Artists News South Africa

William Kentridge believes South Africa let Nelson Mandela down

The artist, one of the most authoritative witnesses of the post-Apartheid era, shares his insights into the late statesman

William Kentridge

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.”

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18 Dec 13
20:43 CET


I think that every person in this country should get a freebie to see Long Walk to Freedom. It is an awesome piece of cinematography and acting. I did not flinch for 3 hours! I was glued to the screen. Sensitive, superb, stimulating, stupendous, subjective, sterling, star gazing. If you can afford it please pay for someone who is indigent to see this movie.

18 Dec 13
20:47 CET


Maybe he was just a person doing his best? Who would you be and how would you cope if you had been in prison (regardless of why) for 27 years? He was good and loving and idealistic. But not too much grasp onthe real world. And why should he have? He was a man. Let's not go deifying him.

17 Dec 13
16:28 CET


Mandela knew from long ago that things cannot be achieved alone. His whole vision and plan was to unite and work together to a new South Africa. Unfortunately not many followed this dream and the situation today may have been caused by his vision not being realistic. However, after his death, the last ten days has brought back a new energy of being united and despite the big problems we face we should not forget this. Finally everyone in South Africa should see the film Long walk to Freedom: here we can clearly see just what people went through to get us to today and therefore we shouldnt let everyone including ourselves down.

16 Dec 13
15:2 CET


As usual, Kentridge's raw insights are on the button, painfully so. But this is the role of important artists, those who make a difference to the way we view things. The recent sign language interpreting debacle at the Mandela memorial reflects the poor progress SA government has really made in realising Mandela's promises. Where's the "rainbow nation" dream now, lost in translation or just set on repeat... perpetuating the lies!?

16 Dec 13
15:2 CET


A freedom fighter, a very very strong willed and determined person who had the greatest vision. The country did not live up to this...he needed their support, and determination to see this Vision come to fruition...yes maybe they did in fact let him down. After the novelty wore off , then they realised there was still so much work left to be done, and it would take quite a while .

14 Dec 13
20:31 CET


I think he was a nice man, but not a Wise men, he was a revolutionair but not a real builder, he toke to the political Yet set, he forgot his people the black and also the white ones, and what will happen now, who knows, but poor people can't live with niceciness they need vuture.

13 Dec 13
15:39 CET


A fair assessment of Nelson Mandela & his place in post-apartheid South Africa by one of my very favorite artists - from even before he was `world renowned'! which balances the hypocritical hyperbole of the past week. Kentridge's creative engagement with his country's history sets an example for other artists.

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