Our invisible lineage is gone
All of our great leaders have learnt from great teachers, but from whom will tomorrow’s leaders take their cue?
Celebrating Nelson Mandela’s life is not a mere indulgence or fancy.
It is the expression of a deep-felt yearning to return to something wondrous in the black struggle for freedom since the middle of the 19th century.
Prior to that, black people – first the Khoisan on the Northern Cape frontier, and the Xhosa on the Eastern Cape frontier – were engaged in military warfare against the Dutch and the British colonialists. When they were defeated, they heeded I.W.W Citashe’s famous poem:
Your cattle are gone, my countrymen! Go rescue them! Go rescue them! Leave the breechloader alone And turn to the pen.
Load it with ink For that is your shield. Your rights are going! So pick up your pen.
Load it, load it with ink. Sit on a chair Repair not to HohoBut fire with your pen.
Thus emerged a group of African intellectuals who began to grapple with the question of how to respond to emergent European modernity, which was a combination of violent conquest and missionary education.
Through their writings and public debates, these intellectuals – among them Tiyo Soga, John Knox Bokwe, John Tengo Jabavu, W.B. Rubusana, Sol Plaatje and S.E.K. Mqhayi – provided the philosophical foundations for the vision of a society that would begin to emerge more than a hundred years later.
Plaatje challenged Jabavu to a public debate in King William’s Town over Jabavu’s support for the 1913 Land Act.
Plaatje wrote in Friend of the People in December 1913: “God forbid that we should ever find that our mind had become the property of someone other than ourselves; but should such a misfortune ever overtake us, we should at least strive to serve our new proprietor diligently, and whenever our people are unanimously opposed to a policy, we should consider it a part of our duty to tell him so; but that is not Mr Jabavu’s way of serving a master.”
This public intellectual work was institutionalised through the formation of the South African Native Convention in 1909 and the South African National Native Congress in 1912, which was renamed the African National Congress in 1923.
The idea of freedom that inspired the organisation would be hotly contested within the black community leading to the emergence of other intellectual traditions in the All Africa Convention in the 1930s, the Unity Movement in the 1940s, the Pan Africanist Congress in 1959 and the Black Consciousness Movement in 1968.
Nelson Mandela’s birth in 1918 comes midway between the advent of this African intellectual response to European modernity in the 1840s – through its various permutations – and the onset of democracy in the 1990s. He becomes, through the ANC,
a constituent part of the chain for the transmission of ideas through time. These ideas are what constitute what Paula Backscheider calls “invisible lineages”.
The young Mandela was shocked to the core when S.E.K. Mqhayi, whom A.C. Jordan described as “the soul of his people” – visited Healdtown College and lambasted white people in their presence, and even in the presence of the school principal, Dr Wellington.
The older Mandela reflected on this “invisible lineage”: “I could hardly believe my ears. His boldness in speaking of such delicate matters in the presence of Dr Wellington and other whites seemed utterly astonishing to us. Yet at the same time it aroused and motivated us, and began to alter my perception of men like Dr Wellington, whom I had automatically considered my benefactor.”
Mandela would have a similar invisible impact on those who came after him. When locals were initially afraid to come near Steve Biko after he was banished to Ginsberg, he invoked “the invisible lineage” of Mandela.
Fikile Mlinda recalls how Biko convinced him to join the movement: “I realised that this was trouble but he kept on saying that this is for our children and their children, and pointed to the fact that people like Nelson Mandela were in prison for our sake.”
And thus a chain was formed between Mandela and Biko’s generation by appealing to the invisible lineages of our past.
And so, in remembering Mandela, we should stop thinking about him in terms of how many houses or clinics he has brought to the community – important though such things are in the life of any community.
I ask us rather to cast our interpretive imagination much wider, if only to locate ourselves in that chain of our invisible lineages.
Such a wider framework of interpretation will expose the sad fact that the long chain of our invisible lineages has been broken under the current generation of leaders.
Can anyone really and honestly tell me what is the animating idea of our time – something we can pass on to our children as their heritage? What is the intellectual project on which we can base the making of a new collective subjectivity as a nation?
With Mandela, it was reconciliation and with Thabo Mbeki it was the “African Renaissance”, but what big idea will Jacob Zuma be remembered for by future generations?
To use Francis Fukuyama’s rather unfortunate term, it looks like we have tragically come to the end of history.
The political party that contributed so much to our freedom is not only bedevilled by tribalism, which Mandela and Biko fought so hard to eliminate; but also, in Frantz Fanon’s words, “a trade union of individual interests”.
What chance do you really have of leaving any intellectual tradition to your children when you cannot even provide them with the most basic educational element, textbooks, let alone proper schools.
You could not ask for a more demonstrative metaphor for the end of our intellectual tradition.