The Cultural Legacy Of Nelson Mandela

In his autobiography Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela recalled listening to the radio during drives in South Africa. “While I despised the conservative politics of Radio Bantu served up by the government-run South African Broadcasting Corporation, I reveled in its music,” he remembered. (In South Africa, African artists made the music, but white record companies made the money.) “I enjoy all types of music, but the music of my own flesh and blood goes right to my heart. The curious beauty of African music is that it uplifts even as it tells a sad tale. You may be poor, you may have only a ramshackle house, you may have lost your job, but that song gives you hope. African music is often about the aspirations of the African people, and it can ignite the political resolve of those who might otherwise be indifferent to politics. One merely has to witness the infectious singing at African rallies. Politics can be strengthened by music, but music has a potency that defies politics.”

It’s a deft parsing of the relationship between politics and culture, a subject Mandela addresses time and time again in his memoirs. And it’s fitting that Mandela discussed the subject so frequently, given his own embrace of culture and sports as a protest tool, a means of expressing his humanity while imprisoned, as a way of continuing his education when formal learning programs were closed to him in jail, and as a vehicle for his message and for national reconciliation after his release. Pop culture has loved Nelson Mandela back, too, whether musicians were using their work to call for the end of the apartheid regime and his release from prison, or after his release, various public figures were eager to dress him in the regalia of their sports teams, have him on their stages, and even cast him in their movies. In a sense, Mandela is the first figure of the mass media age to be internationally acclaimed as a great man. And among his many other accomplishments, it’s worth taking a moment to remember his engagement with culture, and his understanding that access to the arts both lets us reaffirm our humanity and gives us a powerful tool to force others to recognize it.

Mandela’s concern with culture shows up early in Long Walk To Freedom in a discussion of his language skills. When confronted with the fact that he did not speak Sesotho, Mandela acknowledged that “I had unconsciously succumbed to the ethnic divisions fostered by the white government and I did not know how to speak to my own kith and kin. Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savor their songs.”

Songs would become important tools for him as Mandela gained prominence as an anti-apartheid speaker. At a 1953 meeting, he used music to defuse a potentially dangerous situation at a protest: “The crowd began yelling and booing, and I saw that matters could turn extremely ugly if the crowd did not control itself. I jumped to the podium and started singing a well-known protest song, and as soon as I pronounced the first few words the crowd joined in. I feared that the police might have opened fire if the crowd had become too unruly.” Other times, music became a way for Mandela to thumb his nose at the police who monitored ANC protests. He describes one night when “I began to sing a freedom song, the lyrics of which say ‘There are the enemies, let us take their weapons and attack them.’ I sang this song and the crowd joined in, and when the song was finished, I pointed to the police and said, ‘There, there are our enemies!’ The crowd again started cheering and made aggressive gestures in the direction of the police. The police looked nervous and a number of them pointed back at me as if to say, ‘Mandela, we will get you for this.’”

Music became a way for Mandela to thumb his nose at the police

And after he began to serve prison sentences, Mandela frequently discusses how culture both built solidarity between himself and his fellow prisoners, and helped them manage the psychological stresses of incarceration. After he was jailed in Johannesburg Prison, known as the Fort, in 1956, Mandela describes Reverend James Calata lecturing on African Music and activist Vuvisile Mini leading choruses of freedom songs. In one memorable instance, M.B. Yengwa, who was Zulu and the provincial secretary of the Natal African National Congress, performed a piece honoring Shaka, the Zulu king.


“His movements electrified us, and we all took to our feet,” Mandela wrote. “Accomplished ballroom dancers, sluggards who knew neither traditional nor Western dancing, all joined in the indlamu, the traditional Zulu war dance. Some moved gracefully, others resembled frozen mountaineers trying to shake off the cold, but all danced with enthusiasm and emotion. Suddenly there were no Xhosas or Zulus, no Indians or Africans, no rightists or leftists, no religious or political leaders; we were all nationalists and patriots bound together by a love of our common history, our culture, our country, and our people.”

In 1953, the apartheid government had passed the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, which enforced the so-called “petty apartheid,” legally segregating facilities like theaters, libraries, and restaurants. And after Mandela’s imprisonment in Robben Island Prison, culture became one of the many realms in which the South African government and its agents attempted to demonstrate its control over the prisoners — and through which the prisoners resisted them.

