Raymond Suttner, Nelson Mandela as a model of manhood

Whereas earlier studies of gender concentrated on women, recent decades have seen a flourishing of literature on masculinities, although few of these have focused on gender relations – specifically masculinities – within liberation movements. The main biographies of Mandela do not consider him as a gendered subject. Yet Mandela is in many ways the embodiment of versions of ANC masculinities.

In these times of violence perpetrated by men, we may learn from Mandela’s model of masculinity, the type of man that he represented. But Mandela changed a lot, as his conditions altered and he changed as a human being. Consequently we are not dealing with a person whose identity as a man can be reduced to one quality that endured over time.

Within the ANC, as in society in general, there is not one model or mode of expression of masculinity. There are multiple models of masculinity and each is contested, both by the men who may be said to comprise the model concerned, but also by women in relation to whom these masculinities sometimes collide and sometimes reinforce what women want to do with their lives or in politics.

Men have always dominated the ANC at a formal political level and the discourse of the organisation has reflected masculine idioms, in particular, aiming to ‘recover manhood’ and ending the ‘emasculation’ of African men. Within this tradition one finds the image of the ANC as a primarily masculine organisation. Even where issues of women’s emancipation were enunciated by the organisation, the primary vehicle for doing so has tended, at least prior to 1990, to be via the (male) president. When 1984 was declared the ‘Year of the Women’, this was announced by the then (male but gender-sensitive) President Oliver Tambo.

Photographs of ANC leadership until the period of exile generally depict only men in leadership positions, travelling on delegations to London or to the prime minister or similar ventures. This is not to suggest that women were not in fact powerful at a de facto level, informally even when they were not allowed to be members or outside the organisation, from the earliest days of the ANC and before.  Recent scholarship shows also, that, even though the constitution excluded women as members, very often they were in fact active members of branches.

Mandela, as a male leader, despite being part of the rebellious Youth League tradition, comprised part of the masculinist imagery of the ANC as an organisation. Even though the Youth League depicted the previous male leadership in particular ways, ridiculing their unwillingness to get their hands dirty, the Youth League generation was also a male grouping dressed in suits, and in Mandela’s case, flashy clothing embodying imagery found in many photographs in the magazines of the time. Anthony Sampson refers to him as ‘being known as the best-dressed man in the Treason Trial…’ (1956-61).  Mandela and the Youth League simultaneously embodied and contested the male leadership tradition and imagery that had been dominant within the ANC.

At the same time, Mandela also embodied an heroic, martial tradition found in the underground and military activities of the ANC, an image shared with people like Chris Hani. This fighting image may possibly have been foreshadowed in the notion of Mandela being a boxer, evoking an aggressive masculinist image with wide township appeal.  

Mandela also acts out the notion of a man embarking on what is sometimes referred to as an ‘heroic masculine project’. This expression refers to men leaving home to embark on courageous deeds, war and other activities, while leaving their womenfolk behind to care for the children and undertake domestic tasks. As with many other women in South African political history, Nomzamo Winnie Mandela was not content to conform to the conventional image of the wife waving the husband goodbye. Whatever the ambiguities, ambivalences and controversy attached to her activities, Winnie carved out an independent political identity, both underground and publicly.

Embodying ‘heroic masculinity’, Mandela, in his autobiography, reveals how he was prepared to die, unlike many who could not carry out their undertakings because they were not psychologically ready or had secret reservations: ‘I was prepared for the death penalty. To be truly prepared for something, one must actually expect it. One cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will not happen. We were all prepared, not because we were brave but because we were realistic.’

At one of his most heroic moments, as he faces the possibility of the death sentence, Mandela directly relates the willingness to die, to his manhood. In notes, he wrote: ‘If I must die, let me declare for all to know that I will meet my fate like a man.’ But we must be cautious not to take the use of the word ‘man’ in a literal sense here.  In the overall context of apartheid subjugation, which made ‘boys’ of men, reference to manhood (as in the previous references to ‘emasculation’ could also be a statement of personhood with dignity and agency.  It should be recalled that Herzog and Smuts both referred to Africans as a child race, the equivalent of a toddler in relation to the whites.

Mandela’s masculinity is also displayed in the way he embodies the relationship between the personal and the political. On the one hand, he is extremely reticent about his personal emotions. He never actually says how he feels about most of the privations he experienced, generally brushing this off by referring to the support drawn from his comrades.

In relation to Winnie and his family, he refers to his not having been there to fulfil a conventional protective role. Thus in one such passage, he told Sampson that ‘it is not a nice feeling for a man to see his family struggling, without security, without the dignity of the head of the family around …’ This gels with what John Iliffe claims are near universal concepts of honour and manliness, demanding ‘capacity to sustain and defend a household, to maintain personal autonomy, to avenge insult or violence …’.

What is important to understand about Mandela is that his personality in general, including his notion of manhood changed over time.  In the early days he evoked the image of toughness.  In the period after his release in 1990 he evoked an image of warmth and inclusiveness, embracing those who feared majority rule/democracy or even those who had previously been characterised as enemies, defenders of white privilege.

When Mandela toyi toyi-ed it carried a very gentle, affable meaning. The dance derives from war, probably learnt from ZAPU in the camps or even further afield. It is a dance initially performed mainly by men and its words are aggressive, directed at the apartheid regime, with repeated reference to hitting or killing.

Mandela refashioned the toyi toyi as the imagery surrounding a presidency with whom people could feel safe, a smiling president who had his own version of the toyi toyi which redefined its meaning in the changed South African context.  This is of course very different from the way it has been deployed by Jacob Zuma, notably in the context of his rape trial when he revived the song ‘umshini wam’, meaning bring me my machine gun and which evokes both militarism and phallic imagery.  In contrast to Mandela’s toyi toyi this was part of a discourse that created a sense of danger, a president to be feared, and one of the undertones was that women especially those who supported the rape complainant did not have reason to feel safe.

Much of the discussion of Mandela is content to refer to him as a global icon.  But he had certain qualities as a man, from which the youth of today could benefit.    In the first place, a willingness to learn and change over time, as one finds that some of one’s qualities are wanting.    There was nothing macho about the mature Mandela and we need to impress upon the youth of today that there is no value in trying to instil fear in others and that courage is quite compatible with tenderness. These are some of the features of Mandela that represent a model of manhood that might be important for us to advance for the young men of today to emulate.



One thought on “Raymond Suttner, Nelson Mandela as a model of manhood

  1. Hardcore Thought Of The Day-Positive Masculinity |

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