharaj. “We need to ask ourselves: ‘What have I done?’”

It’s up to all South Africans to make more memories and use the lessons learnt to continue building a strong and successful nation.

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