Nelson Mandela and the banknote
There is in newly liberated African countries (and I am sure you have felt it too) a culture of permanent political nervousness and an invasive need to create political martyrdom. It has always seem both apparent and interesting to me that one of the ways that South Africa (whether you like it or not) has been able to claim its place in the thorny mess on contradictions that is our continent is by maintaining a social aloofness from issues that take place all around us. Silent diplomacy was not an exclusively Mbekiesque phenomena. We tend to be very generic about our positions and be as vague as possible in articulating where we really stand. In this vein I am thinking of Kenya’s post-election fighting, Ivory Coast’s recent elections and even Libya last year.
This of course it goes without saying is a permanent act of misjudgement that has found its way into the wider social jargon of regular working class South Africans. Far too often I have found South Africans refer to other Africans as ‘they,’ as if to indicate that we are not in any way symbiotic of African situations. We primarily think of ourselves as this inbreeding state whose social helix is not tied with what happens in other parts of the continent. One of the benefits of this emotional separation is has to be said is that we have found ourselves in the initial stages of our democracy quite immune to the symptoms of a post-colonial state.
We have found a society that by all accounts is united under the banner on non-racialism. We supposedly take pride in our ability to unite. 1995 anyone? or how about 2010? The strength of our country ladies and gentleman has not been because of sporting events or the fact that we generally have a common love for Generations, instead it is that we have been able to distinguish between a South African generic identity and political ideology. This is a problem that most newly liberated nations on our continent tend to struggle with. This inability to create a social identity that will endure regardless of political and regime changes is something that most of our neighbours still struggle with even today. It seems however that in our more recent history we are moving away from that towards a more repulsive social vex. An era where the lines between national identity and political association are so fine that often hey are blurred and inform each other.
This is the reason why am unswervingly against the idea of Nelson Mandela being on every bank note. This for me is the height of political affiliation invading our national identity and it is something that should not be tolerated yet alone go unmonitored. It seems that as a result of the failures of the democratic dream the ANC is reverting to political nostalgia. As a colleague of mine recently pointed out that the party carries with it a lot of emotional baggage and a significant proportion of our voting public recognise with that baggage. But as more and more South Africans get disillusioned with the ANC it becomes harder for people to identify with it. The use of Nelson Mandela as a political doodle is yet another monument in ensuring that the party continues to win the battle for hearts and minds in the majority of South African voters who despite a spiralling society continue to be rather sentimental at the ballot box. What value does having Nelson Mandela on our currency add to the wider South African social order?
It was pointed out to me on twitter that because there are statues of the likes of Kruger it too was perfectly acceptable to have Nelson Mandela on the currency. I mean after all it is only fair right? Wrong! This is the kind of reactive thinking that should never inform such consequential decisions. Firstly statues and bank notes have dissimilar prevalence. Statues are stationary and often erected to commemorate a certain event in that particular place (hence the plaques). And if we are going to compare relevance of imagery why not compare monuments with monuments. There are currently more things and places named after Nelson Mandela than anyone else in South African history. Nelson Mandela bay Stadium, Nelson Mandela University, Nelsons Mandela Bridge, Nelson Mandela Square, Nelson Mandel a theatre, Nelson Mandela Museum and so forth. Is it not enough? The reason why currency is so important is because it often becomes synonymous with the society it is placed in. Think of the high value the idea of an American dollar has in the culture or the exact opposite for the Zimbabwean dollar. Are we really honestly willing to say we are willing to sum up our social worth in the image of a single man? Are there no other people that left an equally indelible mark on South Africa?
It’s this that makes this not a commemoration in the traditional sense, instead it is a post-liberation act against pre-liberation act. It’s an action taken as a result of reactive political thinking. A placement of Nelson Mandela on every bank note ladies and gentleman is yet another in a long line of ANC attempts at permanence in history. A fight against social irrelevance. It’s things like this that ensure that a large unassuming majority of people cannot tell the difference between the ANC and South African social identity. The primary liberation movement party has (and this is surely to their credit) mastered the art of cross-pollination of identities. They are well versed in the art of claiming history. You don’t believe me? You would be surprised how many people actually think Steve Biko was an ANC leader and it is a similar situation that has ensured that so many members of PAC are persistently pissed off by ANC claiming the Sharpeville massacre and the legacy of people like Robert Sobukwe exclusively for itself.
At this point it would be easy for me to insert some random plug about how, ‘I have nothing personal against Mandela (and I don’t)’ but I think it would be useful to end by asking as the currency (strictly from an ideological stand point) is something that should reflect the eccentricities of a society would it have not been more worthwhile to create a more open more consultative process instead of just casually inserting the Nelson Mandela meme once again and imposing it on everyone? The porosity of currency allows it to reach beyond the fixations of monument. It is a permanent scar in history and I think it would be wise to stop and consider before we cut.