Dr Xolela Mangcu is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cape Town and has held fellowships at the prestigious Brookings Institution, the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute and the Hutchins Center for African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He is a leading columnist and political commentator and has published nine books, including Biko: A Biography, which won a UCT book award.

Xolela Mangcu was born to a family of educators in Ginsberg Township in King William’s Town (also the hometown of Steve Biko, his childhood political inspiration) and studied at local schools before enrolling at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1984 under a quota system for then designated white universities. He soon became a prominent member of the Black Consciousness student movement. After completing a degree in law and sociology, Mangcu went on to obtain a Master’s in Development Planning from Wits in 1988 and soon after, was admitted as a fellow in the Special Program in Urban and Regional Studies at MIT. He completed his Ph.D in City and Regional Planning at Cornell University in 1997. Other fellowships followed – at the Rockefeller Foundation and at Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government – and he returned to South Africa in 1999, launching the Steve Biko Foundation in 2000 in partnership with the Biko family and local youth. From 2006 to 2011 he divided his time between Wits and the University of Johannesburg and joined UCT in 2012.

Prof Mangcu will use the Award to write a new and highly contextualised biography of Nelson Mandela. One of the qualities Mangcu greatly admired in Mandela was that he was embraced by the great man even though he was essentially his critic. The idea of someone being Mandela’s critic was jarring in a world where he has been treated as a god-like figure and Mangcu believes that as a result of this hero-worship, many of Mandela’s biographers have abstracted him from the political debates and controversies that have animated the Black world since the earliest encounters with colonialism. The result is an abstracted morality tale instead of an engagement with Mandela as a contested figure both within the ANC and by various political movements outside it – from the All Africa Convention to the New Unity Movement, the Pan Africanist Congress and the Black Consciousness movement.

Mangcu intends to address broader questions of history and to dwell on the activities of organisations such as the South African Native Association (Imbumba) in Tembuland, the political and electoral campaigns for African representation in the Cape parliament, the rise of the African Christian church, the political and intellectual writings of African intellectuals such as Tiyo Soga, Walter Rubusana, D.D.T. Jabavu, John Tengo Jabavu, David Malasi, Richard Kawa, Meshack and James Pelem and many others.

Writing the new book will involve conducting empirical research in South Africa and spending time at Harvard to write-up the findings and to engage with leading scholars. Mangcu has deliberately titled the work Paradoxical Mandela: Romantic Hero, Tragic Hero, to highlight the difference between the predominantly Romantic representation of Nelson Mandela as the individual hero of the liberation struggle and the Classic idea of tragedy as communal action. While liberal, Romantic tragedy focuses on what happens to the hero, Classic Tragedy focuses on what happens through the hero, to borrow a formulation from Raymond Williams. Thus, in Classic Greek Tragedy, tragic action continues even after the hero has died or stepped off the state. The action continues through the chorus, the audience’s response to the tragedy and the energies that are released in the action. The hero, the chorus and the audience keep returning to the scene despite its dangers, driven by the desire to give to the world what Steve Biko called “a more human face”.  This is another way to describe tragic hope as the spur for human action. This is a profound insight for present-day South Africa and we can all look forward to the completion of this important task.