The Construction of an Icon: The Significance of Nelson Mandela in South Africa Today

Sarah Garratt '15 </br> Psychology

Sarah Garratt ’15 Psychology

The Construction of an Icon: The Significance of Nelson Mandela in South Africa Today

by Sarah Garratt


If you go to Cape Town you will see Nelson Mandela everywhere. In the airport there is a looming beaded sculpture of him leaning out of a popular tourist shop. Upon entering the shop you will find his face on t-shirts, magnets, key chains, bangles, books, posters, and paintings. Then, when it’s time to pay for these items, his face is even on the local currency! In 2012, the South African Reserve Bank decided that a portrait of Mandela from the year 1990 (the year of his release) would be added to the back of every value of the national currency, the rand. Many questioned why they would choose to put Mandela’s face on every bill (Seanego). What about Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, Ruth First, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, or Winnie Mandela, to name a few? There was certainly an abundance of leaders that the bank could have chosen to commemorate.

But the bank’s choice is not surprising. It falls in line with a well established national trend, one in which South Africa’s recent history tends to focus almost exclusively on the story of Nelson Mandela. When the new rand (appropriately deemed the Randela) was released to the public, the twitter sphere responded with a mixture of praise and criticism with one tweet asking why the other four banknotes couldn’t display the faces of different freedom fighters. This raises the question: why has Mandela’s image become so dominant in South Africa, to the point of drowning out other important leaders’ stories? In defense of the new rand, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan explained that the image of the former president would “help South Africa to remember Mandela” and “institutionalise [sic] the memory of where we come from” (Seanego). Gordhan’s statement reflects the generally accepted notion that Mandela is the father of the nation. What does it mean, though, to be the memory of where South Africans come from?

10 Rand Note

10 Rand Note

Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s struggle against apartheid are two stories that are inextricably related and intertwined, forever to be associated with each other. Mandela confirmed this himself by titling one of his books Nelson Mandela: The Struggle is My Life. How did it get to this point, though? When did the two become synonymous? The correlation between the two seems to have happened naturally, but more importantly, quite conveniently. It is true that Mandela personally lived out the struggle against apartheid. He very clearly dedicated his life to defeating the regime; but so did many others. Yet Mandela’s story still takes primacy over the stories of his fellow freedom fighters. In what follows I explore the reasons why this is the case and how the hegemonic discourse about Mandela serves the interests of the South African nation today.

To start, Mandela is charismatic. Several of his peers identify him as a natural leader and Mandela is always very aware of how he presents himself (Muthien). Throughout his career as a public figure he has been very aware of the messages he sends the public via, for example, his wardrobe choice. When he was a young lawyer trying to compete on the same playing field as his white peers he would wear expensive three-piece suits; when the ANC was launching an armed wing he wore military-style khakis; and when he wanted to be the compassionate father of a nation he opted for more casual silk shirts and slacks. His charm and the ways he utilizes that charm made him a highly likeable leader and all the more obvious a choice for leader of the ANC party and his country (Smith).

Secondly, and more importantly, Mandela’s personal story of triumph and his vision for South Africa are very well suited to the country’s needs. During its transition to democracy, South Africa needed a leader who would unify all of its citizens and discourage violence. When the apartheid regime began negotiating with minority parties in the late eighties, a massive power struggle erupted. Violence rumbled across the country and South Africa saw an alarming 307 percent increase in fatalities from political violence between 1985 and 1991 (Spies). At this point “leadership figures on all sides…realized it was in their joint interest to find ways to stop the violence.” (source?) So, on September 14, 1991, “the major political parties, the government–which included the police and the army– and business, trade union, church, traditional, and homeland leaders” signed the National Peace Accord (NPA) in the first tangible step towards South Africa’s official campaign towards peace (Marks, 15). No doubt the citizens of South Africa had been desperately hoping for an end to the violence much sooner than this, but the government’s decision to institutionalize the peace process was the beginning of a movement that spread across the nation: reconciliation was “in” and peace was popular. Of course, making peace the topic of popular conversation didn’t stop the violence, but the NPA was designed to “introduce an element of public accountability and pressure for peace” (Spies). The National Peace Committee was broken down to a local level so the public could do just that: be directly involved with peace-making within their own communities.

