[OPINION] The real legacy of Nelson Mandela

July is always ‘Mandela month’ as South Africans celebrate ‘Mandela Day’ on 18 July with acts of generosity and thoughtfulness, meant to bridge the divides of our country that often feel far too enduring. 2018 is a special year as we celebrate the centenary of Madiba’s birth.

It has, of late, become fashionable to deny Mandela left our country any legacy and to refer to him as a ‘sell out’. How shortsighted, how narrow-minded and ignorant of the prevailing politics.

It was, after all, Mandela who was the chief architect of the constitutional framework that is battered but still standing. That is part of his legacy too.

The day Madiba died still leaves a residue of heaviness. 5 December 2013.

At the Apollo in Harlem, New York, the words on the strobe banner simply said, Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013: "He changed our world". As South Africans we had started the long process of letting go as Madiba took seriously ill many months before. Yet, despite this, it seemed as if nothing could quite have prepared us for the moment when the news of his passing reached us.

While world leaders and millions around the world marked the passing of a truly great man, first and foremost Madiba was of South Africa, of the soil, one of us.

Given Madiba’s status as a global icon, the moments of deep sentimentality were almost inevitable. Yet, Mandela’s legacy is that of revolutionary, freedom fighter, radical politician, reconciler and above all, a man completely committed to the Constitution and the rule of law.

Known by so many epithets - ‘God’s gift to the world’, ‘a beacon for humanity’ and in the words of the late Ahmed Kathrada ‘one with a truly heroic impulse’ - Nelson Mandela became synonymous with not only the fight against apartheid, but the global struggle for human rights. Despite all this, it has also become fashionable to look back in anger and say that Mandela ‘sold us out’. That reasoning is lazy and mostly does not take into account the global politics of the time, or the mutually hurting stalemate South Africa was in by the late 1980s and certainly by 1990 when Mandela was released.

And so, copious amounts of ink will be spilt on defining his legacy. Political scientists and commentators will spend decades unravelling ‘the meaning of Mandela’. The ANC will continue to appropriate his legacy while we all wonder what Mandela, Sisulu and Tambo, such wise heroes, would make of the current crop of ANC leaders? One dare say they would be deeply disappointed.

As South Africans we were privileged to have lived in his lifetime and to have experienced the great transition from apartheid to freedom. That road was rocky. Who could forget the day of Chris Hani’s assassination when Madiba’s calm words on national television surely brought us back from the edge of the abyss?

The transition was fraught and mistakes were made. Mandela himself would be the first to admit that. But his presidency was defining in its commitment to reconciliation and the Constitution. We would do well to remember that in the days and years ahead. For who can forget his reading of Ingrid Jonker’s Die Kind in Afrikaans as he opened the first democratically elected Parliament in those halcyon days in 1994?

‘die kind wat ‘n man geword het trek deur die ganse Afrika

die kind wat ‘n reus geword het reis deur die hele wereld

Sonder ‘n pas’

And so Afrikaans could itself, even as the language of the oppressor, become a tool for liberation of one from the other and from those who use it.

But even greater than his acts of magnanimity towards his oppressors was his willingness to appear before the Constitutional Court and give evidence in the Sarfu case in 1998 on whether he had ‘applied his mind’ when setting up a commission of inquiry into SA Rugby’s affairs. In doing so, Mandela showed that no one was above the law and that even his actions as president were subject to constitutional scrutiny. It is a singular lesson for our country at this time.

We remember him for these things and far more, for his truly selfless struggle and for giving our beautiful, diverse and complex country its place in the sun.

But, ‘we dare not linger’. Ours is an even greater burden now than in the heady days of freedom. That burden is felt each day as we watch the rights of ordinary citizens violated by the state’s ineptitude or callous neglect.

As we ponder Madiba’s legacy, we know it was as imperfect as he himself would have admitted it to be. But, we are reminded too that politics is about a series of tough choices. Madiba may be gone, but our long walk must continue, haltingly, often painfully, but continue it must.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Her new book, 'Turning and Turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa's democracy' published by Pan MacMillan will be released in August. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february