New, in-depth study of Mandela’s image, legacy

13 May 2014

The Cambridge Companion to Nelson Mandela, a new book examining how Mandela became an icon during his lifetime, the meanings and uses of his internationally recognisable image, and his legacy in the 21st century, was launched in Johannesburg last week.

Featuring essays by experts in history, anthropology, jurisprudence, cinema, literature and visual studies, The Cambridge Companion takes an in-depth look at Mandela’s relation to “tradition” and “modernity”, the impact of his famous public appearances, the oscillation between Africanist and non-racial positions in South Africa, and the politics of gender and national sentiment.

It concludes with a meditation on Mandela’s legacy in the 21st century and a detailed guide to further reading on the world-renowned leader.

Speaking at book’s launch at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Professor Achille Mbembe, a researcher from the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research and a contributing author, said Mandela “was a major political thinker – a typical 20th century thinker – and the 20th century ended for us not in 1999, but when Mandela died.

“The political questions he translated in his time are still valid today, but what are the new questions we could ask about him? Maybe we will never know him completely,” Mbembe said.

Verne Harris, director of research at the foundation, said the book “examines how Mandela looked, how he presented and carried himself, and inspires ongoing debate about Mandela, modernity and tradition.”

Mbongiseni Buthelezi, of the Centre for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town, spoke of the “spectre” of Mandela and the project of freedom. “What are the questions Mandela allows us to ask, and which ones do we need to ask now? What future do we have without Mandela?

“One of the angers and hurts people feel is how we maintained the status quo during the apartheid era, and how we are dealing with reconciliation in terms of our difficult past and post-Mandela,” Buthelezi said.

Also at the launch werestruggle veterans Ahmed Kathrada and George Bizos, both long-standing friends of Mandela. Bizos spoke fondly of Mandela, saying it was important for the country that Mandela’s memory be preserved because he genuinely cared about people.

“We know that his memory will live forever, but before we say that we will follow in his footsteps, let us first inform ourselves where his footsteps would have been. It might not have been in the way that some purport it to be,” Bizos said.

The Cambridge Companion to Nelson Mandela, published by Cambridge University Press, was edited by Rita Barnard, a professor in English and comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania and publisher of extensive literature on South African politics.

SAinfo reporter