SO I AM reading a New York Times article about the tendency of parents to overindulge their children.

As in any how-to-do list, the author gives several suggestions before she offers this gem about child rearing: “Transmit the Nelson Mandela rule. You can get what you want by showing people respect.”

When Mr Mandela heard that an Afrikaner general was arming rebels to prevent multi-racial elections, he invited the general over for tea.  The journalist, John Carlin, writes that General Constand Viljoen “was dumbstruck by Mandela’s big, warm smile, by his courteous attentiveness to detail” and by his sensitivity to the fears of white South Africans.

“The general abandoned violence. Remind your kids this technique also works on parents”.

This is what has happened to our Madiba — the next thing he is going to be on a cookbook or an advertisement for toilet paper or some other DIY manual.  As Wole Soyinka put it, Mandela has become “a symbol that has been stretched to almost inhuman dimensions” — a banal symbol that has come to mean everything to everyone, emptied of its political content.

Mandela’s attention to detail would be surprising to Viljoen, to whom he was nothing but a terrorist. It would be amusing to Carlin, who wrote not long ago that our experience with apartheid was not too bad after all, in the greater scheme of things.

You will also notice in the parenting allegory that the person who actually takes on the identity of the child is Mandela, who must respectfully soften the otherwise hardened parent figure of the general. The writer notes that this is a passing phase no doubt, and that the child will outgrow his intemperate demands.  The writer clearly has no sense of irony.

To be sure, he the writer probably means well, and so does every Mandela biographer. But if you put all of the Mandela biographies together you will find the same pattern of a one-dimensional, child-like Mandela who spends all of his life eavesdropping on what the elders are saying in his uncle Jongintaba’s court — so that he can be a great leader one day. Talk about reading the present into the past.

This Mandela lives between the court and the veld, looking after the cattle, and then he is off to the mission schools and Johannesburg. He does not play with other kids, does not read newspapers, does not participate in the debates going on in Umtata, which is the “epicentre of politics in the Eastern Cape” when he is growing up, and does not engage in any “hanky-panky”.

Can you believe that? Not a single political biography by anybody in the ANC or anyone else in the black community.  If this does not speak to the absence of any historical sensibility in the black world, then I don’t know what does.

Having said all that, black people do not have a leg to stand on when it comes to criticising anyone who writes about Mandela writers. We have failed to produce even one political biography of the man in the 24 years since he came out of prison.

Can you believe that? Not a single political biography by anybody in the ANC or anyone else in the black community.  If this does not speak to the absence of any historical sensibility in the black world, then I don’t know what does.

And that brings me to the moral of this column. On October 19 1977, the apartheid government banned all black consciousness organisations, newspapers, and individuals, just a month after they had killed Steve Biko. Both of those events were a blow from which the black community has never recovered.

With that light out we have been groping in the dark about what values inform our political society. In 1994 we won the political battle but lost the cultural war of ideas on about how to actually reshape the new society.

But Biko had prophesied this moment: “As long as blacks are suffering from inferiority complex — a result of 300 years of deliberate oppression, denigration and derision — they will be useless as co-architects of a normal society.”

He then called for a grassroots build-up of black consciousness such that blacks can learn to assert themselves and stake their rightful claims. He foresaw a situation where black people “have been made inferior for so long that for them it is comforting to drink tea, wine or beer with whites who seem to treat them as equals”.

“This serves to boost their own ego to the extent of making them feel slightly superior to those blacks who do not get similar treatment from whites. These are the sorts of blacks who are a danger to the community.”

So the question still remains: what are we all going to do to live up to the standards set by those men and women who were silenced in 1977? Is there a consciousness among whites that can be modelled on Donald Woods?  Can a new consciousness along the lines of Aggrey Klaaste’s Nation Building Project emerge to engage with the challenges facing our communities?

The payoff will not be immediate, which is why political parties never do such things. But our children and their children will honour us for it just as I honour Percy Qoboza, Aggrey Klaaste, Donald Woods and so many others with this column.

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