mandela and the myth of the power of one

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Last summer, we were having dinner with some of our neighbors when the topic turned to South Africa. Our neighbor T. was telling us that her mom and sister were on a Catholic missionary trip there, and when I mentioned that I’d lived in Cape Town about a decade ago, T. asked me excitedly, “So you must have read The Power of One?” I’d never heard of the book, but our other neighbor jumped out of his chair and shouted, “Oh my God, that’s my favorite novel of all time!”  After some fist-bumping, T. got up and returned with the book, placing it solemnly in front of me.  The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay.  “You’ve got to read this,” she said. “It will change your life.”


Now I love my neighbors, but somehow I suspected that our book tastes might be a little different.  (The not-so-subtle self-help title of a novel set in apartheid-era South Africa didn’t help, either.)  My suspicions deepened when I glanced at the book jacket and saw that it was about a white English-speaking South African boy who suffers intra-racial oppression at the hand of Afrikaners. Through his boxing prowess and the support of several black and coloured mentors, he single-handedly fights back his Afrikaner oppressors and becomes a hero to the blacks. (Oh, that’s how apartheid ended? I thought, then quickly quashed the thought before it came out of my mouth.)

So it was with great reluctance that I finally opened the book a few weeks later and started to read. (Spoilers ahead.) Admittedly, the story itself, which takes place in South Africa between 1939 and 1951, was riveting:  the young Peekay, a white boy born in Natal Province and raised by a Zulu nanny, attends an Afrikaans boarding school where everyone – from the head bully (“the Judge”) to the headmaster – is a British-hating Boer War-avenging Nazi sympathizer. The life of the bed-wetting Peekay (or P.K., short for “pisskop,” an Afrikaans slur) turns into a living hell, in which he is brutalized by the older boys and left to fend for himself. When he goes back home for the holidays, his nanny arranges a meeting with a Zulu chief and medicine man who presents Peekay (no joke) with a magic chicken and anoints him a Zulu warrior:

“You are standing on a rock above the highest waterfall, a young warrior who has killed his first lion and is worthy now to fight in the legion of Dingaan, the great impi that destroys all before it.  Worthy even to fight in the impi of Shaka, the greatest warrior king of all.”

Armed with his magic chicken, Peekay returns to school with newfound confidence, but the tides of World War II sweep through the halls with redoubled force.  By the end of the term, Peekay’s chicken has been killed and Peekay himself is transferred to a new town where his born-again Christian mother awaits him, but without his beloved heathen nanny.

The rest of the novel is dizzily Dickensian: on his way to the new town, Peekay takes a train trip where he encounters the great Afrikaner boxer Hoppie Groenewald, who introduces him to the sport. Upon arrival at his new home, Peekay befriends a gentle German music professor (“Doc”) who later ends up in prison during the war as an “unregistered alien.”  In his daily visits to see the Doc at the prison, Peekay joins the boxing squad and (naturally) becomes a superstar under the watchful tutelage of Geel Piet, a coloured prisoner. Together with Doc and Piet, Peekay arranges a black-market scheme to smuggle tobacco and letters to the rest of the prisoners, who, in gratitude, bestow upon Peekay the Zulu chief name Onoshobishobi Ingelosi, which means (again, no joke) the “Tadpole Angel.”  While Geel Piet is ultimately murdered by an Afrikaner guard, the Tadpole Angel – the great white hope – goes on to become a legend.

Long story short, The Power of One – right down to its title – is a pure white liberal fantasy.  It’s the classic story of “going native,” Kipling Kim-style, where the struggles of the oppressed are subsumed under the coming of age narrative of a young white kid, whose personal trials-by-fire and dawning consciousness of the larger injustices around him are somehow meant to stand in for those injustices, with one key difference:  he has the power to fuck up the Great Game, the power to win.  Single-handedly, too, as his mentors succumb, one by one, to defeat and/or death.  But we are meant to see that their sacrifices were not in vain because their wisdom and life experiences (human and animal; white, black, and coloured; English, Afrikaner, German, Jewish, Russian, and Zulu) have come to rest in the worthy vessel that is Peekay, who alone has learned all their ways, and, yes, even their languages.

Appropriately, the climax of the story is wildly reductive, too: when Peekay throws his final punch, it’s to knock out his old nemesis, the Judge, who symbolizes all the evil in the world.  When Peekay carves his initials and the Union Jack with a knife into the Judge’s arm, mutilating his swastika tattoo, we’re supposed to cheer as Peekay’s rage dissipates and he says finally, “There was nothing more to say.  The slate was wiped clean.  The hate was gone.”

Nothing more. The slate is clean. The hate is gone.  The power of one.

And just like that, this “classic novel of South Africa,” sweepingly set during the early decades of apartheid, comes to a serenely triumphant end…in the bloody cipher of the Union Jack.

. . .

The Power of One came out in 1989, a year before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.  The novel became an instant phenomenon, selling more than 8 million copies, translated into 18 languages, and made into a Hollywood movie starring Stephen Dorff as Peekay and, of course, Morgan Freeman as the wise Geel Piet.  (Roger Ebert, who incidentally spent a year at the University of Cape Town in the mid-1960s, wrote an excellent review criticizing the film here.)


