Politics and Commentary 2007-2014


When Mandela goes ...

First appeared
Friday, 04 February 2011

When Nelson Mandela dies, I won’t grieve.

Such a statement may seem disrespectful, offensive and perhaps even treasonous. But I have maintained for some time now that I (like almost all South Africans) will have neither reason, nor right, nor indeed the luxury to feel sorrow when Tata Madiba passes away. Recently, as the great man was admitted to hospital and then returned home to rest, the media frenzy and the outpouring of public emotion – earnest good wishes, fervent prayers, nervous relief at the announcement of his recovery – signaled to me nothing so much as a basic misunderstanding of what Mandela’s life and death might mean for our country.
The first thing we should all bear in mind is also the most mundane: globally, fewer than 1% of adults can expect to live past ninety. Advances in medical science may have encouraged us to believe in the credo of long (prolonged) life at any cost, but human beings aren’t designed to stay alive indefinitely – and this applies equally to one of the most famous human beings of modern times. Madiba has had, according to the old cliché, “a good innings”. Who knows, he may well live to be 100; but only cricketers and elderly people who want to be in the record books pay much heed to the attainment of a century.

Mandela’s manifold achievements are such that hitting three figures can hardly be on his Bucket List. In fact, the notion of a bucket list itself is anathema to the intentions he declared a few years ago: that he wishes to enjoy a quiet life, is without any ambition to intervene in political affairs and – apart from the very occasional appearance – will remain out of the public eye.

Still, we just won’t leave him alone. Famous figures and ordinary citizens alike, we all seem to feel that we “own” Mandela, that he is “ours”. We are proud of ourselves because we are his compatriots. We don’t want him to die because (in the mostly-unconscious recesses of our minds) we have previously felt reassured at the thought that, somewhere in Houghton or in Qunu, Madiba still walks the earth.

This is both selfish and short-sighted. Mandela may embody the Zulu saying Guga mzimba, sala nhliziyo (“Body grows old, heart stays young”) but that does not mean it is fair to wish he would keep soldiering on, irrespective of his own pain and physical discomfort, just so that we can keep imagining him smiling that glorious Madiba smile.

Mourning is, of course, typically – and understandably – a narcissistic process. We mourn not for those who have died (after all, they are not suffering) but for ourselves: for the void that another’s departure has left in our lives. For those who have been close to Nelson Mandela, who have known and loved him not as an icon but as a limited, flawed human being – for these relatively few people, tears and grief will be appropriate when he dies.

For the rest of us, who have at best seen him from afar at rallies and concerts and press conferences, who have for the most part cherished his image on screen and the sound of his broadcast voice ... we must acknowledge that our version of Nelson Mandela is a simulacrum: not a real, biological person, but a representation of that person. He is both a statesman and a symbol; an actual historical character and a figure of myth and legend.

The good news is that legends do not die, nor do symbols, nor do simulacra. So, for everyday South Africans who have never really known and – no matter how carefully we read Long Walk to Freedom or study his speeches – will never really know the man, “our” Madiba will not die when Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, born 1918, is dead and buried.

In one sense, such an affirmation could be interpreted as sheer sentimentalism. Yet it carries important implications, not least of which is that Mandela’s accomplishments will not disappear when he does. To all intents and purposes, he “disappeared” from the political stage some years ago. His triumphant (but not triumphalist) release from prison, his careful rhetoric and tireless peace-making in the preparations for the elections, his presidency from 1994 to 1999: these were the years in which Mandela shaped South Africa’s destiny. Sure, after this crucial decade there was the odd expression of opinion on local or international politics and the mixed success of 46664 and other campaigns – along with the ill-judged tacit endorsement of a Zuma presidency – but Mandela had already ceased, effectively, to be an active participant in the leadership of this country.

If you’re a South Afro-optimist you would say that, such was Mandela’s impact on this country during the course of the twentieth century, his life’s work lives beyond his death. If that is so, then to grieve his death would be to undermine his achievement, to demonstrate a lack of faith in the nation’s future. Implicit in that grief is an outdated fear (however deeply repressed) that when the great reconciler dies, we will collapse into racialised civil war.

One can anticipate that, given the often irrational and whimsical behavior of stock markets – that is to say, of traders – there will be a temporary dip in the economy and a barely perceptible slowing of foreign investment when international news networks cover the story of Madiba’s passing. This is forgivable, perhaps, in overseas observers who are largely ignorant of the complexities of post-apartheid South Africa; but locals should know better.

South Afro-pessimists, on the other hand, might point to the one valid justification for sadness: even in Mandela’s own lifetime, his legacy has been eaten away by corruption and state ineptitude. The death of Mandela, in this grim view, is the final nail in the coffin of the old ANC, of a truly noble vision of governance: it is the death of an ideal that seemed possible in the halcyon first years of democracy.

We cannot, however, afford a melancholy longing for those “golden days”. Firstly, we must realise that while we celebrated a country full of potential in the 1990s, things then were far from perfect. Necessarily, the focus was on reconciliation, but this meant that insufficient steps were taken to address structural inequalities; at the same time, opportunists and charlatans found their way into the corridors of power. Let us not forget that the Arms Deal was “negotiated” during this period.

Secondly, precisely because ANC cronyism is allowing rot to creep into the foundations of the house that Mandela built, civil society and individual voters must remain ever-vigilant. When Nelson Mandela does pass away, we should keep our ears attuned to the voice of his ghost, which will warn: “There is much work to be done.” In other words, we should be spurred into greater action than mourning, regret and self-pitying sorrow will allow us.

So I, for one, will not cry and grieve when Nelson Mandela dies: I will celebrate his life and take from its example the fortitude required to ensure that this country becomes a monument to its hero.

Comments (5)

  • Andre and Marie Jordaan
    10 February 2011 at 19:22 |

    Thank you for this brilliant perspective Chris!!!

  • Zama
    15 June 2011 at 17:56 |

    Well well, Sir, an insightful alternative opinion. It seems that Shakespeare is not all that you do well haha. Thanks

    • Chris Thurman
      20 June 2011 at 13:12 |

      Thanks, Zama - glad you enjoyed this piece!

  • 29 June 2012 at 07:39 |

    " Still, we just won’t leave him alone. Famous figures and ordinary citizens alike, we all seem to feel that we “own” Mandela, that he is “ours”. We are proud of ourselves because we are his compatriots."

    You possibly under estimate his appeal. Mandela has transcended the ordinary mortal status, he is in a very real sense one off the great statesmen of our time and I mean that from a global perspective.

    As a Kiwi I was gutted by the result of the 1995 World Cup (thanks Suzie )but seeing Francois Pienaar and President Mandela made me realise that it was a great result in the bigger picture.I fear for South Africa, I look north to Zimbabwe and pop over and have a chat with my SA neighbours I look at the white SA diaspora and think thank Christ they have come here we need them at the same time recognising that South Africa needs them more. I suspect Mandela is still the handbrake restraining the ANC when Mandela goes I think the curtains will start to fall for South Africa.Good blog by the way.

  • Travis
    16 December 2013 at 20:46 |

    How right you were in your assessment, Chris. Even though Mandela has gone, his presence lingers large...and yes, there is so much work to be done, and our greatest celebration of his life will be to get down to business and start doing it.

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