Our heroes belong to the nation, not political parties

Limpho Hani lays wreath at the grave of her late husband Chris Hani. The wreath laying ceremony was attended by leaders of the ANC, SACP, government, Sanco, KMVA and Hani family.
Limpho Hani lays wreath at the grave of her late husband Chris Hani. The wreath laying ceremony was attended by leaders of the ANC, SACP, government, Sanco, KMVA and Hani family.
Image: PENWELL DLAMINI

The month of April is very significant in South Africa's calendar. Not only is Freedom Day marked in this month, but it is a month in which we commemorate the life and times of icons - Solomon Mahlangu, Chris Hani and, more recently, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Commemorating these figures should not be about accentuating their party affiliations but should be about highlighting their universal contribution to the development of a just society and the values they espoused.

This is in keeping with the constitutional vision of a nationhood founded on common values as opposed to political, cultural, religious, race, class and other affiliations.

In democratic South Africa, this ideal is still a long way off. History and memory remains contested. And commemorating historical figures generally lays bare that we have yet to establish a collective memory of the past that is able to give legitimacy to our national identity in a new South Africa.

Last week, Trevor Manuel used a memorial service held in honour of Mam' Winnie to throw mud at ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule's failure to convert her Brandfort house into a museum.

This week, the special sitting of the Nelson Mandela Bay council descended into chaos when the EFF and ANC disputed the DA's right to reflect on the lives of Mama Winnie, Mahlangu and Hani.

Similarly, civil society groups and some factions of the ANC appropriated the death of ANC stalwart Ahmed Kathrada in early 2017 to launch an offensive against former president Jacob Zuma.

In the run-up to the 2014 elections, the DA made waves when it appropriated Nelson Mandela as a figure representing its own values and objectives. The ANC vehemently opposed this action by the DA.

There are competing historiographies with regards to the birthing of the nation as we have it now. South Africa is not exceptional in this regard.

However, what should be of concern is that the divisions in our society remain so glaring, even at the level of the production of a compelling narrative that could and should inform the creation of a collective memory which would lead us to a unifying interpretation of the history of the nation.

Instead of being elevated to a status of national heritage, the lives and legacies of the country's icons are politicised, thus denigrating them to mere political figures that can be fought over and traded, used to buttress contemporary claims or disparaged to further narrow interests and agendas.

This has been particularly apparent with the commemoration and memorialising of Mama Winnie. Icons such as these are important because of their distance from contemporary life and politics. They present an opportunity to hold contemporary leaders, politicians and society in general to a standard higher than what they presently demonstrate.

These icons should belong to the nation and removed from tiffs and spats in contemporary politics.

The debate over Hani, Mahlangu, Mama Winnie, Biko, Madiba, Sobukwe, to name a few, should seek to answer the deeper questions of "how we curate political history, what values can be drawn from these leaders, what those values mean for citizenship and how can we link these values to the current political context without degenerating the political discourse", as Khwezi Mabasa so eloquently puts it.

The fissures we see arising over the celebration of icons indicates a paucity of this kind of deep reflection.

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