On 6 December 2013 the world was struggling to come to terms with the fact that the long life of Nelson Mandela had ended the previous evening. Like his release from prison in 1990, his passing became a moment of global significance.
Five years later the Nelson Mandela Foundation partnered with the University of South Africa (Unisa) to remember Madiba at an event headlined by internationally renowned author and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. More than a thousand people gathered at the university’s Ormonde campus in Johannesburg to hear her speak.
Adichie is probably best known for her critically acclaimed novels and the seminal essay We Should All Be Feminists. Her voice provided an international perspective on the many challenges facing those who promote Madiba’s legacy. Key questions framing the conversation explored the relevance of that legacy in contexts where declarations of human rights, constitutions and legislation too frequently do not translate into a lived reality for the great majority of people.
After her keynote address, Adichie engaged in a panel conversation with Rhodes scholar and historian Sebabatso Manoeli and film score composer Neo Mayanga, facilitated by journalist Cathy Mohlahlana. Other inputs to the evening were made by Unisa Vice-Principal and Chairman Professor Mandla Makhanya, Foundation CE Sello Hatang, Foundation Chairman Professor Njabulo Ndebele and Mrs Graça Machel. Musical entertainment was provided by the Soweto Gospel Choir.
All the speakers addressed the importance of archive and the role of memory in making liberatory futures. They agreed that peacemaking and democracy-building always require engagement with the messiness of histories, long and short. As Adichie insisted: “Forgetting doesn’t work as a strategy.”
She also argued that space for multiple stories needs to be guarded jealously, and suggested that such space is central to Madiba’s legacy. “South Africans remember differently,” she said.
In speaking to the challenges confronting humanity, Adichie focused on patriarchy as an instrument of oppression. She outlined the burdens being carried by women around the world, and called for a strategy focusing on men rather than the “special” needs of women. “It is time for us to raise boys differently.”
Machel thanked Adichie for participating and presented her with a gift in the form of a copy of the recently published Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela. In her concluding remarks, she picked up on the reflections by all the panellists on the need to reckon with Madiba’s flaws and mistakes. “He wasn’t perfect,” she said. “But we made him perfect. It was convenient for us. We needed a symbol.”