Rock Beats Scissors

Tomorrow Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana Mashabane will dedicate a statue of Nelson Mandela outside South Africa’s embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, an artery down which many of Washington’s most powerful denizens (not least, the vice president) pass on their daily commutes.

Mr Mandela’s daughter Zindzi will be there, as will ANC chair Baleka Mbete. Also Anant Singh, producer of the film version of Long Walk To Freedom, which is set for release here in November after a promising debut at the Toronto Film Festival.

Also expected are Mark Cutifani, CEO of Anglo-American, and other representatives of the project’s corporate underwriters. These include Old Mutual, MTN, Wal-Mart, Black and Veatch, the engineering company, Coca-Cola and California-based SolarReserve, which is part of the consortium developing the Jasper solar energy project with Google in the Northern Cape.

The US side will be repesented by Rajiv Shah, administrator of the US Agency for International Development, and a dozen or more members of the Congressional Black Caucus, minus, sadly, Rep. John Lewis, one of the last titans of the civil rights era.

The 3m tall statue is a copy of the one by Cape Town sculptor Jean Doyle which stands outside the Drakenstein Correctional Facility. It captures Mr. Mandela emerging from that prison, then called Victor Verster, on February 11, 1990, right fist held high in a power-to-the-people salute.

Across the road, in front of the British ambassador’s residence, stands a similarly sized likeness of Winston Churchill. The index and second fingers of the right hand signal V for victory. “Rock,” says Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool, “beats scissors.”

The Mandela statue is a tribute to its subject, obviously, but also to Mr. Rasool’s tenacity. The original blueprint for the embassy’s refurbishment was statue-less. Changing it has been no cakewalk. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have had to be raised, architects engaged to redraw plans and multiple layers of approval sought on both sides of the Atlantic.

Skeptics might cavil that the time and money could have been better spent. The ambassador’s answer has been to make the statue just one facet of a sustained public diplomacy campaign using Mr. Mandela’s “life, legacy and values” as examples of South Africa’s “inspiring new ways”.

Some, he knew, would be uncomfortable ponying up for a piece of lifeless bronze while the wants of living South Africans remained unmet. So, with pro bono help from former White House counsel Greg Craig and South Africa Partners, a Boston-based NGO, he established a mechanism through which donors could support a range of Mandela-connected activities simultaneously.

In addition to the statue, these have included the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in Johannesburg and events like last year’s “Founding Conversations” conference. Held at the home of Federalist Papers coauthor James Madison, this brought together a remarkable array of constitutional experts, among them the late Chief Justice Pius Langa, to discuss what wisdom Mssrs. Mandela and Madison had for today’s emerging democracies.

The statue stands on ground where several thousand anti-apartheid protesters symbolically surrendered their liberty in the mid-80s under the banner of the Free South Africa Movement. They hoped to secure Mr. Mandela’s release and force the Reagan administration to abandon “constructive engagement” with Pretoria in favor of biting economic sanctions.

Of his predecessors since 1994, Mr. Rasool has been the most energetic in reengaging America’s activists and says the statue is designed to honour them as well as Mr. Mandela. Many will be at the unveiling, including Randall Robinson, founder of TransAfrica, one of the four whose initial sit-in and arrest at the embassy on November 21, 1983, launched what would become a daily ritual.

In his 1999 memoir, Defending the Spirit, Mr. Robinson, who now lives on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, complained of shabby treatment from the the ANC after 1990. There was, he wrote, “a troubling pattern…of discourtesy and indifference practiced by South Africa’s new leaders toward old friends.”

He was particularly bitter about an incident in October 1994 when Mr. Mandela made his first visit to Washington as president. TransAfrica was in a financial bind. Mr. Robinson sold 20 seats to a breakfast at $5 000 a plate with Mr. Mandela as the draw. When Mr Mandela and his team learnt of this, they cancelled. Mr. Robinson had to refund the money, with TransAfrica “nearly going under”.

“I am angry and deeply hurt,” he said he told Mr. Mandela, “If it were not for my organization and its efforts, you might still be in prison.” There will be plenty of remembering on Saturday but also, one hopes, some forgetting.

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