It’s time to tell the truth about Harry, Meghan and my grandfather, Nelson Mandela
When people recently accused me of criticizing Prince Harry and Meghan for “taking advantage” of my grandfather’s name, I was shocked. Because it was fake. I have never accused Harry and Meghan of doing this.
Rather, I was misquoted and led to worldwide news coverage that turned my name, and the name of my grandfather, the late anti-apartheid activist and South Africa’s first president, Nelson Mandela, into a weapon to attack a woman of Colour.
An Australian newspaper reported that I accused Harry and Meghan of “using” my grandfather’s legacy for profit for their Netflix documentary series Live to Lead. They said he had described it as “deeply disturbing and tedious”. And I want to make things clear.
It is true that I am terribly disappointed whenever Mandela’s name or face is used for commercial purposes, without any benefit to the vision he espoused. But the irony is that one of the biggest examples of this fact does not come from Harry and Meghan at all, but from their critics, who falsely exploited my grandfather’s name to attack them at them.
I actually admire Prince Harry and Meghan very much for their courageous commitment to standing up for those less privileged than themselves: vulnerable people, women, and people of color. I welcomed the brilliant association of the Nelson Mandela Foundation with them in Live to Leadand I celebrate the inspiration that Harry and Meghan draw from my grandfather’s legacy for their social activism.
The words that are wrongly attributed to me, that criticize you for quoting my grandfather, are not mine at all, they do not belong to me, but to those who spread these falsehoods all over the world.
I am mortified to have seen my words twisted in such a way as to distort my genuine concerns about the commercial exploitation of my grandfather’s legacy. For decades, people have sold my grandfather’s flyers and t-shirts for profit that don’t support the causes and values he fought so hard for.
But it pales in comparison to the misuse of my grandfather’s name to attack a woman of color who was, effectively, kicked out of the British royal family.
How could something like this happen? I think it is because of the symbolic importance of Harry and Meghan’s subversive dissent from the royal status quo, which has exposed many problems with the institution of the crown that would otherwise remain unknown.
I think it’s because, despite our real victories against apartheid, colonialism and slavery (in a way, the mindset behind these crimes) are still alive and well in some of our most powerful institutions.
The same voices that want to question Harry and Meghan want to silence the rest of us who continue to fight for the values my grandfather stood for. For them, talking about the realities of Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade is taboo; the magnitude of the atrocities committed by the British Empire must be erased from historical memory; admitting the current challenges of institutional racism should be banned in schools and universities.
What scares them so much? They fear that the more we speak, inspired by my grandfather’s indomitable spirit, the more the lingering legacies of colonialism, slavery and apartheid hidden within the crony laws of predatory capitalism and flawed democracies will be exposed.
If my grandfather was still alive, he would not have ended his fight. He would keep fighting.
In South Africa, the legacy of apartheid and colonialism still lingers in the form of racial disparities and economic inequality. Despite the end of apartheid, African unemployment rates are still five times higher than those of whites, and the latter represent less than 8 percent of the population, but own more than 90% of the country’s wealth.
Furthermore, even more wealth is being transferred from Africa to the West than is being invested on the continent; there are British corporations that control an estimated $1 trillion in African mineral resources. This “new colonialism” is a form of exploitation of the global south carried out not with gunboats, but through corporate power, lawsuits and courts.
The British crown is no exception to the uneven way in which the “rule of law” is exercised. The post-colonial crown remains the world’s largest land owner. Some academics suggest that the crown is, in fact, one of the most powerful transnational corporations in the world, deeply involved to this day in reinforcing the extraction of wealth from the global south to wealthier countries like Britain.
And the postcolonial legal system protects such exploitative structures. The intimate involvement of the crown in the passage of British law has allowed bills to be amended to hide the scale of the crown’s wealth from public scrutiny, to protect the crown from racial equality legislation being applied against the monarch and exempt the monarch’s private estates from police powers to search private property for looted artifacts.
By speaking about their experiences in the royal family, Harry and Meghan are pushing the boundaries of acceptable speech, bringing to light the ugly realities of a beloved British institution that remains at the heart of global racialized inequalities.
I think his detractors fear that as his message spreads far and wide, more and more people will become aware of the ongoing systemic injustices that define how the world works today.
That is why, without a doubt, I support your position and the use of my grandfather’s name.
Ndileka Mandela is a social activist, former intensive care nurse, and director of a rural improvement organization, Thembekile Mandela Foundation in South Africa.