In one incident, members of dangerous criminal gangs who were working in the quarry alongside the political prisoners started singing work songs that made fun of the dissidents’ political ambitions. Mandela said the prisoners debated fighting them physically, but ultimately decided that “We had far more and better singers among us than they had, and we huddled together and planned our response. Within a few minutes, we were all singing the song ‘Stimela,’ a rousing anthem about a train making its way down from Southern Rhodesia. ‘Stimela’ is not a political song, but in the context, it became one, for the implication was that the train contained guerrillas coming down to fight the South African army.” Ultimately, an Xhosa-speaking guard apparently informed on the prisoners, who were forbidden from singing, or even whistling, while they worked.

When the prisoners’ education programs were shut down, Mandela wrote that he began reading novels he never would have picked up otherwise. “From the first, I tried to read books about South Africa or by South African writers. I read all the unbanned novels of Nadine Gordimer and learned a great deal about the white liberal sensibility. I read many American novels, and recall especially John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, in which I found many similarities between the plight of migrant workers in that novel and our own laborers and farmworkers,” he recalled. “One book that I returned to many times was Tolstoy’s great work, War and Peace. (Although the word war was in the title, this book was permitted.) I was particularly taken with the portrait of General Kutuzov, whom everyone at the Russian court underestimated. Kutuzov defeated Napoleon precisely because he was not swayed by the ephemeral and superficial values of the court, and made his decisions on a visceral understanding of his men and his people. It reminded me once again that to truly lead one’s people one must also truly know them.”

Mandela drew leadership lessons from theater, too. In a prisoners’ production of Antigone, Mandela was cast as Creon. As the establishment king trying to maintain control of his city-state during a civil war, and who must deal with Antigone’s resistance to the unjust law that forbids her to bury her brother in the city walls, it was a role that gave Mandela the opportunity to put himself in the position of the government he’d worked so hard to oppose. “Creon will not listen to Antigone, nor does he listen to anyone but his own inner demons,” Mandela explained what he took from the play. “His inflexibility and blindness ill become a leader, for a leader must temper justice with mercy. It was Antigone who symbolized our struggle; she was, in her own way, a freedom fighter, for she defied the law on the grounds that it was unjust.”


And in one long passage, he describes the movies that liberalization brought to Robben Island, and the prisoners’ debates about everything from Elizabeth Taylor’s performance in Cleopatra to documentaries about the Hell’s Angels:

Almost every week, we watched films on a sheet in a large room adjacent to our corridor. Later, we had a proper screen. The films were a wonderful diversion, a vivid escape from the bleakness of prison life.

The first films we saw were silent, black-and-white Hollywood action movies and westerns that were even before my time. I recall one of the first ones was The Mask of Zorro, with the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks, a movie that was made in 1920. The authorities seems to have a weakness for historical films, particularly ones with a stern moral message… We were intrigued by The King And I, for to us it depicted the clash between the values of East and West, and seemed to suggested that the West had much to learn from the East. Cleopatra proved controversial; many of my comrades took exception to the fact that the queen of Egypt was depicted by a raven-haired, violet-eyed American actress, however beautiful. The detractors asserted that the movie was an example of Western propaganda that sought to erase the fact that Cleopatra was an African woman. I related how on my trip to Egypt I saw a splendid sculpture of a young, ebony-skinned Cleopatra…

Later, we were permitted to select documentaries — a form that I preferred — and I began to skip the conventional films. (Although I would never miss a movie with Sophia Loren in it.) The documentaries were ordered from the state library and usually selected by Ahmed Kathrada, who was our section’s librarian. I was particularly affected by a documentary we saw about the great naval battles of World War II, which showed newsreel footage of the sinking of the H.M.S. Prince of Wales by the Japanese. What moved me most was a brief image of Winston Churchill weeping after he heard the news of the loss of the British vessel. The image stayed in my memory a long time, and demonstrated to me that there are times when a leader can show sorrow in public, and that it will not diminish him in the eyes of his people.

One of the documentaries we watched concerned a controversial American motorcycle group, the Hell’s Angels. The film depicted the Hell’s Angels as reckless, violent, and antisocial, and the police as decent, upstanding, and trustworthy. When the film ended, we immediately began to discuss its meaning. Almost without exception the men criticized the Hell’s Angels for their lawless ways. But then Strini Moodley, a bright, young Black Consciousness member, stood up and accused the assembled group of being out of touch with the times, for the bikers represented the equivalent of the Soweto students of 1976 who rebelled against the authorities. He reproached us for being elderly middle-class intellectuals two identified with the movie’s right-wing authorities instead of with the bikers.

