Some years ago, at the heart of a South African region once aptly nicknamed the “generator of the revolution,” tourism boosters proposed the erection of a giant, Statue of Liberty-scale Mandela figure triumphantly looking out onto Nelson Mandela Bay and the Indian Ocean beyond it. The statue was to have replaced a hazardous manganese-ore shipping terminal. Mined in the ecologically fragile Northern Cape, the ore is railed South to Port Elizabeth where it is stored for exportation. How fitting it must have appeared then that Nelson Mandela’s statue should supplant the ore dump - a toxic node in a global economy where health and environment are incidental to returns on investment. But that was not to be; the statue remains an artist’s sketch and metropole-bound freighters continue to dock. The next super-sized city project to engage the future Nelson Mandela City’s imagination is a white elephant, a giant soccer stadium built for the World Cup. But the story captures South Africa’s and the world’s difficulty in handling the contradictory Mandela legacy: genuine hope powered by struggle, shameful compromise camouflaged by revolutionary imagery.
The mainstream narrative of Nelson Mandela is a fairly straightforward story of an indomitable character challenging and eventually overcoming life’s challenges. “There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.” And so Bill Clinton can write, that Mandela is “a rare human being who, in freeing himself of his demons, also became free to give his extraordinary leadership to his country and the world.” So Mandela, in the mainstream narrative, can rightly be portrayed as a revolutionary individual eclipsing all others much like the anticipated statue.
But this is not the whole story.