It was within this context that Mandela was lifted to his near sainthood status. He was not just a name associated with this reconciliatory discourse, he was one of its main contributors architects?. After his election in 1994 he implemented the Government of National Unity, which sought to combat the race, class, gender, and political party divisions that were so entrenched in society (Bray). Though the Government of National Unity shut down the National Peace Accord towards the end of 1994 (after democratic elections had taken place successfully), Mandela’s government still sponsored several new commissions with names like the Human Rights Commission and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Marks, 12). The policies supported the popular dialogue of the time and vice versa; terms like equality, reconciliation, and peace were used frequently. The term “rainbow people” was actually coined at this time because “[t]he rainbow is the biblical symbol of reconciliation” (source). Though originally used by Desmond Tutu, the term was made famous by and forever associated with Nelson Mandela after he used it at his inauguration speech in 1994 (Moller, 252). All this considered, it is quite clear that the government not only encouraged but actually invented unifying terms to contribute to the popular discourse on peace in South Africa. The people of South Africa were receptive and adopted the popular ‘conflict resolution’ mindset. As mentioned earlier, violence had reached intolerable levels and in response, a majority of the country accepted new policies and a more reconciliatory vocabulary in order to slow down and calm the turbulent atmosphere around them.

Mandela Statue in the upscale V&A Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

Mandela Statue in the upscale V&A Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

This is where Mandela comes in. IT is clear that he is complexly woven into all of South Africa’s talk on reconciliation: he promoted and started a large portion of the policies and commissions that were responsible for generating most of the reconciliation discourse; he also lived out the principles of his policies in his own personal life by choosing to forgive and work with his former foes. However, I am not as interested in the ways that he actively chose to promote and propagate peace (fascinating though these may be). I am more interested in the ways that peace has been promoted through him, not by him. In many ways, the two are very hard to distinguish. Mandela was a huge advocate of peace and reconciliation because of his own set of principles, but also because the dire violence in South Africa necessitated that he play peacekeeper if he wanted to see his young country survive. But his image and his persona have been so closely linked with the new South Africa that his own character and legacy have been shaped into whatever the supporters of this peace dialogue have needed him to be. Just like the term ‘rainbow nation,’ Nelson Mandela’s iconicity was invented during a critical time to contribute towards the overall discussion of peace. It’s as if he’s been chosen as South Africa’s unofficial peace ambassador. In many ways Nelson Mandela fits the role of South Africa’s father figure perfectly. However, in their eagerness to support him many Mandela fans too easily overlook his imperfections.

To illustrate, the online Cultural Institute just released a series of historical photo galleries that capture monumental historical events, time periods, and collections of art. As part of one gallery titled “The Mandela Decade,” the massacre of forty-one ANC militants by the ANC’s rival party the IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party) is captured. One caption reads, “Mandela showed support but his angry supporters were ready to confront police who were accused of being complicit in the murders;” the caption maintains Mandela’s image as a peaceful guardian (d’Almeida). However, the gallery does not include the story of how eight IFP protesters were killed by ANC forces when they marched outside ANC headquarters in Johannesburg with Nelson Mandela’s authorization. Mandela had given orders to defend the ANC headquarters even if it meant lives were to be lost. After the shootings, an investigation led by the TRC concluded that those who had shot into the crowd had not been provoked. Although Mandela had not authorized ANC forces to fire into a crowd without cause, he was still responsible for giving them permission to kill. The complaints that were brought against him were later dropped. This story, however, seems to be mostly forgotten while a story in which Mandela is the non-retaliating victim is added to a timeline of the most influential events of the decade (Boyle).

