The Art Newspaper | Flavia Foradini:
The artist, one of the most authoritative witnesses of the post-Apartheid era, shares his insights into the late statesman.
The South African artist William Kentridge is considered one of the most authoritative witnesses of the Nelson Mandela era. Now a world-renowned figure, Kentridge has focused his work, since the outset of his career in the mid-1970s, on the socio-economic and political issues of his native country.
The artist’s family background is also closely tied to Mandela and his time: his father, Sydney Kentridge, was one of Mandela’s leading defence lawyers, while his mother, Felicia Geffen, was a human rights lawyer.
Kentridge believes Mandela’s death should not be viewed as a dramatic political event because he had long since retired from active political life:
“His presence is there as a symbolic, moral force in the country. But he’s been out of politics for a long time, he hasn’t done the day-to-day running of politics for more then ten years, and since then, he has not been the quiet power behind the government at all. He is a very over-determined figure, everyone projects all their needs onto him. When he was in prison, he was one man in chains representing the whole nation in chains; when he was released from prison, the whole nation was released. He carries with him this huge symbolic embodiment of the transformation that happened in South Africa.”
Modern South Africa is full of contradictions. The country emerged from Apartheid in 1994, the year in which Mandela was elected president, and its economy became the strongest in the African continent, thanks to social and political reforms. But, since the mid 1990s, the number of South Africans living on less than a dollar a day has doubled, while Johannesburg, once the centre of a political and cultural revolution, is now a city with one of the world’s highest rates of murder, rape and Aids infections.
Despite his admiration, Kentridge holds some unforgiving opinions on the Mandela leadership:
“There were a lot of faults during his era as president. Within his own political decision-making, he was definitely damaged by the sense of loyalty he had to old friends: even if they were incompetent, they were given important positions in government.
“But there was always a mixture of courage and generosity that was astonishing. Sometimes one could not understand his generosity. Why did he want to make such efforts to include such terrible people back into society, after he had been released? But each time I would say: ‘No, he is the person ahead, we are behind him.’”
Over time, however, some critics, both inside and outside South Africa, have maintained that Mandela effectively turned his back on the country’s black population, a view that Kentridge doesn’t share:
“There were such expectations that political freedom was going to turn into economic and political equality, but it doesn’t work that way: you can start a mass nationalisation of all the mines and farms and land and then carry out a huge redistribution, but it is very difficult to do if you are not a self-supporting economy, and you have to rely on foreign investments to keep your mines working and develop new industries. In that sense, I think his hands were very much tied by the situation. South Africa was very dependent on foreign investments coming in, which would have stopped immediately and totally, if there had been huge nationalisation.
“I think it was very important for Mandela to try to create a society in which the people who lived in the country—everyone, white people, black people, Indian people—had a vested interest in making the society work. It was not only weakness on his part, there was a generosity of vision, and the problem was the venality of blacks, whites and businessmen… he was deceived by them. I don’t think that Mandela let the country down, I think the country let Mandela down: everybody was too greedy and too selfish to make the kind of sacrifices that were needed to transform the society.”