In the summer that I was 17, Soul II Soul's Back to Life played over and over on the radio. Caron Wheeler – the group's full-figured, dreadlocked lead singer embodied a black alternative to the mainstream straight-haired skinny girls who typified contemporary music in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She spoke to a new wave of black pride.
The 1980s had banished Afros and dashikis as it waved goodbye to black power and the politics that inspired it. But somehow the 1990s seemed to usher blackness in again. I soaked it in. I wore a head wrap and hung a leather pendant, cut out in the shape of Africa, around my neck. That year I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, and I found I Write What I Like and fell in love with Steve Biko.
While I was reading words written in the 1960s and 1970s, throughout the 1990s all eyes were on South Africa and an entirely different kind of icon. Nelson Mandela emerged from the prison gates looking like what he had become – a statesman. With his grey hair, his measured tones, his careful bearing, he looked as though he had been born to lead.
I couldn't help comparing Biko with the elder statesman. Like Malcolm X, Biko seemed a thousand times cooler than Mandela. His intensity, his rebelliousness, his staccato eloquence spoke to me in ways that Mandela simply didn't.
The Mandela who had gone into jail had a revolutionary jauntiness about him, but, by the time I was old enough to be reading serious books, no one was talking about Mandela the radical. In university I ate up Marcus Garvey and Frederick Douglass and Malcolm and Biko. The women's names – Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman and Angela Davis – were barely mentioned. I eventually went in search of them myself and was richly rewarded.
As I entered my 20s and became more involved in student politics, in adopting the positions that would define my own personal politics I began to see Mandela as a symbolic figure, a teddy bear, whose image and presence were necessary for stability, but whose words and persona were too soft to reflect mine fully. I saw him as a wise and kind leader. Unlike Biko, though, he didn't shape what I wore and who I dated. He was simply not very present in my busy, self-righteous twentysomething life.
Sense of self-worth
Over time that changed. At some point in the past decade my love affair with Biko and Malcolm X ended. Their ideas remain important to me. The fire in their bellies, the rage in their heads, the force with which they claim the humanity of black people are critical to my own political sense of self-worth. I am grateful to them for the years they kept me company in the United States, the long winters when their words burned bright, helping me to love my lips, my skin, my hair; helping me to understand my rage.
In the weeks since Madiba has been back in hospital, as the media have hovered and the headlines have been gobbled up by silly and sad wars over all manner of Madiba-related matters, I have realised how much his intellectual contributions to post-apartheid South Africa have changed me; not at the symbolic level that was so appealing in my youth, but at the level of analysis and principle that are so crucial as you move from girlhood to womanhood. Simply by being present, by being around for so long, he has taught me how to lead.
Sitting in a café in Norwood with my husband last week I looked up at the TV. There he was in a grainy image, his face round, beard shaggy. Angry, proud, determined – a pre-1964 picture. The image soon gave way to the more familiar Madiba, the one my children now know. Quite unexpectedly, I found myself tearing up, feeling silly as my husband consoled me, dabbing a paper napkin at the edges of my suddenly leaky eyes.
When Biko said: "Merely by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being", I understood.
When Malcolm said: "By any means necessary", my heart leapt. Both men were brave enough to say what others had, until then, only whispered.
In my younger self's narrative a certain kind of bravado signified strength and leadership. Biko and Malcolm had been killed because they threatened the system. Once I bought into this logic it was impossible not to believe the inverse, which was that Mandela had been kept alive because he was a puppet, so soft that they would gain nothing from killing him.
On the other hand, the Mandela I was familiar with insisted that: "We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world."
Underscoring the futility
He was correct and therefore he was difficult to contradict, but he made me narrow my eyes in cynicism, made me want to flip the channel to get to the action.
The lack of interest was not his fault; it was mine. Over his lifetime he had moved from emphasising the importance of violence to underscoring the futility of it. I had not yet walked that road. But instead of commending his journey I was vaguely derisive of it because – this is the clincher – unlike my dead heroes, he was still alive. My misguided exaggeration of the benefits of martyrdom was both perverse and naive, but also, sadly, common.
As my work pulled me towards governance and democracy-building, in 2005 I began to respect Mandela in new ways. I began to understand the fallacy inherent in the well-worn trope of "puppets versus heroes". The idea that one has to be a martyr to be radical, or that one has to be threatening in a particular way to be a hero has lost its charm.
Black people's struggles against colonialism, slavery and racism have always required us to be agile, to change tactics depending on the situation. They have also demanded of us deep and careful reflection. In a world in which action is privileged over thought, Mandela spent 40 years fighting and 27 years thinking. He emerged tougher and more resolute, but also far less inclined to move too quickly, to jump too fast.
For this, his image – temporarily at least – took a knock among those who define their battlefield as primarily focused on race and racism. But the truth is that in our haste to embrace the Madiba, who emerged from jail in 1990, we may have diminished the stature of the Mandela who went to prison in 1961; the man who condemned himself to the gallows, who started the armed wing of the ANC and who inspired thousands of young black women and men to join the liberation struggle.
As we think about the legacy of Mandela it seems important to reflect on his contributions to black people qua black people. This is an important exercise because, today, Mandela's Africanness seems almost incidental. He has taken on a sort of post-racial identity. He is black but his Africanness has begun to seem like a postscript. Saint Madiba has scrubbed some of the blackness off Nelson Mandela.
In reality, though, the arc of Mandela's life is important both for the "rainbow" parts that are so popular today, and for the "terrorist" bits that even ardent black consciousness fans will recognise in their hearts. There is no question that he belongs in the canon of African leaders and thinkers engaged in the struggle for the recognition of black people's humanity and dignity.
Though some would place him next to Martin Luther King, I would seat him next to Malcolm X and Steve Biko. Recognising, of course, that this place is at the head of the table right next to Sojourner Truth.