Voices: It is time to tell the truth about Harry, Meghan and my grandfather – Nelson Mandela
When people accused me recently of criticising Prince Harry and Meghan Markle for “profiteering” from my grandfather’s name, I was shocked. Because it was false. I had never accused Harry and Meghan of doing this.
Instead, I was misquoted, leading to global news coverage that weaponised my name – and the name of my grandfather, the late anti-apartheid activist and first president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela – to target a woman of colour.
An Australian newspaper reported that I had accused Harry and Meghan of “using” my grandfather’s legacy for profit with their Netflix documentary series Live to Lead. They said I had described it as “deeply upsetting and tedious”. And I want to set the record straight.
It is true that I feel terribly disappointed whenever the Mandela name or face is used for commercial purposes without any benefit to vision he stood for. But what’s ironic is that one of the biggest examples of this happening was not carried out by Harry and Meghan at all – but carried out by their critics, who falsely exploited my grandfather’s name to attack them.
In reality, I greatly admire Prince Harry and Meghan Markle for their courageous commitment to defending those less privileged than them – vulnerable people, women, and people of colour. I welcomed the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s brilliant partnership with them on Live to Lead, and I celebrate the inspiration that Harry and Meghan take from my grandfather’s legacy for their social activism.
The words wrongly attributed to me, criticising them for quoting my grandfather, are not mine at all – they belong not to me, but to those who have amplified these falsehoods all over the world.
I am mortified to have seen how my words were 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 flyers and T-shirts of my grandfather for profits which do not support the causes and values he fought so hard for.
But it pales in comparison to how my grandfather’s name was misused to attack a woman of colour who was, effectively, hounded out of the British royal family.
How could such a thing happen? I believe it’s because of the symbolic significance of Harry and Meghan’s subversive dissent from the royal status quo, which has exposed to sunlight many problems with the institution of the Crown which otherwise would remain unknown.
I believe it’s because despite our real victories against apartheid, colonialism and slavery – in some ways, the mindset behind these crimes – is alive and well in some of our most powerful institutions.
The same voices that want to impugn Harry and Meghan want to silence the rest of us who are still fighting for the values my grandfather stood for: for them, speaking of the realities of Britain’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade is taboo; the scale of atrocities committed by the British empire is to be expunged from historical memory; admitting the ongoing challenges of institutional racism should be banned from schools and universities.
What are they so afraid of? They are afraid that the more we speak out, inspired by the indomitable spirit of my grandfather, the more the persistent legacies of colonialism, slavery and apartheid hidden within the crony laws of predatory capitalism and broken democracies will be exposed.
If my grandfather were alive today, he would not have considered his struggle to be finished. He would still be fighting.
In South Africa, the legacy of apartheid and colonialism still lingers in the form of racial disparities and economic inequity. Despite the end of apartheid, African unemployment rates remain five times higher than those of whites, with the latter making up less than 8 per cent of the population but owning over 90 per cent of the country’s wealth.
Furthermore, even more wealth is being transferred from Africa to the West than is being invested in the continent, with British corporations controlling 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 courtrooms.
The British Crown is no exception to the unequal way in which the “rule of law” is exercised. The post-colonial Crown is still the largest landowner in the world. Some scholars suggest that the Crown is, in fact, one of world’s most powerful transnational corporations, deeply involved to this day in reinforcing wealth extraction from the Global South to richer countries like Britain.
And the post-colonial legal order protects such exploitative structures. The Crown’s intimate involvement in the rubber-stamping of British law has allowed bills to be amended to conceal the scale of Crown wealth from public scrutiny; to protect the Crown from racial equality legislation being enforced against the monarch; and to exempt the monarch’s private estates from police powers to search private estates for looted artefacts.
By speaking out about their experiences in the royal family, Harry and Meghan are widening the boundaries of acceptable discourse, bringing to light the unsavoury realities of a cherished British institution that remains at the heart of racialised global inequalities.
I believe that their detractors are afraid that, as their message spreads far and wide, more and more people will wake up to the continued systemic injustices that define how the world works today.
That is why I unequivocally support their stand – and their use of my grandfather’s name.
Ndileka Mandela is a social activist, former ICU nurse and the head of a rural upliftment organisation the Thembekile Mandela Foundation in South Africa