As the Cultural Institute exibit illustrates, especially when it comes to political matters, the media and those in charge of writing history seem to favor Mandela by telling stories that preserve his pre-existing persona rather than challenge it.  However, even when historical accounts fully disclose Mandela’s mistakes and flaws, the general impression of him seems to remain unchanged. The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory “does the core-work of the Nelson Mandela Foundation” (“Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory”) and operates with the intention of “keeping alive the legacy of Nelson Mandela, [and] providing an integrated public information resource on his life and times” (Vision and Mission). Biographer David James Smith asked the foundation for their assistance with his plan “to rescue the sainted Madiba from the dry pages of history, to strip away the myth and create a fresh portrait of a rounded human being” (Smith, 365). If the foundation that is responsible for protecting Mandela’s legacy supported Smith even as he wrote about Mandela’s alleged infidelity and abuse towards his first wife, then maybe it is not a lack of access to information that has stopped the world from absorbing the clear message that Mandela has flaws; maybe his supporters simply do not want to or cannot bear to accept this reality. Or maybe these facts about his life are not integrated into his general profile because they undermine the purpose his character already serves. It would be hard to reconcile the warm-hearted, morally upright Madiba with Madiba, the-emotionally-distant-father-who-had-several-affairs. His supporters are seeing in him what they want to see. Whether Mandela’s image is filtered by mass media or on an individual level by the people who adore him, his image is still being tampered with and it is very important to be aware of this bias.

Student-made Mandela tee-shirts. Khayelitsha SHAWCO center.

Student-made Mandela tee-shirts. Khayelitsha SHAWCO center.


But why and how has his reputation been so perfectly preserved? Especially since it is well documented that he is not a perfect person are there perfect people? ? If this information is accessible but has not tainted his image, then his supporters must just be willing to overlook his flaws. But in Mandela’s case, the discourse surrounding his imperfections has not only been brushed aside but counteracted with even louder praise, lifting him to a near saint status. And this is certainly not Mandela’s doing, as Rob Nixon explains: “the autocratic, solitary, prophetic figure who commands from on high [is], in short, precisely the kind of one-nation, one-leader model that Mandela has cited as a hindrance to democracy” (48-49). So then, why has Mandela been made into just that type of icon? I believe his image has been cropped, edited, and elevated to fulfill the needs of the young nation, a new democracy functioning in survival mode for the first few years of its existence. Nelson Mandela has become a part of the South African national identity, and a source of national pride.

In his discussion on imagined communities, Benedict Anderson quotes Ernest Gellner’s statement: “[n]ationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist” (6). As the young nation desperately tried to reinvent itself, it also fostered the creation of the icon that is Nelson Mandela. For this reason, Mandela became the new South Africa; he was and is the living, breathing embodiment of it.

Nixon warns that there are dangers in glorifying one man even if he was the president of the country. He writes, “[t]he prospect remains that Mandela may be saddled with inhuman expectations which, being mortal in a deeply riven country, he cannot be asked to fulfill” (54). And it’s true; Mandela was cast as the savior of the nation when he should have just been one hero among many. Some of the expectations that were put on Mandela were met. There is no question that his personal story of forgiveness and his vigilant attempts to promote peace saved many lives. He undoubtedly saved the country from an absolute bloodbath. However, his political policies have not been as successful at effecting positive social change. During the democratic elections of 1994, the ANC campaigned on the promise to implement a program which would restructure South Africa’s economy. The Reconstruction and Development Programme, or the RDP, was designed to level the economic playing field for those previously oppressed by apartheid by providing housing, electricity, water, and other resources. At the time, critics agreed that “[i]t is hard to overestimate the symbolic importance of the RDP and the consensus it created. This forms an important part of the nation building and healing process following the deep divisions of the past. The RDP is now an icon of the new South Africa and almost all sectors of society have given it their support” (source_.  However, “[t]he implementation of the RDP demanded clear-cut policy decisions from the government. Many of these decisions would have been unpopular and would have created tensions within the ‘broad church’” (source, page number) and so the RDP was abruptly abandoned in 1996 before it had any large national impact (Terreblanche). The RDP was the basis for the ANC’s whole campaign, yet it was dropped when its implementation demanded the adoption of divisive policies.  Clearly South Africa was operating in a mode that focused on maintaining unity at all costs, even when it came to negotiating policies.  Furthermore, South Africa is ranked the most economically unequal country in the world. The World Bank’s GINI index measures the disparity between the wealthiest and poorest citizens of a country and South Africa has consistently claimed the world’s highest rate of income inequality for several years now (“World Bank”).  So, we cannot claim that Mandela fully lived up to his political expectations when South Africa still suffers from the highest rate of income inequality in the world and the programme developed to address this disparity was abandoned just two years into his presidency.