Strini’s accusations caused a furor, and a number of men rose to speak against him, saying the Hell’s Angels were indefensible and it was an insult to compare our struggle with this band of amoral sociopaths. But I considered what Strini said, and while I did not agree with him, I came to his defense. Even though the Hell’s Angels were unsympathetic, they were rebels against the authorities, unsavory rebels though they were.

I was not interested in the Hell’s Angels, but the larger question that concerned me was whether we had, as Strini suggested, become stuck in a mind-set that was no longer revolutionary. We had been in prison for more than fifteen years; I had been in prison for nearly eighteen. The world that we left was long gone. The danger was that our ideas had become frozen in time. Prison is a still point in a turning world, and it is very easy to remain in the same place in jail while the world moves on.

When Mandela was released from prison, music was one of the ways he judged how much South Africa had changed during his incarceration.”When I had been young, the people of Qunu were not political at all; they were unaware of the struggle for African rights. People accepted life as it was and did not dream of changing it,” Mandela noted of the area where he’d grown up. “But when I returned I heard the schoolchildren of Qunu singing songs about Oliver Tambo and Umkhonto we Sizwe, and I marveled at how knowledge of the struggle had by then seeped into every corner of African society.”


As Mandela was reading Sophocles and Nadine Gordimer, and debating the Hell’s Angels and Elizabeth Taylor in prison, artists mobilized in support of the anti-apartheid movement outside of South Africa. Countless artists recorded songs about him. Paul Simon’s 1986 trip to South Africa to make Graceland brought South African music and musicians to an international audience — when his collaborators came to New York to perform with him on Saturday Night Live, they asked Simon where they had to go to obtain government passes that would permit them to visit Central Park — but he also came under heavy criticism for breaking the cultural boycott that had been imposed on South African in order to put pressure on the apartheid regime.

The 1988 Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute at Wembly Stadium in the United Kingdom was broadcast to a global audience in 67 countries, and reached 600 million viewers. In the United States, the broadcast by Fox became the subject of considerable controversy after the network deleted Mandela’s name and references to him from the title of the event, which it rechristened the more general “Freedom Fest” in its coverage. Whoopi Goldberg said on stage that a producer, who turned out to be a Fox TV producer, rather than a concert organizer, had asked her to avoid saying anything political. And in a scathing op-ed in the New York Times, E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt criticized the cuts Fox made in the content of the show.

“Unfortunately, here in America that opportunity was squandered by a television broadcast that trivialized the event by deleting virtually every reference to the political situation in South Africa. In the process, the producers censored free expression by many of the participants and probably helped to lower political consciousness more than raise it,” he wrote. “Comments that I made calling South Africa a terrorist state and urging sanctions were heard and seen in Britain — but somehow did not get across the Atlantic. Harry Belafonte, Whoopi Goldberg and Peter Gabriel, among others, made political statements that were beamed around the world, but zapped in America. While all the facts are not yet in, it appears that Fox Television Network and Westwood One, the companies that arranged for the syndicated TV and radio transmission, decided that Americans were not interested in learning more about apartheid. When I asked Fox for an explanation, a spokesman said it was company policy not to comment on such matters.”

And on his release in 1990, Mandela made quick and canny use of cultural and sporting symbols to continue his work. That year, he appeared at a rally at Yankee Stadium, where then-Mayor David Dinkins dressed him in a Yankees cap and jacket, and Mandela declared ‘’You now know who I am. I am a Yankee.’’

In 1995, after he’d become the first democratically elected President of South Africa, Mandela competed for and helped his country win the right to host the Rugby World Cup in the first year of South Africa’s eligibility to compete for the title after the end of apartheid. Serious political violence had occurred in the run-up to Mandela’s 1994 election, and Mandela’s embrace of the national team was a major gesture of cultural solidarity with white South Africans. Even before apartheid was instituted in 1948, when athletic teams traveled to South Africa, they brought all-white rosters. And when the Springboks traveled, they met with anti-apartheid protests and increased security at competitions. Mandela both acknowledged this history and stepped over it when he dressed in team gear and presented the Springboks with their World Cup trophy. His embrace by the crowd was a major show of support for Mandela by white South Africans, one that’s been recounted in ESPN’s documentary The 16th Man and dramatized in the feature film Invictus.