The Power of One (1992), directed by John G. Avildsen.

When his novel was first published, South African-born author Bryce Courtenay had already been living in Australia for thirty years.  Courtenay himself was Peekay, to a large extent.  Raised in an orphanage, he fought his way through a difficult childhood and worked in the mines as a teenager.  Courtenay claimed that the novel’s title was inspired by a teacher who saw his potential and encouraged him, like Peekay, to apply for a scholarship to a school in Johannesburg.  From there, he moved to London, and then finally to Australia, where he worked in advertising for years before stumbling into late success as a world-famous novelist.

Courtenay was also known for telling tall tales about his past. He easily dismissed these rumors, however, saying:

“One of the joys of having left a country where things were not always right for me and having come to a country where I’ve been able to give my utmost is [that] I want to be known for the years I’ve been in Australia, not for the 17 years I spent in Africa.”

Aside from the fact that Courtenay was able to leave apartheid South Africa at all, the biggest irony is that the author’s novel, despite his own disavowal of his actual lived experience there, has come to represent “South Africa” to millions of (white) people around the world,  and even incorporated into U.S. high school reading lists to teach students about race, politics, and South African history (cf. Jessica Roake’s recent argument in Slate about the dangers of using books like The Help to teach kids about the U.S. civil rights history).

So much so, in fact, that Peekay’s story has even come to stand in for Nelson Mandela himself.  The day after his death, the U.S. State Department released a video in which Maya Angelou recited a poem in honor of Mandela.  In response to the NPR story about this video, one commenter wrote:

“I’ve learned so much about a man I thought I knew something about these past few days. Most of all I have learned the Power of One.”

The commenter’s choice of words was neither random nor unique. Google “Nelson Mandela” and the “Power of One” and you’ll find a host of tributes linking the two phrases, like some kind of cult-like mantra, in the days after Mandela’s death (including, creepily, this ideological holiday message from Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott).

Of course, this connection isn’t that surprising, considering not only the symbolic place that The Power of One holds in the non-South African imagination about the country, but also that the barebones outlines of Peekay’s life actually do resemble Mandela’s, at least superficially.  In his famous memoir Long Walk to Freedom (1994), Mandela details the arc of a life that begins as a young boy in the veld learning from his Xhosa tribal leaders, before moving on to boarding school and then Johannesburg, where he becomes politicized in his interactions with mentors of all races and becomes the leader of the ANC Youth League.  Similarly, boxing becomes a crucial part of Mandela’s life – indeed, when I first read the book I was surprised to see how central a role his practice of the sport played in his philosophy and overall well-being.

Obviously, the differences between Peekay and Mandela are far too numerous to list. (And most are just too obvious to even mention.)  The one that I do want to point out, however, is the striking absence of the “Power of One” philosophy in Mandela’s account of his life.  From the very beginning of the memoir, when Mandela defines himself as fundamentally embedded within his homeland and his tribe (“The Transkei…is home to the Thembu people, who are part of the Xhosa nation, of which I am a member”), to the very end, when he voices the interconnectedness of his fate to that of all non-whites (“Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me”) and acknowledges his unassailable debt to fellow freedom fighters (“It is from these comrades in the struggle that I learned the meaning of courage”), Mandela constantly reminds us that his transformative role in South African history and the dismantling of the structures of apartheid was not by any means something that he achieved alone.  In fact, as he tells us during the account of his prison years, even his role as the global figurehead and charismatic face of the apartheid struggle was one that was carefully constructed and promoted by the exiled and jailed leaders of the ANC, including Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and Ahmed Kathedra, who effectively commissioned Mandela to write his memoir as part of this larger project.


The Rivonia Trial.  Photo credit:  AP Photo / Peter Magubane.


Protesters at the Rivonia Trial.  Photo credit:  Museum Africa.

So it’s frustrating to read bullshit like the Marriott CEO’s description of Mandela as “an individual who has changed the arc of history through his or her singular contribution, not as a function of the era or a movement but because of what they did alone” (italics mine). By describing Mandela as “a solitary and powerful example of resilience and forgiveness…[who] alone…advocated reconciliation in a land riven by racism and a desire for revenge,” such a statement completely erases the blood-soaked lives and struggles of countless other activists and citizens who fought against apartheid, while mythologizing – and neutralizing – Mandela into the quintessential “Magic Negro,” as Musa Okwonga witheringly puts it.

What’s all the more disappointing, then, is that the latest movie about Mandela’s life, the British director Justin Chadwick’s Mandela:  Long Walk to Freedom (2013), starring British actor Idris Elba as Mandela, falls squarely into the trap of the Power of One myth, despite the fact that the film’s South African producer Anant Singh worked closely with Mandela for decades to construct the fullest possible portrait of his life and the liberation struggle.  (Purportedly, when Singh first wrote to Mandela in prison to tell him that he was interested in making a film about him, Mandela wrote back, “Why would anyone want to see a movie about my life?”)


