As the figurehead of South Africa’s struggle for freedom, Nelson Mandela inspired generations of political activists around the world. He is, quite possibly, the most revered politician in world history.
Mandela’s death at the age of 95 will provoke unprecedented emotional outpourings: newspaper columns will swell with obituaries, politicians will line up to praise this iconic figure, and his passing will be mourned by people from all corners of the globe.
The loss of this struggle hero will, of course, be felt most acutely in South Africa itself. His death will prompt a period of introspection among South Africans as they ponder what the future holds for the country.
This would be a timely debate as inequality, poverty, corruption, crime and xenophobia continue to blight South Africa’s “miracle” transition to democratic rule.
However, rather than fomenting a debate about the substance of Mandela’s political legacies and the many challenges before the country, there is a strong danger that the next South African election in 2014 will instead revolve around which party can claim ownership of the Mandela image.
The scramble for struggle credentials
April 27 is Freedom Day in South Africa; a public holiday commemorating the date in 1994 when the first elections were held. In 2013, the day was marked by a public row which started when the Democratic Alliance (DA) – the leading opposition party – used a picture of Nelson Mandela alongside Helen Suzman in one of its political pamphlets.
Suzman had been a fierce critic of the apartheid regime for decades as an active politician in the Progressive Federal Party, one of several parties that would later merge to form what is now called the DA. The message of the pamphlet – part of the “Know Your DA” campaign – read: “We played our part in opposing apartheid”.
The African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s hegemonic ruling party, responded quickly to what it perceived to be the DA’s attempt to represent itself as a party with legitimate struggle credentials and what it also saw to be the DA’s abuse of Mandela’s image. The ANC released a poster filled with images of its struggle icons with the simple heading: “So many of our own, no need to borrow”.
The “Know Your DA” campaign reflected the desire of the DA to break down what it sees as the ANC’s attempts to marginalise it as a party of apartheid. The ANC’s combative response reflects its own desire to reaffirm its identity as the figurehead of the anti-apartheid struggle and its unrivalled legitimacy as the leader of an ongoing “National Democratic Revolution”.
Playing the Madiba card
The ANC has played upon the memories of its struggle icons during election campaigns and the faces of its fallen heroes have regularly adorned the election ephemera of the ANC. The party understands that the identities associated with apartheid-era repression, and the struggle against it, continue to have a strong influence on voting behaviour.