The ‘Mandela Effect’ Is A Racist Blunder

They all look alike, part #673,894

Thomas Greene
4 min readDec 4, 2021


Not quite Nelson (public domain)

Shared false memories plague us routinely. It’s not unknown for some Americans to recall the Hamilton Administration, for example, because five out of seven US banknotes feature presidential portraits. Hamilton appears on the tenner, which makes him familiar enough to support the mistaken belief that he once served as president. Indeed, according to a small study in 2016, Hamilton is identified as a US president more often than some of the lesser-known real ones, like Garfield, Van Buren, and Hayes.

Popular false memories emerge periodically. As a genus, they received a catchy name in 2010, when one Fiona Broome, a self-styled “paranormal consultant,” described memories of seeing Nelson Mandela dead in prison in the 1970s or 80s, although Mandela actually died much later, in 2013.

Broome thought she saw news coverage of Mandela’s death and burial, including a speech by his widow. As Broome began talking about these memories, she learned that “perhaps thousands” of others recalled news coverage of Mandela’s death in prison, and a speech by his widow, too. She called it “the Mandela effect,” and the name has stuck.

Broome’s memories, however mistaken, were not cooked up from scratch. There was indeed a black South African anti-apartheid activist whose death in prison made international news.

The man led an anti-apartheid outfit called the Black Consciousness Movement during the 1960s and 70s. He had lost patience with the leadership of what he called “white organizations” like the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) and similar anti-apartheid groups that had been annexed by white liberals. He saw “no participation by blacks in the articulation of their own aspirations.” He found white activists paternalistic and patronizing. He sought real egalitarianism. His idea of social justice was not multi-racial, but a totally “non-racial society,” as he called it.

His name was Bantu Stephen Biko, and his death in police custody on 12 September 1977 became a very big deal around the world. Especially as the unsavory details emerged.

Biko was beaten bloody by police interrogators and would then spend six days naked and shackled with no medical treatment, before dying alone on the floor of his cell.

Photographs of Biko’s body on a prison morgue gurney circulated and received considerable attention internationally. And thus did our paranormal consultant mistake Stephen Biko for Nelson Mandela — a different black South African anti-apartheid activist who had also spent time in prison.

Nope, definitely not Nelson (public domain)

His widow, Nontsikelelo Ntsiki Biko, looks no more like Winnie Mandela than her husband looked like Nelson, although a casual glance, plus recollections of a TV interview or speech following the murder, could have reinforced the confusion between the Bikos and the Mandelas. At least to the inattentive white gaze.

Almost twins, if you don’t really look: Biko left, Mandela right (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Stephen Biko was no peacenik. He believed that the police and similar security goons, as the willing lackeys of an oppressive state, should be confronted and defied, forcing them either to back down or escalate — both bad looks. When his turn came to be counted, Biko physically resisted interrogation, took a severe beating, and died in a cell days later. His cause of death was a brain hemorrhage.

He died young, but there is a sense in which he triumphed: the South African security forces, and the government they served, were discredited severely before the world. On the other hand, regrettably, no one was ever punished for murdering him. All involved were granted amnesty by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997.

I hope that when the topic of false public memories comes up in the future, some of us will correct the record and speak of “The Biko Effect,” because the man, and his ideas, deserve more respect than they get. I should hate to watch his memory and legacy drown in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s immense popularity: he’s not the only important racial-justice activist in South African history.



Thomas Greene

Hired pen since 1998. Journo; culinary polymath; international coffee personality