Then what does this leave us with? On the one hand, South Africa is more stable now than it was during the democratic elections. On the other hand, the same structural inequalities still exist. What does this mean for the iconicity of Nelson Mandela? I think it proves that his image is slightly empty. His personal story, his love for the people, and his quest for peace are definitely meaningful parts of his legacy. Mandela’s image has been displayed everywhere in an effort to promote the principles he stands for. Yet I question what will happen in the future if certain structural inequalities are not addressed. In a country where twenty three percent of the population is living at or below the poverty line, there is bound to be frustration directed at the government (“World Bank”). There are many citizens who remain dissatisfied with the popular discourse on peace and believe that trying to reconcile just isn’t enough to establish justice for past or ongoing pain. What happens when these people, alongside those who are sick of income inequalities, rise up against a government that has told them to be peaceful? Will South Africa’s emphasis on peaceful dialogue begin to crumble if citizens start to find that dialogue alone is not enough to address their needs? And if this emphasis on reconciliation starts to fade, will the icon that is Nelson Mandela begin to fade as well? These are interesting questions that only time will reveal the answer to. For now, it is safe to assume that Mandela’s legacy will be present across South Africa for a long time to come.

Image Gallery


Works Cited

“About the Centre of Memory.” Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. n. page. Web. 23 Jul. 2013.

Boyle, Brendan. “Mandela: Why I Gave Shoot To Kill Order.Independent. (1995): n. page. Web. 25 Jul. 2013.

Bray, Roddy. “New Government.” New South Africa. n. page. Web. 24 Jul. 2013.

d’Almeida, Fabrice, and Clara Paradas. Boipatong Massacre. N.d. Photograph. Africa Media OnlineWeb. 24 Jul 2013.

“GINI Index.” World Bank n.pag. The World Bank. Web. 25 Jul 2013. <>.

Mandela, Nelson. “Nelson Mandela`s Address to a rally in Cape Town on his release from prison .” South Africa, Cape Town. 11 Feb 1990. Address.

Marks, Susan Collin. Watching the Wind: Conflict Resolution During South Africa’s Transition to Democracy. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 2000. Print.

Murthien, Yvonne. “Lecture on South Africa.” UCT, Cape Town. 2 Jul 2013. Lecture.

Nixon, Rob. “Mandela, Messianism, and the Media.” Transition 51. (1991): 42-55. JSTOR. Web. 22 Jul 2013.

Seanego, Karabo, and Sapa . “Not all tweets sweet on Nelson ‘randelas’.” Business Report. (2012): n. page. Web. 22 Jul. 2013.

Smith, David James. Young Mandela: the revolutionary years. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010. Print.

Spies, Chris. “South Africa.” Conciliation Resources. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jul 2013. < 13_4South Africa’s National Peace Accord_2002_ENG_0.pdf>.

Terreblanche, S.J. “The Ideological Journey of South Africa: From The RDP to the GEAR Macro-economic Plan.” n. page. Print.

Vision and Mission.” Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, n.d. Web. 22 Jul 2013.