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Kronos

On-line version ISSN 2309-9585
Print version ISSN 0259-0190

Abstract

RASSOOL, Ciraj. Red Mandela: Contests of auto-biography and Auto/biography in South Africa. Kronos [online]. 2016, vol.42, n.1, pp.195-213. ISSN 2309-9585.  http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/2309-9585/2016/v42a11.

This article examines the case of the red Mercedes-Benz built in 1990 by workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant in East London and presented to Nelson Mandela as a gift shortly after his release from prison. During the 1990s a biographic order marked by a discourse of heroic leaders was growing in South Africa, where biographic narration and self-narration played a noticeable and, at times, substantial part in political transformation and reconstruction. Nelson Mandela's 'long walk to freedom' became the key trope for South Africa's history, narrated as the triumph of reconciliation. The presentation of the car to Nelson Mandela in 1990 occurred at a time of transition in the life of his auto/biography, from the biography of desire for the absent revolutionary leader to the biography of a statesman and president. This partly explains the ambiguous, double-edged history of the gift, as a labour of love on the part of NUMSA workers and as donation by Mercedes-Benz South Africa (the corporate version of these events emphasised the 'friendship' that was 'sparked' between Nelson Mandela and Mercedes-Benz South Africa). Inspired by the East London autoworkers' commitment to produce the car for Mandela, as well as by the resilience some of them showed during their nine-week strike and sleep-in in the plant soon afterwards, Simon Gush's installation Red has intervened in how those events should be remembered. By choosing to exhibit the disassembled body panels of a replica car alongside reconstructed displays of sleep-in strike beds made of scaffolding, foam, upholstery and car headrests, with imagined uniforms of striking workers, Gush has chosen to appropriate the history of the events of 1990 from the celebratory frames of the Mandela biographic order. The installation turns into an inquiry into the labour process and the events of the strike that was critical of the reconciliatory and celebratory understanding of the gift as a product of a partnership between the workers and management.

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