Mandela:  Long Walk to Freedom (2013), directed by Justin Chadwick.

Ostensibly an adaptation of Mandela’s memoir, Chadwick’s film pretty much cuts out most of the nitty gritty material that provides necessary context to Mandela’s politicization and eventual leadership within the ANC and the anti-apartheid movement.  Instead, the opening of the film, a montage of the sun rising over the veld, stirring music, and scenes of a young boy running over the hills juxtaposed with his circumcision ceremony as a teenager, immediately reminded me of that other epic movie set in South Africa mythologizing Mandela – The Lion King.  (I’m not kidding, since the Lion King was released in 1994, the same year Mandela was elected President, and the soundtrack composer Lebo M, whose soaring voice we hear in the “Circle of Life,” is a transplanted South African who cited Mandela as his primary inspiration for the material.)

While Mandela:  Long Walk to Freedom dutifully checks off a few key moments in Mandela’s memoir and the history of the anti-apartheid movement (the Sharpeville massacre, the founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe, Mandela’s secret pan-African trip, the Rivonia Trial, the Soweto riots, etc.), Chadwick’s film, as many critics have already noted, gives remarkably short shrift to the actual work that led to these events, as well as to the many, many players in this work.  Mandela’s mentors and comrades in the ANC are unjustly relegated to near-silent backdrops behind the actor Elba’s titanic presence – during the Rivonia Trial and for most of the Robben Island sequences, I could have sworn that the only person who spoke other than Mandela was Sisulu, and maybe like twice. Furthermore, the acknowledgment of the crucial contributions of other non-ANC groups and organizations to the anti-apartheid movement was virtually nil; for instance, by inter-cutting speeches and scenes with Mandela between the scenes at Sharpeville and Soweto, the film seemed to falsely suggest that Mandela and the ANC might have had a guiding hand behind these populist protests, rather than the Pan-Africanist Congress and ordinary students and teachers, respectively.  And where were the trade union movements, the United Democratic Front, the Black Consciousness Movement, and Steve Biko (all of which, except Biko, were discussed in Mandela’s memoir)? And why was the violence during Mandela’s negotiations with F.W. de Klerk’s government suggested to be a generalized bloodbath, rather than a far more insidious and complicated struggle between the ANC and secret government-backed factions of the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party?

Regarding that last point, by obscuring the apartheid government’s direct role in the black-on-black violence, by neutering de Klerk into a decent religious man who simply believed he was divinely chosen for an impossible historical task, and by reducing the imprisoned ANC leaders into a group of grumbling old men who distrust the Mandela’s motives in dealing with de Klerk’s government, the film’s finale ultimately fossilizes Mandela into the wearied, infinitely patient Great Man who alone rises above the petty political squabbles of lesser but not necessarily ill-intentioned men. And the film does this while having earlier protested loudly – through its stentorian trailer, and through its earnest portrayal of the younger Mandela’s weaknesses, excesses, and fraught relationships, especially with the charismatic Winnie – that it would give us a humanized, de-romanticized portrayal of the real Mandela and his times.

So, once again, we find ourselves at square one:  despite the fact that Nelson Mandela’s death has opened up a great opportunity to reassess Mandela’s life in relation to South Africa’s history (and don’t get me wrong, there’s been a lot of genuinely good analyses all over the news and internet since his passing), the most buzzed-about cultural product about South Africa right now is, frustratingly, yet another retelling of The Power of One.  Perhaps it’s even more dangerous than the whitewashed Peekay version, since it purports to be the “true history” of the most famous black South African in the world, “based on” his own memoir.

This myth needs to disappear now. It’s already being used by too many revisionists across the ideological spectrum who want to erase Mandela’s militant revolutionary past and, in America, the U.S. government’s oppressive hand in propping up the structures of apartheid – not to mention its own past and ongoing race-related abuses here at home.

In representations of Mandela, especially for audiences who aren’t direct participants in South Africa’s fraught history, the Power of One myth needs to be replaced by its polar opposite.  And in fact, there is already a term for it: the Bantu word Ubuntu.  President Obama mentioned it in his eulogy for Mandela, but it was long popularized by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has defined it as

“…the essence of being a person. It means that we are people through other people. We can’t be fully human alone. We are made for interdependence, we are made for family. Indeed, my humanity is caught up in your humanity, and when your humanity is enhanced mine is enhanced as well. Likewise, when you are dehumanized, inexorably, I am dehumanized as well.”

And Mandela described Ubuntu, too, in his characteristically narrative way:

“A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food and attend him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”

It’s through the lens of Ubuntu — the grounded realities of interconnectedness, interdependence, and community, not the empty, useless Great Man myth of the Power of One — that we should evaluate and define Mandela’s legacy, both its successes and failures, in the history of the anti-apartheid struggle and South Africa today.

. . .

Update:  After posting this, I came across this older review by Andrea Meeson and Melissa Levin on the Africa’s a Country blog that covers pretty much everything I said about the Mandela movie, but in greater detail.  A good and important critique.



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