In 2000, speaking at the Laureus World Sport Awards, Mandela declared that: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language that they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”:

And Mandela wasn’t above engaging with other forms of culture. In 1992, he appeared in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, where he appeared as a Soweto teacher, joining the movie’s final chorus of “I am Malcolm X!”:

He sat down with Oprah Winfrey as part of “Oprah’s 50th Birthday Bash!” and showed up in her special three years later about her leadership school in South Africa (the academy has been plagued by sex abuse and harassment charges):

In 2008, twenty years after the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute, the 46664 HIV/AIDS charity concert series included a Nelson Mandela 90th Birthday Tribute, hosted by Will and Jada Smith and British TV presenter June Sarpong. It was a moment that both harnessed Mandela’s reputation to draw attention to another important cause — Mandela, who’d slowed down his public appearances by that point, spoke at the concert — and part of Mandela’s late-career work on HIV and AIDS. Infection rates were already high in South Africa by the time that Mandela became president, but he designated Thabo Mbeki, who would ultimately follow him as South Africa’s president, to handle the country’s public health response. Mbeki denied that HIV was caused by a retrovirus and denounced drugs to treat HIV and AIDS as “poison.” In 2005, Mandela told reporters bluntly that “My son has died from AIDS,” and, in a split with his party, the African National Congress, made HIV and AIDS one of the priorities of the last stage of his career.

Mandela cast such an indelible image, and was so engaged with popular culture, that there isn’t really a definitive Hollywood vision of him yet

While he lived, Mandela cast such an indelible image, and was so engaged with popular culture, that there isn’t really a definitive Hollywood vision of him yet, which hasn’t stopped moviemakers from trying to capture him. Danny Glover played him in Mandela in 1987. Sidney Poitier took the role in the television movie Mandela and de Klerk, about Mandela and the President of South African who freed him from prison, legalized the African National Congress, and ultimately lost the Presidency to him, serving as one of Mandela’s deputy presidents. Dennis Haysbert took on the role in the 2007 film Goodbye Bafana, which explored Mandela’s relationship with one of his guards on Robben Island. The Wire’s Clarke Peters played Mandela in Endgame, about the negotiations to end apartheid. Morgan Freeman played Mandela in Invictus, which explored the 1995 Rugby World Cup. And most recently, Terrence Howard played Mandela in Winnie Mandela, which starred Jennifer Hudson as Mandela’s second wife.

A science fictional version of Mandela, identified only by his birth name, even shows up in Max Brooks’ World War Z. He appears in a scene where a man named Paul Redeker, who previously designed a plan to protect South Africa’s white government from a black uprising, presents another to sacrifice some of the South African population, black and white alike, to a zombie uprising to keep the country alive. Redeker is castigated as a racist and as inhumane when a new voice enters the debate:

He had been sitting against the back wall; now, he stood, hunched over by age, and supported by canes, but with a spirit as strong and vital as it had ever been. The elder statesman, the father of our new democracy, the man whose birth name had been Rolihlahla, which some have translated simply into “Troublemaker.” As he stood, all others sat, all others except Paul Redeker. The old man locked eyes on him, smiled with that warm squint so famous the world over, and said ‘Molo, mhlobo wam.’ ‘Greetings, person of my region.’ He walked slowly over to Paul, turned to the governing body of South Africa, then lifted the pages from the AFrikaner’s hand and said in a suddenly loud and youthful voice, ‘This plan will save our people.’ Then, gesturing to Paul, he said, ‘This man wills ave our people.’ And then came that moment, the one that historicans will probably debate until the subject fades form memory. He embraced the white Afrikaner.

Now that Mandela’s life is over, the attempts to capture Mandela and his legacy in fiction, and to use it for any number of ends, will inevitably accelerate. Whether they display the sensitivity to art’s political power that Mandela showed so clearly in his own life and writing is a separate question. ABC News reported late yesterday evening that the Mandela Foundation had announced that “Nelson Mandela’s youngest daughters received word of his passing during London screening of new movie about him.” That film, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, stars Idris Elba. It will arrive in most American theaters on December 25.