As the nation prepares to bid farewell to Nelson Mandela, how he is remembered is increasingly becoming an important topic of discussion.
Every generation has its own interpretation of history. Those who lived through apartheid know Mandela the freedom fighter – the black pimpernel who gave his life to a cause. Those who were barely out of their diapers when he walked out of prison know Mandela the nation-builder – the man who united a country that seemed doomed to fail. And the generations that will follow will know Mandela the iconic global leader – the Moses of South Africa who liberated an entire nation. But for those who knew him intimately, who had the benefit of interaction with the man, they will remember Mandela the man. A man who was merely one of a group of freedom fighters who dedicated their lives to fighting for the liberation of a nation and the democratic ideal.
“Over the past week since the death of Nelson Mandela, many of the tributes and remembrance offerings have focused on Madiba the reconciler, the man of forgiveness,” said Ilse Fischer Wilson, the daughter of the late struggle activist and lawyer Bram Fischer. “But we must remember that he was the commander in chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe. He was tough, he was a freedom fighter.
“Those who really praise Madiba for being a reconciler are mainly the middle class whites, as it allows them to feel less guilty. But he is remembered by poor and working-class people particularly for being a fighter,” she said.
At a time when Mandela is being accorded an almost messianic status the world over, it is people like Fischer Wilson and Deputy President Motlanthe who are left to remind us of the other faces of Madiba – the faces that reveal that he was indeed a just a man who did great things through the collective he was a part of. He was one of those who led the fight, our fight for identity and freedom.
Indeed, Deputy President Motlanthe, in his tribute to the great man, was at pains to make the audience understand that the man that he became was influenced by the various leaders of the African National Congress and his own peers within the party.
“When he arrived in Johannesburg and met Walter Sisulu, he was so impressed by his command of English that he decided then and there that he would join any organisation Sisulu was part of,” Deputy President Motlanthe said.
“His views on non-racialism were influenced by Moses Kotane,” he said. Kotane was General Secretary of the Communist Party at a time when Nelson Mandela had proved himself somewhat of a firebrand, disrupting Communist Party meetings at every opportunity. But the Mandela of the 1950s was also a student, willing to change his mind when the reasoning was sound. And when Moses Kotane visited him at his home, he helped create the man who was able to engage with the enemy – then the white Afrikaner.
"The party he belonged to was one of collective decision-making. And when the collective decision was made to resort to armed struggle after engagement failed, Mandela became the commander in chief because he was never afraid to take on the difficult missions," Motlanthe said.
This was Mandela the volunteer-in-chief, who had first made his appearance at the defiance campaign of the 1950s.
The Mandela who emerged from prison, fist raised high, is perhaps the one that laid the foundation for a democratic government. This is the Mandela who was able to put his weapons down because the government was also willing to make concessions. This is the Mandela who was able to build bridges – the one who built the rainbow nation.
By the end of the session, it was clear that these are the conversations we still need to have – the ones that help us define a great man. The ones that acknowledge that Mandela the reconciler was first and foremost a freedom fighter – but more than that, he was a soldier of peace.